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

January 6th, 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. This post also contains the bibliography.

A PDF of the complete text will be available shortly.

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.

Read Part I.

Markets for art practice

Writing in a-n Magazine in 2002, Conrad Atkinson commented: “Not all of us make corporate art, not all of us think art should shock the middle classes, not all of us are more interested in our own blood than in the blood of others dying in other parts of the world. Perhaps art can’t really make a difference but it can highlight alternative ways of seeing and living.”

It is said that since the mid 80s it has not been possible for writers to make a living from their work – some 85% have “other jobs” – that may include arts and non arts related work as is the case with visual artists.

In The Visual Arts Survey, London Institute (1990)

- 25% of artists said sales of work were their main income

- 21% gained their main income from commissions and public art

- 19% from teaching (FE/HE)

- 8% from residencies

In 1996, a survey conducted for the NAA (National Artists Association) gave these statistics:

- 20% of artists said teaching was the most important income

- 19% said residencies were the most important income

- 18% said commissions and public art were the most important income

- 14% said selling was the most important income

These 1996 figures provided a clear indicator that growth of interest in being in the visual arts was not commensurate with income acquisition. Artists were seemingly quite prepared to manage on less money whilst the cost of living rose.

If the more recent a-n and AIR Big Artists Survey findings are correct and the average turnover artists made from art practice in the last year is £9,000, then artists are either making quite a lot more from non-art sources, being financed by a partner/family (similarly to the 1977 Gulbenkian Enquiry findings), managing to ‘sign on’ (unlikely) or using some other means to put the bread on the table.

Although the 1996 NAA survey found 37% of artists to be gaining their work from art policies that fostered instrumentality or ‘art services’, The Big Artists Survey in 2011 – perhaps because of the larger sample size or because of the greater diversity of types of work now undertaken – found this ‘services’ area of work to be the regular or occasional role for around 24%.

Is the current ‘concern’ about the size of the artist constituency due to declining public sector markets? Is this situation the ‘fault’ of artists? Does it make them worthy candidates for ‘extermination’ or any other method one might wittily choose to reduce numbers to the size the art market can stand?

I’d like though here to raise an issue I fairly cursorily examined a few years ago. Should there be a redundancy mechanism available to artists? Because the majority of artists are self-employed, how otherwise can an artist ‘leave’ the profession if they are no longer practising or making work to their own required professional standard or have taken on a different occupation (that they may not recognise as having supplanted their artist role)? I have witnessed some members of artists’ studio groups complain about certain spaces being wasted: full up with stored ‘old’ work – let to artists who have in fact become something other than an artist – a full-time art lecturer or manager, director of an arts (or artists’) organisation, someone now running an arts business such as a gallery that is showing and framing other artists’ work.

A route for such artists who are no longer practising as artists (non practising artists) could be to take redundancy – to leave the profession gracefully. A redundancy package may, for example, acknowledge an artist’s length of service, their altruism to the arts and to the profession; allow them to draw a line and move onto something else. It might prevent the dilution of quality and professional recognition that others in this debate allude to, and minimise the impact of ‘too many artists’ on the profession as a whole.

A self-determining practice

Artists tend to select self-employment because (as Whitmyer, Rasberry and Phillips said) it is “a statement about what you are and all that is important in your life”

- 7% artists on Enterprise Allowance (1990)

- 76% of makers self-employed/sole traders (1990)

- 41% self-employment in creative industries as whole (2009)

- 72% self-employment amongst artists (2010) drops to 50% (2011)

When I started out an artist, there was no suggestion of self-employment – it just wasn’t something anyone like me did. We did a bit of part-time teaching or we signed on – in 1980, the latter was what nearly all the artists in my studio group did to get by.

It was the 90s and the Tory Enterprise Allowance that moved artists towards self-employment – before then, surveys did not include the differentiation between employment and self-employment. (Nor incidentally did it suggest anywhere that the longer the practice, the higher price that artist may be able to command – this was felt to be ‘anti equality’ or downright unfair.)

I went to art school – I discovered recently by reading a second-year note book – because I wanted to explore the role of the artist, not because of any expectation that I was employable or that anyone would offer me a job afterwards. I had no idea I’d acquire social research, writing and editing skills nor bring my creative problem-solving skills and entrepreneurship to bear on the non-profit company I now lead.

