A Personal Account: Artist’s Pay by Lindsay Seers
30th Jun 2021
Artist, and CVAN South East Steering Group Member, Lindsay Seers writes about artist pay, and the financial difficulties faced by artists.
Excerpt from a letter from Hollis Frampton to MoMA 1973
It is urgent that artistic contributions are possible from the full spectrum of society. It can not be the case that art is made only by those who have the economic circumstances (independent wealth and connections) that allow it. The amount of artists that can make enough money to live off through direct sales of artworks is minimal. The most clear aspect for the failures within the creative arts as a profession is that making art does not fit the model of business that usually governs finance. There are very few professions that expect work to be done for a fixed predetermined sum – or without payment. Negotiation of finances is often not an option for artists.
It is difficult to convey how much of a struggle it can be to be an artist. Having worked in art schools for 25 years (to fund my artistic career) I have seen the struggles that come with such a fragile and tenuous career path. I have also noted that I am not alone in the problem of intensity that art can evoke, in the maker and in others. Within this intensity there is a vulnerability for the artist in the professional hierarchy. Many successful artists will only communicate to galleries through agents or assistants. There can be a lot at stake for an artist to pull off a show that conforms to their vision in little time with limited resources/budgets, especially when working alone.
Those associated with the arts have been considered to have a high incidence of alienation, depression and suicide. Although this survey (link below) does not have an effective/convincing method for statistical evidence on individual living visual artists it goes some way to highlighting the issues.
[See :https://www.scottbarrykaufman.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/Kyaga-et-al.-2012.pdf (pages 6 and 7)].
The fact that a creative path in the visual arts is not clearly linked to payment, and hence value, clearly has a significant effect. The poverty that many creative people suffer has many life consequences. I came across a letter on the Lux website dated January 7th 1973. It is from Hollis Frampton (a structuralist filmmaker) to Donald Richie, curator of film at Museum of Modern Art, New York. Richie had offered Frampton a retrospective at MoMA for which there was no funding, but he offered love and honour as payment. In the letter Frampton explains how and why he needs to be paid. Below is a screenshot of a page of the 5-page letter.
Given the impending cuts to arts subjects in Colleges/Universities it is perhaps swimming against the tide to ask for realistic payment to artists now, despite the fact the points made in the Frampton letter seems familiar to me, even though it is from almost 50 years ago.
Although I have shown/performed around 140 times in my career, often with large-scale works, I have only commanded an exhibition fee more than £2000 about 7 times. Often much of this money had to go into capital investment in digital technology, computers, screens, drives, studio costs, cameras, or some more highly paid professional work such as fabrication, sound mastering or filming. Looking over my last project for Nowhere Less Now I was contacted 194 times concerning production details and publicity; emails which were all replied to – often at length. The enormous amount of administration, image provision and writing involved has never been paid time.
It is impossible to speak for artists as a whole because of the highly individuated nature of being an artist and the circumstances by which one could pursue this vocation. This difference is also affected by an individual’s identity/personality, their capacity for forming networks, and the dogged pursuit of success (I have a particular fear of social events and people and have autistic tendencies, which are far from ideal).
Although I can’t speak for others situations, it is perhaps possible for me to talk about the mechanisms and infrastructures that are present in our really inspiring and truly great not-for-profit galleries, art centres and project spaces, which in general have governed my career. By no means have all my experiences of the installation of works been bad and I have worked with many incredibly skilled individuals but this all needed realistic wages for technical support, usually in excess of what the artist is being paid.
There has been a great deal of work on this subject of artist’s payment produced by a number of organizations and Artist’s Newsletter has been at the forefront of this in the UK. The issues that arise from being an artist from a working class background (of which I am one) draw attention to the failure of an effective meritocracy, where nepotism and the public school network or familial connections still holds strong for many of our most known artists. There is something about the right to be an artist at all that is not so easily assimilated when coming from humble origins.
The struggle to be paid as an artist has been a difficult journey. As with many artists, not having family money, personal wealth, an active agent promoting work in art fairs, a commercially driven gallery, or family connections to the creative industries can prove to be a huge disadvantage (in addition to neurodiversity).
In my experience, when things have gone wrong for my work it is because of financial issues, not creative ones.
The budgets I have worked with have always been a set sum, not negotiated in consultation with me, and delimited in the contract so that any overspend (no matter what the cause) has to be covered by the artist. Quite often the budgets are exceeded by other parties not delivering within deadlines so money has to be thrown at the project to get it made in time. Often this has been because the show runs fall after holiday periods (January, April, August) and gallery staff are on leave during the run-up to the shows. I have often worked through the night in a gallery to finish a show after the paid staff have finished their day’s working hours. Sometimes it has become apparent that artists in group shows have very different funds made available to them.
The idea that an artist has a choice not to take on a show because of the financial implications is an important point in the Artist Newsletter document about payment to artists, but ultimately this means that those who can work without even an exhibition fee are well positioned. I have been left out of a number of shows I was asked to be part of when I have attempted to negotiate slightly better terms for production of works, (fabrication companies command high prices). Admittedly the funds are fixed and non for profit organizations hands are tied when it comes to costs.
Virginia Woolf is correct when she says that one needs to be free of financial concerns if one is to be an artist/writer. I do not feel embittered, but I do feel exhausted.
This despair of how to continue stands in place in spite of the mesmerizing journey I have been on making the works. There is an energetic and ecstatic reward in making things, before the world sometimes tears them apart in published words that physically hurt. There are also all the rejections from shortlists and funding bodies – so I have rarely attempted them.
