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Paying Artists II: The Art Career trajectory

My previous article on Paying Artists quoted research by the artist organization A-N which demonstrated that the majority of publicly funded art organizations (that is organizations which get a large part of their running costs covered by the taxpayer), do not as a general rule pay artists. (Anecdotally, I can say that there are plenty of organizations that do pay a sort of token that does not actually cover anything like the real cost of exhibiting.)

But the problem of not paying artists is much bigger than simply artists being out-of-pocket for this or that exhibition, or choosing between contributing to an exhibition or not, or making work for particular project or exhibition, or not. It affects the artist’s whole career trajectory, and creates a massive pool of stagnation that ends up in a shocking waste of energy, talent and education. This is a national problem and it is completely unaddressed.

Recent research by the artists organization Axis looked at the category called the ‘midcareer artist.’ The artistic career trajectory is generally roughly categorized into three stages: the ’emerging’ artist, which is normally the first 8-10 years after art school. Then, assuming the artist continues practicing, they enter the next stage, the ‘midcareer’ artist. At that point, the artist might remain midcareer forever. Or they may eventually move into the third category, that rarefied category called the ‘established’ artist. Naturally there’s going to be a fair amount of drain along the way. People find other careers. People just lose interest in practicing art. Sometimes people actually reach the limitations of their ability and find themselves desiring to do other things. It’s not really a problem if it is a person’s choice. But if we put the two bits of research together, the A-N’s research on paying artists, and the Axis research on the position of the midcareer artist, we start to see a particularly disturbing picture.

In the Axis research, which admittedly only quantified artists who responded to the survey, we can see that 46% said that they rarely sell their work, while 32% said they rarely exhibit their work. In responding to questions about which factors inhibit their professional development, 46% said they are unfamiliar with the art world networks and 35% are geographically isolated.

I believe that there is a correlation between this, and the lack of support that the publicly funded institutions are able or willing to offer artists to help them to develop their careers. Unpaid exhibitions, or no exhibitions, would obviously lead to the feeling that so many so-called midcareer artists have, which is that their career is stagnating. Outside of very few metropolitan areas, up and down the country, the principal places to exhibit with a reasonable profile are would be regional arts organizations such as museums and arts centers. These are precisely the places that must pay artists, and pay them according to their status. If they think a midcareer artist is good enough to exhibit, they need to pay them a reasonable amount of money to reflect that artist’s actual achievement. They also need to offer substantial opportunities to midcareer artists, because it is actually from the established and midcareer artists that younger artists actually learn.

The period of time most people spend in art college is very short, maximum three years in and out. As we are all too aware, after you’ve stumped up that enormous amount of money for your tuition, by the time you graduate, you’re out the door and that’s it. Yet we still need to keep learning, and one of the best ways to learn is to associate with older artists who are further in development. Yet we never even think of exploring mentorship. But how could you expect a midcareer artist to mentor a young artist, in the midcareer artist isn’t even being paid a decent living for exhibiting in the kind of publicly funded places that showcase the artists?

sexism / ageism / racism in the art world? Unwitting, maybe. Willing to change —?

So this false economy of not paying artists leads to a dreadful stagnation in the career of artists, who hit their stride and then find that the opportunities have dried up. It is true that some opportunities are unforgiveably ageist, particularly those coming from other European countries, which mandate particular age groups. This obviously reflects the culture of those countries, which sees human development very rigidly, and should be questioned. One thing we do know is that many artists who come from less-privileged backgrounds often are unable to start practicing seriously as artists until somewhat later in life; and many female artists take time out to raise families, which is right, but then find that the opportunities (such as grants and residencies) are no longer available because they are now “over age.”

When you start to pick the whole picture apart like this and look at all the constituent parts you see that not only is it unfair, but the this unfairness is actually depriving the country of its authentic artistic voices. If we as a nation are willing to ask the taxpayer (ourselves!) to pay towards the arts, and we ourselves as Museum and Gallery goers are willing to pay our money for tickets to experience the arts, should we not demand that they be authentic and representative of us? Not just reflect a narrow privileged slice of society that manages to tick the boxes in ways which most people cannot.