As I commented in a recent lecture Nobody wants you but everyone needs you, “In many situations, the artist kind of ‘falls in love’ with their occupation and wholeheartedly embraces all that this involves. And as Bob Dylan said: ‘You can’t be in love and wise at the same time’.”

In 2011, new graduates say that what they want to know about is things like contracts, how to set up as self-employed and other ‘business-like’ skills – as well as about how to locate and generate peer networks. Note they aren’t yet saying this whilst students, but once they have graduated and have huge amounts of student loan and overdraft/credit card debt to deal with.

Supply and demand?

Derreck Harris quoted in 11 Course leaders, 20 questions, published by (artist-led) Q-Arts in 2011, has put another slant on ‘over supply’, commenting that there are “More fine art courses per capita in UK than anywhere else in the world – more than Europe and North America where there are well established art markets particularly Germany and US.” So it should come as no surprise that Creative Graduates – Creative Futures (2008) said that: “One third of artist graduates earn £15,000 or under a year, less than the average starting salary for a new graduate across disciplines. Artists often already subsidise or co-fund their own projects.”

So is the debate about ‘too many artists’ because there is not enough work for them actually a swipe at the mercenary or cynical attitudes of universities with their uncaring attitudes to employability? Given that artists continue to be heavily reliant on HE income (according to a 2011 survey by AIR Artists Interaction and Representation 69% teach or lecture to some extent to provide professional income), would the aim of this debate about ‘too many artists’ be to decrease the number of courses on offer and by doing so to deny these artists a worthy income?

State intervention in the arts

“State intervention …is not neutral … it has radically affected what art is, how it is understood and how it is practiced.” Thus concluded Dr Nicholas Pearson in The State and the Visual Arts (1981). He asserted that state patronage was developed because ‘Art’ was deemed to be morally good:“ He quoted from the Handbook of Practical Art (1868), that had said: “No one expects the whole of the working class to at once take up drawing and entirely denounce strong liquor”.

One of the arguments for setting up what later became the Arts Council of Great Britain was the fear of what would happen to the visual arts if left to the vagaries of the market place… in the hands of the new moneyed classes (who had not got ‘taste’).

Historical assumptions for setting up state support of the arts as delivered by the Arts Council(s) include:

  • The difference between high art and culture and anything else
  • Fine art is important but very fragile
  • Quality fine art is generally found in London – this is still felt to be the case and regardless of any attempts to change it is ever thus a perception due to the size of the critical mass and the centralist nature of art in England
  • Artists are uncontrollable and need to be guided and ‘patronised’ by the state – rather than the state nurturing the creative instincts and complexity of artists and their practice.
  • Artists are poor – the state needs to uplift and patronise them
  • Quality is something obvious to certain types of people from certain kinds of educated classes.
  • Quality is hard to define in value terms (but we all know it when we see it or someone from the above echelon tells us it’s there

Less than a dozen years ago, arts policy proudly proclaimed: “The overall aim of Year of the Artist 2000 is to place the artist at the centre of society, to create better understanding of the role of the artist, to establish new partnerships between every sector of society and the arts, to empower artists and communities, and to have a lasting impact for their benefit….”

State intervention, patronage or interference in the market has certainly had the effect of creating more work within arts mediation and administration. Back in the 70s, those arts ‘management’ jobs tended to be done by artists who moved from practitioner to leading the arts in other ways – they set up and ran the galleries, agencies and arts centres, Nowadays, arts managers are a separate breed with special qualifications and their own peer networks. They can become ‘leaders’ through schemes such as the Cultural Leadership programme (which incidentally so far has enabled just one artist – Joshua Sofaer – to benefit from a Fellowship). Whilst arts leaders rely on an ongoing supply of good artists, they rarely include them in their professional networks, unless they are ‘well-known’. Practitioners are rarely trusted to be a ‘leader’ – to behave nicely in public.

