If you want a job doing, you should pay somebody. It’s a statement that seems perfect, doesn’t it? Except of course it’s not. We all, to some degree, rely on barter and exchange; you help me do this, I’ll do that in return. In times of austerity, particularly, that sharing is especially important; it’s been part of British life for hundreds of years. Meet anybody that lives and works in the country, and you’ll find it’s very strong – eggs for book-keeping, meat for clearing drains, and so on.
And this sharing is particularly true in the ecology of the arts. I’ve been immersed in this world since I was 13, when I started working at Worthing’s Connaught Theatre. And at every level, there’s reciprocity – together, we can make this thing happen, and in doing so we all prosper and profit.
But like any ecology it’s a fine, balanced system.
As an artist, I won’t work in schools for free: if I’m replacing a teacher, I should be paid, just as that teacher is. I won’t do free design work, either; it may be ‘great exposure’ and ’good for my portfolio’, but that’s a job that needs doing and should be paid. I recently saw an arts group in Australia, unpaid after having provided murals for a local café; of course they should be paid. They’re doing a job of work – decorating or shopfitting, if nothing else.
But there are other areas where, as an artist, I expect a little give that other people might not get. I have been using empty shops since 2001; I don’t expect to pay full commercial rent, and never have. Yes, I’m using a commercial space and as letting agent, landlord or local authority you could expect a full rate; but both sides know that this relationship only works if we both give, both take.
And of course, there’s an extra layer to this as well. If I’m being asked by a local authority to do a job they want doing – to help regeneration, to talk to the local community, to nurture new jobs – then I will be paid. If the other staff involved are being paid, I will be too.
The difference is between continuing my own practice as an artist, and doing somebody else’s work for them. Nobody pays a plumber just to be a plumber; he’s paid for the services he provides. And (if we want to make the argument that the arts have an economic benefit to Great Britain) we have to accept something similar for the arts.
As artists, we receive direct subsidy, in the form of venues and infrastructure which couldn’t be commercially sustained but are funded directly from government. (That’s not unique, by the way – the arms industry receives massive subsidy, for example.) And we receive money from the public too: the National Lottery is a public subscription which through schemes like Arts Council England’s Grants For The Arts, supports artists.
And as artists, we are fundamentally selfish creatures; we think that this thing we’ve made is so special, you should love it and want it. I’ve been running Revolutionary Arts for 13 years, and in that time have commissioned artists, paid them to do work, employed them on many projects across the country. But I’ve also organised lots of things which could only happen when artists work collaboratively, letting me use their image on the poster for a group exhibition or contributing towards the costs of design, print and marketing an event. As I said, there’s a balance, between me helping artists continue their own practice, and asking them to do work for me.
There’s one extra layer of detail, even more complex to add, and that’s the art gallery. It’s easy to see ‘the gallery’ as one big type of thing. But as I said, when I’ve organised artists to come together and exhibit, creating a pop up gallery, I expect the artists to share the costs. As an organiser, I receive no subsidy so can’t pay everybody. So that’s one gallery model.
And that’s true too for many small, rooted-in-the-community independent galleries. They’re small, dirty and while they aim to make enough to survive from sales, I don’t think we can reasonably expect them to pay for all the work they stock up front. Another gallery model.
But then there are the monoliths, heavily-subsidised icons of regeneration, cluttering old industrial towns and crowding seaside promenades. With salaried staff at every level, from maintenance men to marketing directors, these can – and should – pay artists. Another, final, model.
So I’m proud to put my support to the Paying Artists campaign, with all the conditions outlined above – and that’s not just words, it’s based on work, understanding and commitment that goes back a long way. It’s really quite simple; if everyone else around you is getting paid, you should be too.