Artists that meet the standard that we should expect, need to be paid. The artist career progression needs to be reflected in the opportunities that they are offered and the remuneration that they receive. While of course emerging artists should be supported, this would far better be done through mentorships and help to establish meaningful studio groups rather than in pushing young artists into over-exhibiting. It is actually the midcareer artists who are in crisis. And as I said, this crisis is resulting in an appalling waste of energy, talent and education.


photo Gillian McIver , all rights reserved.

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Paying Artists



Imagine turning up to work, putting in the hours, doing such a good job that you are roundly admired, patted on the back, congratulated for your work. Imagine the people talking about you, how good you are in your job, and that they admire you. Perhaps even writing about you in the press about how good you are in your job. Imagine that you very often take the job home with you and work well into the night, that your weekends and holidays involve you continuing to work. I’m sure you can imagine it, because it’s not completely uncommon. But could you imagine doing all of this without getting paid?

Imagine doing all of this, without getting paid, yet your employer is a publicly funded organization, the gets its income from the taxpayer and is staffed by people on full salaries, while you yourself have to go back to that same taxpayer and claim benefits.

Who on earth would think that this is an equitable system?

However, research by the A-N has shown that over the past three years, 71% of artists didn’t get paid any kind of a fee for contributions to publicly funded exhibitions. The same research showed that 63% of artists felt forced to reject gallery offers because they couldn’t afford to work for nothing. Which makes you wonder about those who did take up the offer of exhibition: independently wealthy or family funded artists? These are hardly going to be representative.

I wrote recently about representation in the art world, and how the art world is completely unrepresentative of Britain’s cultural mix. But I think that this research revealing the parlous economic state that artists are in, is very important.

We have reached the bizarre situation where a very few London art schools completely dominate the major art prizes (which lead to prestigious gallery signings, biennials and so on). This means that the only people who get chosen for art prizes are people were already fortunate enough to live in London, or are wealthy enough to move to London to study, and pay the insanely exorbitant costs of housing and transport.

But there’s another route to getting exposure, and that is through exhibiting. The national network of publicly funded organizations and institutions, including independent organizations who receive project funding, is supposed to create these opportunities up and down the country. But these are not going to be opportunities if the artist cannot afford to take them.

We accept the idea of ‘pay to play’ in small private galleries, although this itself has a deleterous affect on the art world, because it means that the small galleries which we assume are filled with ‘cutting-edge art’, are actually filled with art made by people wealthy enough and vain enough to cough up upwards of 1000 pounds a week to rent the gallery to showcase themselves.

But nobody expected ‘pay to play’ to be the norm in publicly funded galleries. But it is ‘pay to play’, let’s not make any bones about it. It’s ‘pay to play’, because if you offer me an exhibition opportunity, and you don’t pay me, then you get the benefit of my work, and your increased visitors numbers (which guarantees your continued funding), and people coming to use your cafeteria and whatever other services that you provide, and enhances your public profile. But I’m actually going to have to pay to produce the work and then depending what it is, I may have to pay to frame it, or otherwise arrange delivery and installation. You not asking me to just grab something out of my storage unit and haul it over on the bus.

The A-‘s paying artist campaign is a good one, and I fully support it. The very very very least we can ask from our organizations who have public funding is to reorganize their structures and their budgets and ensure that artists are paid.

However, there’s much more to the problem than simply cash. It is a whole complex disaster that combines elitism, nepotism, notions of cultural superiority and inferiority, sometimes sexism (which runs both ways), inequality, and frankly, I think, just pure blind pigheadedness.

I’m not really sure how we’re going to unravel all of this. Perhaps we shouldn’t bother trying to unravel it. Perhaps we should just take a hammer and smash it.

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London: a city of baristas and billionaires?