In the 80s gallery director Edna Read wrote in a-n Magazine: “I have a feeling that if all the living artists disappeared today, the contemporary art world would [not notice] – just carry on doing what they’re doing”. And a decade later John Pick (founder of Europe’s first arts management department) commented wryly: “If arts administrators continue to grow at the current rate, there will soon be more of them than people”. Is too much arts money tied up in mediation? Is it significant that in 2004 (when compared with 1989) the salary levels of arts officers working in the publicly-funded arts in England rose by some 41%?

Despite those grand statements about the value of artists made in 2000, by 2010 Arts Council England is barely mentioning artists in their policy Achieving Great Art for Everyone (its ten year strategic framework for the arts), except when in the couplet ‘artists and arts organisations’ will/should…. [do something or other]. Innovation, excellence and all other important arts things – they seem to be saying – are best achieved by placing subsidy into organisations whose missions are to increase audiences for the visual arts (rather than to support the artistic development or autonomy of artists). There seems to be some irony therefore that the State of the Arts conference for 2012 (organised by ACE and the BBC) is on the theme of ‘Artists changing the world’.

In the current squeezed economic climate, it seems to have been the recognition of artists in financial terms which has been eroded whilst arts managers – admittedly often just as hardworking as artists – continue to assiduously find funding and income to maintain their roles, arguing they are the essential grease between market and art. (Note I have purposely placed market first, as it seems that galleries for example tend to give audience development a higher status within their ambitions than they do to supporting the artistic development of practitioners on their patch).

How are artists practising?

The 2011 Big Artists Survey reveals that:

- 93% of artists use exhibitions/gallery commissions regularly or occasionally.

- 83% of artists use private commissions regularly or occasionally

- 78% of artists use sell/retail regularly or occasionally

- 69% of artists use teach/lecturing regularly or occasionally

- 60% of artists use fairs regularly or occasionally

- 60% of artists use community art regularly or occasionally

- 52% of artists use do residency/engaged practice regularly or occasionally

- 52% of artists use offer research/consultancy regularly or occasionally

- 49% of artists use festivals regularly or occasionally

- 48% of artists carry out public art regularly or occasionally

- 35% of artists use empty shops to present their work in regularly or occasionally

The artist’s portfolio of activity nowadays is staggeringly large and diverse. The gap between this grass-roots pragmatic approach to creating a livelihood and the high-end commercial dealing is ever widening – just as is the gap between the UK’s poor and rich.

It is a pity that when the UK’s ‘art stars’ do find time to get up and have a voice about the state of the arts they tend to support the institutions and art markets that have given them their place (and standard of living) rather than expressing any support for those things that provide ladders and structures for the ‘critical mass’ of artists – from which quality in the arts emerges. It’s almost as if these well-known artists acquired their status by good luck and (of course) by making great work. They didn’t actually need to do any of this ‘portfolio working’ themselves or bother themselves with the ‘grimy’ business of making a living however they could.

Who wants artists?

a-n’s The changing face of artists’ employment (2011) that analyses openly offered work to artists in the calendar year of 2010 compares the main employer categories in 2009 and 2010.

2009 2010

HE/FE sector 23% 33%

Arts organisations 11% 13%

Local authorities 6% 10%

Trusts 2% 3%

Healthcare 2% 0%:

Note how important the HE sector has continued to be in employment terms. In the Gulbenkian study in 1977 “second careers including teaching provided the main source of subsidy for the practice of art”. And arts organisations nowadays – just as they did in that past period – play a much more minor role in financially providing for artists’ livelihoods and career development.

In 11 Course leaders, 20 questions (2011) Mo Throp is quoted as telling students and parents that: “1% making a living from being a fine artist.” So with the increase in student fees and greater role of parents in the decisions about their offspring’s education choices result in fewer students going on art (and fine art) courses? Could the current proposition that there are ‘too many artists’ be superseded in the future by ‘not enough artists’ (to make a vibrant critical mass)? Note too that this year, UK art colleges saw a 27% drop in applications.

I have discovered in the course of researching this paper that only 10-20 playwrights are making a living from their work nowadays and commissions for contemporary composers are far and few between. Some of those in the high echelons of the visual arts world have voiced approval for the creation of a ‘Top 20’ artists listing as this would clarify the art market and make it all much easier to deal with.

