Susan Jones: Are there too many artists? (Part I)

January 5th, 2012 | Posted by admin in art | art education | data | discussion | event

Our guest at the Too Many Artists evening at Firstsite last November, Susan Jones (director of a-n The Artists Information Company), has kindly provided a very detailed and greatly expanded version of her talk, which includes a lot of additional information and data that we ran out of time for on the night. Bibliography will be appended to Part II of this post which is coming soon: a PDF of the complete text will be available shortly thereafter. You can the read the transcript of her actual talk here, which will of course have some overlap and repetition of what’s posted below.

Are there too many artists?

In this paper I am using comparative data as a backdrop to my commentary that is designed to illuminate a discussion on whether there are ‘Too many artists?’, raising a range of issues, questions and (mis)perceptions – in part about the role of artists in life in general and the impact of state intervention and arts policy-making in particular.

As one may come to various conclusions about such an issue as ‘too many artists’ within the visual arts per se, as part of my investigations for this presentation I interviewed some of those working with contemporary musicians and writers – do they agree/disagree with such a proposition and what are the issues for their practitioners?

However, this is not an exhaustive study but a bit of a whistle-stop review designed essentially to raise questions, promote debate and encourage lateral thinking about value and measurement of artists: consider it to be ‘a work in progress’.

Issues of ‘over supply’ (or underemployment) in the arts overall are not new in being raised.

In 1996 economist Ruth Towse commented in her report The economics of artists’ labour markets: “In many developed countries it is widely believed that there is an over supply of artists although the concept of over supply is very difficult to define.….Concern has often led to moves to restrict HE places. However if demand is strong (and increases the pool of talent) it is not in society’s interest to do this.”

Her assertion that having choice – to study art – supersedes any premise of market need driving the number of places/courses raises the legally-enshrined requirement of equality of opportunity. A civilised society is one that seeks for higher education to be more widely available to all those who wish to participate, regardless of whether there is an economic case for their doing so. And in the neo-liberalist culture of nowadays, notions of self-determination and self-employment is an underpinning philosophy.

Numbers of artists

The 1977 unpublished Gulbenkian Enquiry into the Economic Situation of the Visual Artist concluded there were at least 20,000 “professional artists” in Britain.

1991. If there were around 20,000 artists in 1977 – and these would have been fine artists, painters, sculptors rather than the more broadly-based definitions we now have of visual arts practitioners – what were their ‘labour markets’? Second careers such as teaching provided the main subsidy. “Many artists are very poor and live on state benefits, but many are not poor and some are very well off”.

Artists who gained their recognition from publicly-subsidised gallery exhibitions generally earned less than those who operated within commercial galleries, who enjoyed higher level of sales income. Income from grants made a very small contribution to overall earnings. Many artists ‘signed on’ – with all that this entailed. In 1977, none of this ‘market evidence’ seemed to prevent growth in those joining the arts profession.

The impact of the interference of the state on arts and arts markets is something I will come back to later. It was estimated that in the mid 80s the annual value of UK art sales was £40 million – this would be the equivalent to £101m nowadays. However, it is said to be more like £3.08 billion (thirty times larger). So could there be any correlation between this vastly increased figure and growth in the number of artists whose endeavours underpin the art world?

The 1990 Census showed a 34% increase in the number of individuals with cultural occupations between 1981-1991 and a 71% increase in the category that included artists, which contained the largest constituency – far more for example than the categories for writers, actors, musicians.

When in 1987/88 I was conducting my feasibility study for the National Visual Arts Information Project, I noted the expected growth in student numbers through development of part-time and specific courses. “Polytechnics expected 7-10% growth in student numbers over the next three years….many full-time courses are now shadowed by 5-year part-time BA courses. There is an also an increase in MA courses……

It should be noted that my study was designed predominantly to make the case for an alternative to the tortuousness/ expensiveness of arts mediation and enable artists to be at the centre of the engagement and interface directly with their commissioners, purchasers and other audiences whilst earning direct income from sales and commissions and from their image-based IP.