We’re still working out what we learned from running Studio 75, but it’s become clear that it’s very difficult to run any kind of independent gallery or exhibition space. That spaces that do exist are largely able to do so because they have some form of funding, or more commonly, investment, and they don’t actually run on the proceeds of their activities. Because of this, it’s very rare for these places to exist for long periods of time, and sometimes it means that projects don’t get completed, or a space just starts to begin to build a following when it’s forced to shut its doors. It’s probably always been like this, but in the past two years the insane pressure on properties in London have made it more and more difficult to support creativity. Of course, people with wealthy connections can easily afford to buy or rent properties to create vanity galleries, and the city is full of such places. But these places exist purely as entertainment spaces for rich cliques, and have nothing to do with the rest of us. Even if we wanted to visit them, we would find the art that is presented there to be, to a large extent, turgid and dreadful.

People keep asking us are going to open another space, but the short answer appears to be no. We were incredibly lucky to get the space when we did, and we don’t expect to get such luck again soon. In any case, there is not much point to try to repeat what we already did successfully, just for the sake of it; and at this stage that doesn’t seem to anything that we really want to learn from opening another space. (But never say never.)

I suppose the thing we’re digesting and being fascinated about the most is the way in which the money economy, or what philosopher Thomas Carlyle called “the cash nexus”, permeates even the most basic human aspects of what purports to be the art world. Carlyle decried what he considered the substitution of human relationships for cash relationships; he was disgusted by the idea that people saw one another and treated one another in terms of their financial relationships, the “cash nexus” when social relationships are merely reduced to economic gain. Carlyle was anything but a socialist; he distrusted socialism and championed tradition. But Carlyle’s version of tradition was quite an idealistic one, and he believed that the wealthy and responsibility for ensuring that the lives of the rest of the population were good. He believed that those who had money and position should use it for the general betterment of society. He was opposed to poverty, to exploitation and above all, to greed. Carlyle is important because he actually points to the fact that it’s not necessarily a foregone conclusion that the presence of wealth in the society should lead to impoverishment of exploitation and acceptance or admiration for greed.

Which brings us back to the idea of London the center of international finance and wealth, a city that contains within it terrible exploitation, much hidden poverty mainly in the form of underemployment and appallingly poor housing. In these circumstances is quite difficult to complain about there not being enough space or opportunities for artists, although of course that is a genuine complaint. But just as we worry about London becoming a no-go area for ordinary working people to to live in, we also worry about London becoming a no go area for ordinary working artists – that is, ones without the luxury of a private family income supporting us for all our days. Artists who need to sell work, but also pay rent; artist and who need to have day jobs in schools and colleges, community centers, retail shops, museums, and so on – traditional employers for artists. But these jobs increasingly cannot provide Londoners with housing and transport.

And it is not just artists; just recently Cory Doctorow wrote an impassioned article in the Guardian, where he pointed out how the so-called “tech city” area around Old Street is quickly disappearing as a breeding ground for important digital startups. The inexpensive office spaces are rapidly being demolished or gentrified, principally being turned into barracks of housing for wealthy overseas students. In a flash, jobs in the information industries disappear, quite possibly abroad and opportunities to train and nurture local underprivileged youth in new technologies, disappears. At best, we end up being a city of baristas and billionaires, with nothing in between.

Where will it all end? We don’t know. It will be really a pity of London goes the way of Paris. Paris is a beautiful city, don’t get me wrong. But walking around Paris, one can’t help but feel that large parts of it are simply playgrounds for the well-to-do, and stalking-grounds for the desperately impoverished underclass who huddle as beggars – and possibly worse.


I don’t really know what else to say; this is turned into a bit of a rant and that’s really not what I intended when I started. I’d like to just finish by offering a quote from the work of the artist Dave Beech:


“Political art must transform the social relations of art itself, to get rid of it to historical elitism, it’s privileges, its hierarchies and its cultural capital. Political art cannot be political if it leaves arts values, categories and institutions in place.”


But I would go further. I would say, that in order to be art, all art is inherently political.

