It is both heartening and downright bloody annoying to see the fate of the individual artist being debated in the House of Lords last week. Heartening because the issues raised were the correct ones – the low pay of artists, the arts studied at higher education levels being the preserve of the rich and more organisations than artists receiving funding. Annoying because we know this already. Saying what is required is not the same as doing it.
The structure of arts funding in the UK means that we are haemorrhaging artists to other countries where they are looked upon as valued professionals rather than a drain on society, leaving behind only those who have the means to practice or take on those multitudinous unpaid ‘opportunities’, while supported by parents or partners. The average working artist earns only £10,000 a year, yet collectively artists contribute vastly to their local cultural landscape.
The privileged few in the Lords can see the value of the arts because their independent schooling and Oxbridge educations have given them an unequivocal understanding of how essential arts are to life. Outside of the Lords, the education secretary is advising students to steer clear of arts and humanities if they want a career. Confused? Clearly, so is the government.
All the way at the bottom of the chain RBWM is as directionless as its master on the matter of supporting artists at an individual level. Aside from a bursary scheme for the under 25s, which last year made twenty five awards from a £16,000 pot that covers five categories – four sports, one arts (£8000 of which, incidentally, was donated by the Louis Baylis Trust!), there is no way in which individual working artists can apply for assistance in their practice or subsidies for premises in the way that the Lords spoke of.
Artist-led events, exhibitions and projects all over the country are an essential part of cultural life and usually have further reaching benefits. For the princely sum of £0.00, the substantially increased footfall in Maidenhead High Street during Art on the Street translates into an increase in takings for High Street retailers, allows arts award students to further their studies by engaging with to artists and visitors to participate in free art classes. Frustration comes when artists see funds channelled into ‘arts focused consultations’ rather than the practice of art itself.
These processes feel like a desperate attempt to synthetically replicate the effects of artists on places. Would it not be less expensive and substantially lower risk to just work from the bottom up and enable artists to continue practicing and in the delivery of new and exciting community arts projects, or indeed support what already exists? As much as I hate the word, gentrification and the arts have stood hand in hand since time immemorial. Help artists to work and they will create a ‘cultural quarter’ naturally. You can have that one for free.