Note: I started to write this sitting in the sun in the courtyard at Somerset House yesterday. I’d just been to a What Next? Culture meeting…. and Tony Benn was still alive.
“Today I shall be attending my first I’ll show you mine meeting hosted by Ovalhouse. If you don’t know what that is, the best way is to read the source blog post by Bryony Kimmings who was provoked into writing it from a feeling of frustration that after years of creating and presenting great shows, – which people want to see – she wasn’t considered the best person to judge just what her show is worth, and to ask a fair price for it from venues. I won’t say more about that specific instance in case I paraphrase her badly. Since I’ve never met the woman and only know her through Twitter, I wouldn’t want to upset her.
What was interesting to me in particular is how her post touched a nerve and a stream of well written, considered and provocative blogs, articles and discussions (best found on arts admin round up) have resulted on the theme of why payment for artists is such a tricky subject for the artists ourselves as much as for government, venues, the public. I have heard words such as shame being used to describe how artists feel about admitting to how little they work for; resentment of salaried venue representatives for squeezing their fees – when those representatives often use their hard-won (many part-time posts) to subsidise their own creative work. I’ve worked on both sides of this fence and the distrust made me sad.
In the ACE report published today: The Value of Arts & Culture to People and Society which was shared at the apparently controversial (but personally I found it a positive experience No Boundaries conference) there are mentions which make interesting reading – arts workers have salaries 5% more than the national median but that for practising artists it is lower.
The report acknowledges that early careers are characterised by low pay and no pay scenarios. The I’ll Show Miners are a group of people in their 30s & 40s, still feeling the pinch. The ACE report acknowledges that it doesn’t know enough about how the sole traders, freelancers and smaller companies and partnerships are operating.
The ACE report does state that independent artists & producers across all disciplines often work for years for less than the national average salary despite being some of the most highly educated, trained people in the country, despite contributing to a cultural capital which makes the UK envied across the world. The ACE report also mentions the above average incidence of mental health issues and suicide amongst practising artists. ACE obviously doesn’t claim that this is directly because of the low pay scenario but does highlight that it is more than time to consider the conditions in which independent artists work and live to entertain, educate, change and reflect the world we all share. Yes some are millionaires. Most of us aren’t.
Surprisingly many people who appear successful in the arts have still to find other ways of earning our keep. And most of us keep what we do and what we earn from our art to ourselves because we think we will be diminished in each other’s eyes, or in the industry’s eyes, or in our family’s eyes – if we don’t look and feel successful in monetary terms.
Some of the artists involved in this discussion have said at previous events, they couldn’t physically do any more touring weeks to make the books balance… There is a disconnect in what we think arts and culture are worth and what we as public – all of us – are prepared to pay for them as venues, promoters and ticket buyers. We all do it, we all look for the bargain.
What is exciting and positive about this potentially difficult and exposing conversation is that a group of artists and now venues too is sharing its knowledge – its experience of good and bad practice. By being honest about our situations we hope to talk to ACE, more venues and each other to get a decent – and I use that word advisedly – deal for everyone. I’m excited about this and I’m hoping that this moment might mark a sea change in arts investment, deal-making and understanding value. As an artistic director I have made it an article of faith that I will pay my artists fairly. And I will therefore only make work when my company Just Jones & can afford to.
At whatnext? we are looking at ways to work with local authorities and the public to join forces and overcome the austerity mentality. The ACE report shows many fine examples of how arts organisations and individuals are contributing to the local economy but if they are doing that through the silent subsidy of independent artists, we have a problem Houston. We have a problem because it means that the diversity we all crave can’t happen and much of the best talent is lost.
A good proportion of the people at this event will be there unpaid. 100% of their available resource will be invested in finding a solution to a vexed problem which fundamentally undermines who gets to make and take part in the FUN that holds us as a nation together. We will be there I hope starting on a journey to making a code of practice for others to benefit from. In the arts that’s how we roll.
Who wouldn’t want to invest in and support a group of people prepared to do that?