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The Dark Underbelly of the Festival Circuit

The Dark Underbelly of the Festival Circuit

Today I saw the above article on Indiewire

And then I just got an email from Festhome about some dodgy fake festivals that tried to hijack Festhome (who are being very decent about it, warning us, and I trust & respect them for that)

I first got suspicious when I saw a listing on WAB for the Canada International Film Fest in my home town of Vancouver yet I had never heard of it not had any of my family or friends back home (many of whom work in the industry in some form or other). And that’s cos it’s a night out in a casino, not a cinema (! – if you’re into that, OK but I am so NOT into that)

Now Indiewire has confirmed it.

What do you think? It kind of undermines my trust in Withoutabox.


and they have an excellent and FREE magazine you can get online



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Why do US film festivals have such massive entry fees?

Ok I just had my first screening of my 23 min film TAKING OVER THE KING’S LAND, at the funky venue Dalston Social in East London. It was a kind of cast and crew screening though since it was a doc there was not a cast as such, but many of the folks who were involved in the film came and also friends and colleagues. It was good fun and I got great honest feedback on the film. My good friend Rodney Victor Williams brought his band Lion Tribe and they played a blistering set of exactly the kind of music I like – which was a huge bonus!



I’m now in the not quite so enjoyable or enviable position of getting the film out there to a wider audience. Aside from a few more London screenings that are being set up, this normally means festivals. There are literally millions of festivals! You really have to do your research. I have had films in festivals a lot but in the past these were fairly experimental kinds of films, something more like video art – atmospheric silent documentaries using experimental visual or sonic forms. TAKING OVER THE KING’S LAND is a much more traditional form doc, though people did tell me it’s immediately recognizable as my style which is good – I was not after a whole career change into a total other person!

So I am seeking festivals which take docs and are genuinely interested in docs (instead of just shoving them off to a wan screening on a toilet door or something). At the same time, I’m very aware that my film – which in the end is about the power of art to transform the world (ok, tall order) –  does not fit with the ethnographic or sociological direction that docs usually go in. So, not an easy fit. Still with the help of the wonderful Tracy Miller-Robbins and her blog http://noentryfeefestivals.com/ I am slowly but surely finding directions.

However I am also signed up to several other film submission and festival info sites, which tell you what deadlines are coming up and some of them have direct entry facilities, like Withoutabox and Reelport. However, it’s become clear that – despite my film being in English and probably a good cultural fit –  I will not be submitting my film to many US based festivals. There are billions of them, some in big cities like LA some in hamlets, but one thing they have i common is astronomical submission fees. While a European festival might charge ten euros at most, a UK one up to £20, the US fees are routinely $60 to $100 a pop. This is really expensive! Aside from the fact that i cannot possibly afford to roll out fees like that, I do wonder why it is so expensive. So I did a bit of research.

One thing I found was that a huge number of US festivals with massive fees listed on the submission sites, are so obscure that it’s not clear what the benefit of being i the festival actually is. May of them have opaque websites with no details of previous films, winners or anything. Some are calling for films, but with no venue booked. It’s difficult to see who is behind the festivals and therefore to know their credentials. In short, there is a  distinct whiff of dodginess about the enterprise.

It’s not just the US though – I even found listings for festivals in the UK – where I live and practice as a film make and film lecturer – festivals IN LONDON that I have never heard of, charging upwards of £50 to submit. With no venue specified. Now., I am not saying these “festivals” don’t take place but to be honest it would be very easy for me to shell out a few hundred quid, to book a screening room for the night and to mount a so-called festival and take £50 a pop from about 100 people – suddenly I have £5000 in my hand.

I HAVE created screening events and selected for festivals before, and i can attest that huge numbers of submissions arrive. In my case I didn’t charge a fee. Now,  I am not against fees per se, if they reflect the true requirements of the festival. But I thinking too many cases it’s just a gig for people to make some easy £ from film makers dying to get their work out there.

So, I’m soldiering on, seeking screenings and festival opps that don’t rip me off and all i hope really is that this little film will find its audience – an audience that cares about art, cares about human relationships and wants to see something a bit different and – not my words, but those of one of the attendees at the last screening – something  ‘inspirational.’


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Artists! Stop what you are doing NOW and read this list of generous and absolutely typical artist opportunities, the likes of which we are munificently flooded with every single day ….

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