Whether the new art school courses were invented by HEIs to preserve teaching posts (many of which provide invaluable ‘second income’ and also validate an artist’s practice within peers) or a result of ‘demand’ from early retirees (for a fulfilling second career), or those wishing to extend an existing qualification or other I cannot tell. But suffice to say, such scope and volume of art school courses does not seem to be peculiar to 2011.

In 2006 and in the midst of the ‘better’ years of Labour, an Inquiry was set up to examine the markets for art (and thus calculations were made of the numbers of practitioners). Evidence from a-n and VAGA to this Culture Media and Sport Inquiry into markets for art assessed the number of artists to be “between 40-60,000”. Although the Census definition “artists, graphic designers and commercial artists” was deemed too broad and woolly to be useful, there didn’t seem to be huge enthusiasm for arriving at an accurate definitive number. Did this matter? And if so, to whom? How for example did HEIs address and quantify for their students the potential for what they now call “employability and entrepreneurship”?

According to a-n’s continuous monitoring of data, in 1998 some £2m worth of work was openly offered to artists. As a 2009 adjusted value, that would equate to £3.7m. However by 2007, the figure on offer was actually £27m (more than seven times larger), suggesting that the growth in the volume of artists was at that point well catered for by substantially increased budgets and fees on offer. The Morris Hargreaves Taste buds report (2004) indicated an enormous potential to enhance sales of contemporary art to ‘new purchasers and collectors’ – if only the ‘art world’ would forego the traditional frameworks that filter “supply” and control the “demand” and thus have the effect of maintaining the poor/rich balance for artists

In 2011, as part of an analysis of access to and take-up of grants from the UK arts councils by artists, Dany Louise produced calculations of the number of artists in the UK – providing a range of 26,500-30,500 – some 1/3 more than the calculation in 1977, but fewer than the calculation in 2006.

England: 20,000-22,000

Northern Ireland: 1300-1700

Scotland: 3250-4250

Wales 1950-2550

Total estimated volume 26,500-30,500

So are numbers ‘levelling back’?

Until now, we could have estimated that some 4,000 newcomers (from undergraduate courses) were entering the job market from art and design courses annually. But what will the anticipated 27% drop in student applications next year do the size of artists’ labour markets? Are we worrying unduly in the ‘bad times’ about numbers of artists when everything is about to change anyway? Will the UK experience a drop in artist numbers as Australia already has, this not incidentally having been attributed to an economic recession?

What is an artist?

UNESCO defines an artist as:

“Any person who creates or gives creative expression to, or recreates, works of art, who considers his/her artistic creation to be an essential part of life, who contributes in this way to the development of art and culture and who is or asks to be recognised as an artist, whether or not bound by any relations of employment or association.”

The term artist is largely self-defined – and why shouldn’t it be if we as a nation believe in freedom of choice and equal access in terms of study and employment? None of us – I suspect – believe in ‘restrictive practices or cartels’ that are unfair and marginalise sectors or people. That The Office of Fair Trading under the Competition Act investigated use of recommended rates of pay in the arts in 2006 is pertinent. Although this was designed to open up what might have otherwise been perceived as a ‘closed shop’ in actual fact – by causing ACE and others to remove any semblance of ‘good practice’ about payment from their terms of reference and information sheets – it had the effect of increasing the potential for exploitation of artists and freelancers and thus of increasing their poverty.

Frey and Pommerehne’s Muses and markets (1989) defined someone as an artist by:

1 the amount of time spent on artistic work

2 the amount of income derived from artistic activity

3 reputation amongst general public

4 recognition amongst other artists

5 quality of artistic work – as defined somehow

6 membership of a professional body

7 professional qualification

8 subjective self-evaluation of being an artist

The eight areas by which an artist may be recognised as such includes amounts of income but as we have already found, this is a poor yard stick in the UK, whilst qualification (especially if PhD) and peer recognition are more readily acceptable. Lack of interest amongst artists for labelling themselves ‘professional’ also applies. A professional (in other professions) is usually defined by a combination of qualification and income earning.

Wikipedia says: “An artist is a person engaged in one or more of any of a broad spectrum of activities related to creating art, practicing the arts and/or demonstrating an art. The common usage in both everyday speech and academic discourse is a practitioner in the visual arts only. In other art forms the term is more closely defined – writer, actor, playwright, musician, and poet”.

The word ‘professional’ traditionally means a person who has obtained a degree in a professional field ….or a person who performs commercially in a field typically reserved for hobbyists or amateurs.

In western nations, the term “professional artist” commonly describes highly-educated, mostly salaried workers, who enjoy considerable work autonomy, a comfortable salary, and are commonly engaged in creative and intellectually challenging work. In The business of being an artist (1996) it was suggested that an artist may be recognised as:

- A maker of unique works of value sold via the art market

- An animateur encouraging the creative expression of others

- A public servant working to commission

- An economic unit in tourism/ small business/ entrepreneurship

- An educator delivering national curriculum/art school teaching

- An initiator in arts/social policy – producing arts projects, regeneration, community well-being, (nowadays we’d place Cultural Olympiad here)

- A visionary and social conscience, political activist

Thus, definitions by 1996 of an artist had veered radically away from the Gulbenkian Enquiry’s. I would posit that this is due to the greater invention of the state in the markets for art, with its endeavours aided and abetted by the addition of income to the arts from ‘funding sources’ such as the National Lottery, there to support ‘good causes’ and the ‘public good’. Such resources have increased the instrumentality of art and artists, placed them in the role of service industry and largely sidelined any notion of ‘art for art’s sake’, considering this as namby pamby and impractical; get a grip, artists need to join the real world.

However in the House of Lords in 1998, Lord Clancarty (himself an artist) questioned the very principles underpinning the state’s support of the arts: “But what about those artists who of or choose not to operate in a commercial sense, who are engaged in long-term, life-long ‘independent’ research – what in science is termed ‘blue skies research’ which is extremely important for the arts. The long-term broadly non-commercial situation is a reality for the great majority of UK artists. Extremely successful artists are the exception rather than the rule.”

There is perhaps a perversity borne from our mixed economy for the visual arts – the public-private finance initiative that predates the Labour policy in this respect – that the ‘blue skies’, the making of visual art regardless of market forces is what sets us apart. Artists do not need clients or patronage to make art – in fact artists often view such instruments as constraints and hindrance to the purity (artistic autonomy) of their practice.

Looking at the music industry where the growth of musicians – individual and ensemble – has been great, money forms a core aspect of the career progression. Musicians talk about money – negotiate fees and terms themselves, getting (for example) a share of the ticket income and promoting their CDs in the intervals (with the venue taking a sales commission). Definitions of quality are multiple – as viewed in the ‘eye of the (various) beholders’

Are there too many musicians and bands? It can be shown by analysis that people who make music are a vital part of paying audiences whether of downloadable music or seats at events. There are “good, excellent, mediocre and OK” musicians across the contemporary music scene – all putting out their stuff, self-managing, self-promoting, and self-producing. It’s how it is. New forms of distribution of music are welcomed as they increase audiences and buyers and ensure the music industry is less reliant on public subsidy (and thus more autonomous).

In 1992 economist Ruth Towse pointed out that: “….risk taking behaviour is the cause of over supply. It comes about because artists overestimate their (average) chances of success prior to entering the labour market. Artists being for the most part self-employed decide whether or not to continue to work in their chosen field according to their realised net profits or incomes. Oversupply of the works they produce would result in low prices, but if they are willing to accept low incomes they can continue in full time [studio-based] work”.

Looking at the world of contemporary writing, reveals that there has been an exponential increase in the last ten years of the number of creative writing courses on offer – indeed in the notion that writers need qualifications in order to write. According to agency New Writing North, more and more titles are being published but fewer of each title are sold.

New ‘self-publishing’ mechanisms means that “no one has to make you a writer” and the historical ‘quality control’ attached to a writer’s agent and publisher has diminished. And whilst the self published was largely dismissed in its infancy by the literary industry, the traditionalists have now come to realise its potency – within literature at least. In my mind, this is an inherent and necessary condition of the ‘deinstitutionalisation’ of the 21st century.

© Susan Jones 2011. This paper commissioned by Market Project has been extended and adapted for online publication. Susan Jones is Director of a-n The Artists Information Company ( whose mission is to stimulate and support artists and affirm their value in society.

Continues in Part II.

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