Apologies for such a break since the last blog post – 2022 is flying by! I’ve been continuing with my PhD research and over the last couple of months I have been interviewing artists who see themselves as facing some form of barrier to the UK mainstream art world. Although I have worked in this area now for over 10 years, I rarely get the chance to sit down one on one with artists and really listen to their story spoken in their own words, so this has felt like a real privilege. The interviews have been incredibly insightful, and I have been struck by how articulate artists have been about the inherent issues embedded within the UK’s cultural system.
A couple of things that came up across the interview set have really stuck with me over the past few months, and I have been considering how as a sector we are often culpable of just accepting archaic systems and processes without really questioning them. This has come up a lot for me when thinking about how we can really influence and implement lasting change within the mainstream art world, and the tendency is to always think about how we can support artists to access or make sense of already existing systems. I have written about this before, and it has certainly been spoken about before by others; how we mould people to fit systems, rather than re-shaping the systems to fit the people. This of course is an absolutely vital point, but not the one I would like to make in this post.
My points in this post focus predominantly on the financial implications that impact artists – and more specifically the impact this has on artists from lower socio-economic backgrounds who do not have access to other streams of financial support. Several of the artists I interviewed spoke about how they have struggled financially to make a living as an artist; something that is common across the board for many creatives.
This focus in the interviews has led me to think about how the financial structures that currently exist in the cultural sector promote the existence of artistic gatekeepers and in fact can often leave artists right at the bottom of the food chain – which is ironic, as without artists, we would not even have an art world. If we think about the key funding bodies in the UK, most of their money is piped directly to large-scale organisations managed by cultural gatekeepers like administrators, curators and operational staff. Only some of this money is then filtered down to artists, and usually only on the organisations’ terms. Commission, residency and exhibition opportunities are decided and then outlined by the organisations themselves, right from the theme to the content to the fee given to the successful artist. Tens if not hundreds of artists will then attempt a rigorous (unpaid) application process where most will be unsuccessful. Then there are the times when artists themselves actually have to pay to attempt this rigorous application process.
When I look at it like this, it just seems that this is all the wrong way round. What if, instead of large funding bodies passing money straight to power-hungry institutions, they funded artists directly. Artists could then use the funding to pay cultural organisations of their choice to support their practice – maybe they need support with marketing, or they need to hire a space for an exhibition; this would all be done on their terms. They would write the rules. Instead of artists moulding their practice to fit already established briefs, it would be the organisations who would have to bid for funding from the artists.
The second point I wanted to make is also financial in nature and returns to my earlier assertion that without artists we would not even have an art world. Say an artist has gone through the rigorous (unpaid) application process, they have been successful, and their work has been selected for exhibition. Time for celebration – yes, but also, let’s think about how exhibitions work and the financial inequality that exists here. Often, artists will not be compensated when they have their work displayed in an exhibition. They may receive financial support for transporting their work, and of course their work might be for sale in the show (although it is likely they will receive around 50% of the sale price once the gallery has taken its commission), but they do not receive a fee for participating. Now think about everyone else involved in putting together an exhibition: the curator, the art technicians, the front of house or reception staff, the couriers, the interpretation team – all paid roles. So, the only person who isn’t receiving any financial compensation for taking part in an exhibition is the artist themselves. Ok, so if they aren’t receiving compensation, let’s remove the artists’ participation. But wait, if we don’t have the artists, we don’t even have an exhibition. Without the art, there is no work for the curators, the technicians, the front of house or reception staff, the couriers, the interpretation team.
When the art world is looked at through this lens, it is clear that we are working within an antiquated model that favours cultural gatekeepers over the people who in fact make it possible for us to have an art world. Not to mention the current lack of diversity amongst these cultural gatekeepers and the impact this has on what type of art is validated by cultural institutions. Imagine a world where artists make the agenda; they get the funding, and they get adequately compensated for their contribution to the art world, which, when it comes down to it, is the biggest contribution of all.
Let me know what you think either in the comments below, on Twitter (@kd_outsiderart) or by email (email@example.com).