So are artists ever destined to be at the centre of culture (or is there only room for a chosen few)?

Being an artist

The more of a portfolio worker you are, the less you earn concludes Creative Graduates – Creative Futures (2008): “48% of graduates in work were engaged in multiple activities or portfolio working…. combining paid employment with self-employment… 30% combined two activities, 13% had three, and 5% combined four different types of work. This pattern does not change significantly over time, even when graduates are four, five or six years into their careers.”

Hayley Harrison said in her blog “I’ve always felt shame knowing I will always make art regardless of how much £s I do/don’t make. It’s refreshing to hear others admit that too. It’s especially difficult to explain to someone [outside the arts]. I feel, they feel I am an idiot. What? You will work for nothing?”

The question I would raise here is whether this situation – this evidence – is very much different from any other ‘profession’ nowadays? Those similar changes in income levels (and status) seem to be occurring in accountancy, journalism, IT, elsewhere in the humanities in general. Is this a condition of 21st Century life.

Note that back in 1997, researchers for Artists career paths found that “Money is not the driving force behind making work. What is most important to artists is making work that they are personally happy with. This suggests that artists experience non-pecuniary or psychic income from continuing their practice.

I was listening in recently to a Twitter debate on #artinacoldclimate in which one speaker asserted that “businesses were now learning from art”. But surely it isn’t just artists who have the ability to be creative, innovative, risky and experimental? People who are trained as artists can segue into other professions and environments – some of the ‘too many’ usefully take their art thinking and apply it to business, management, social change in other ways. It may be then that such options for artists are not well enough charted (although surely the greater requirement to show employability and enterprise within art and design courses will remedy this omission?

In my mind, the issue for the future is not whether there are too many artists but whether sufficient levels of investment – from a wide range of sources and perspectives – can be found to support the ‘blue skies’, the things they do that raise the game and expectations of practitioners, that put fashion and instant gratification into perspective. I believe that it is the publicly-funded arts institutions that will fail to navigate the 21st Century whilst the ‘too many artists’ will secure our ability to do so.

© 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.


The economics of artists’ labour markets, Ruth Towse, Arts Council of England, 1996

Gulbenkian Enquiry into the Economic Status of Visual Artists, Andrew Brighton and Nicholas Pearson (unpublished) 1977

Employment in the arts and cultural industries: an analysis of the 1991 Census, Jane O’Brien and Andy Feist, Arts Council of Great Britain 1995

Feasibility Study for the National Visual Arts Information Project, Susan Jones, 1988

The British Art Market, Arts Economics, 2009

Inquiry into the market for art, Culture Media and Sport Select Committee 2006

Taste buds: how to cultivate the art market, Morris Hargreaves, 2004

The changing face of artists’ employment, Susan Jones, a-n The Artists Information Company, 2011

Achieving Great Art for Everyone, Arts Council England, 2010

The Visual Arts Survey, Susan Jones, London Institute, 1990

Artists’ fees and payments in the UK, draft report, Phyllida Shaw & Keith Allen, National Artists Association, 1996

The Big Artists Survey, AIR and a-n, 2011

Running a one-person business, Whitmyer, Rasberry and Phillips, Ten Speed Press, 1989

11 Course leaders, 20 questions, Q Arts London, 2011

Do you really expect to get paid? An economic study of professional artists in Australia, David Throsby, Australia Arts Council, 2009

A fair share – direct funding to individual artists from UK arts councils, Dany Louise, a-n The Artists Information Company 2011

Muses and marketsexplorations in the economics of the arts Frey and Pommerehne, Blackwell, 1989

The business of being an artist, Janet Summerton, Eric Moody, City University, 1996

Conrad Atkinson, a-n Magazine December 2002

The State and the Visual Arts, Nicholas Pearson, 1981

Creative Graduates – Creative Futures, 2008

Artists’ rates of pay 1989-2004, Susan Jones, Paul Glinkowski

Something’s happening, Hayley Harrison’s blog on October 2011

Artists Career Paths, Arts Council of England, 1997

Thanks also to Ros Rigby, Programme Director, The Sage Gateshead and Director of New Writing North Claire Malcolm, for their insights and evidence for this paper.

You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 Both comments and pings are currently closed.