I have been called difficult and exacting but that is a description of the work which is being personified as my character. The works that I make call on a specificity to place – the gallery location, its demographic, and the social and historical nature of that place. They are exacting. What is essential in my work is that the projections have the right throw to fit onto forms in the given gallery space. The structures have to be at a scale that can accommodate a specific projection throw. It sounds simple but it is usually the Achilles heel of the work as it requires specific equipment and professional AV installation, (this necessity of the installation is always detailed in advance). For example, the scale needed for my ship works was large solely because of projection thrown onto two spherical screens. But often these very clear specifications are not followed.
Much to do with ‘value’ has consequences on one’s life and mental health. When things do not go smoothly there can be a great deal of aggression and resentment from those involved that seems unwarranted. It is extremely distressing because of the extent of the endeavour has been committed to, and the excessive workload that having few resources demands. Almost everything has to be done by the artist because no one else will work for nothing.
I have been told I do not have to do it (make art) – but the compulsion to do it is powerful. It feels like there is nothing else but achieving an exhibition. When the work fails, because of faults in the install, the hours of constant work feel utterly pointless.
What would I like to change?
• What I would like to see for the next generation of artists is them having a financial model that is equivalent to almost all other industries; the artist will quote for a job in terms of time and infrastructures/resources needed and the client finds the money to cover those costs from these sources
• Although making art may not be considered a business by institutions, we are deemed self employed, and the all-important reality check for the client or commissioning agent – the quotation for materials and labour from the self-employed provider simply does not exist in the art world. Of course, in some sectors providers do work for businesses who tell them how much they will pay for a service regardless of the provider’s costs; the ability to accurately cost a job is a vital skill for the self-employed. But in creating site-specific work, with unpredictable on-site labour resources, ensuring a margin under the agreed budget is nearly impossible. The only certainty is that the artist never finds the budget a little too generous.
• I would like the Artist Union in the UK to be more akin to the Norwegian model (where every artist in Norway more or less is in the union and the union holds the grants). The take up to the Artist’s Union in the UK is not currently substantial enough to really be as effective as it could be. I so hope this can change. I would like to find a way to effect this change (perhaps by linking it to UCU subscription for artists who teach).
• Often artists work in art schools as a way to live. The ubiquitous auto-enrolment of art staff into pensions by colleges without notification that they have been re-enrolled (in spite of having opted out) takes up a lot of time and energy to undo. It is difficult to accept that we are subject to this aggressive government policy. When visiting colleges for even a day colleges enrol you as a full member of staff. Then automatically deduct pension contributions through various different pension providers, and it seems impossible to get that deduction back. Having a career of part-time working one day a week is utterly pointless to have a pension plan, especially when universities keep moving the goalposts. But the main problem is the excess of unpaid administration time to fill in the multiple forms to become a member of staff (for often very little money given the capping of public sector pay). Colleges can pay you as “self-employed” but often choose not to. This also has consequences on taxation and employment status.
• It is tragic how little the Fine Art world is able to match the kinds of money that advertising, television and film can command. Artists are sometimes used as a cheap option for tackling social change and producing work at high levels for low cost, that professional editors and animators would command realistic pay for. Ultimately contemporary art is a niche subject for the British public and is often ridiculed. There is a sense in which much contemporary ‘issue based ’art is preaching to the converted. Perhaps that sounds cynical, but my family background is one in which art does not figure at all as relevant in social/political debate. However I believe art has an important agency to promote complex meta-thinking in relation to form, regardless of content. Complex thought seems lacking. It also ideally by-passes identity politics by its association to extraordinary minds that transcends cultural conditioning and stereotyping.
• I would also like the budget of the actual exhibitions one is involved in to be transparent and broken down so that artists can see the whole picture on costs and fees to all involved (generally the lump sum offered by the client/organisation does not cover the real cost of the production and all it entails).
• I would like there to be meetings with all the artists in a ‘group show ’so that they can share knowledge, to have some sense of working together. This may ensure that works are shown according to their requirements, i.e. that sound works are not set side by side, that light-spill does not ruin projected works, that paintings by another artist are not hung on walls in a stand-alone installation etc. Although this type of error seems unlikely, it has surprisingly often been the case.
• I would like to see time spent on administration tasks in response to questions about the artwork/production being paid to the artist at the same level that the client/commissioner is paying for their administration. Also that an artist is paid at the same rate as any installer when assisting installation. When commissioned to work alongside other professionals such as scientists and architects the artist should be paid at similar rates (according to expertise).
To recap, I would like to work on fighting for payment to artists and art labourers so that they will be paid like any other worker in our economic system, that is, the provider/artist when selected makes a quote for the work and not the client/commissioner. To an artist to have a business model is important but I do not believe that we are dealt with as businesses by those offering ‘opportunities’.
Having been so focused all my life on this idea of making art, like many I have absorbed it as my identity. I have prioritised art over most things. It is difficult to step back from the necessity of exhibiting, without it there is no career. But if we can not afford to self fund it is difficult to survive.
What needs to happen to those who have the chance to work in the arts, who have given a great deal, often for little remuneration, is that they are valued and given payment that reflects the extent of the value of art to culture. We judge the sophistication of the past by the art it produced. The culture industry has capital but whose hands does it reside in?
Find out more about Lindsay and her practice here: