TOO MANY ARTISTS: 9th November at Firstsite

August 5th, 2011 | Posted by admin in art | discussion | event | gallery | venue

Market Project’s next public debate is TOO MANY ARTISTS, on November 9th 2011. It will take place at the new Firstsite building in Colchester.

Over the last few decades, in both the commercial and subsidised art worlds, the assumption has been that more and bigger is better; more galleries, more art students, more artists, more art projects, more arts facilitators, more participants. But would society, the art world and artists themselves actually benefit from a drastic reduction? Could the funding crisis and thousands of people falling out of the profession be a positive development?

Invited guests may agree or refute this notion, and representatives of both viewpoints will be represented in this debate.

On the panel will be:

From Market Project, artists Alistair Gentry and TED Fellow Julie Freeman (with the latter chairing the debate); Dave Beech,  artist, writer and member of Freee collective; Professor John Hutnyk from the Centre for Cultural Studies, Goldsmiths University; Susan Jones, director of a-n The Artists Information Company.

As contextual material we’ll also be showing Alex Pearl’s short film about his rejected Arts Council funding application for a project to have surplus artists humanely destroyed (it’s illegal, apparently) and a selection of relentlessly positive recruitment videos made by art colleges in order to tempt the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed aspiring artist.

This event is being presented in association with Firstsite and Eastern Pavilions.

Wednesday 9th November, 6.30 – 8.30pm
Free, but space is limited and we usually have a full house so please book in advance by visiting

Meanwhile, please read about Market Project member Alistair Gentry’s workshop on this subject which took place at Arts University College Bournemouth in July (some great comments on that page, too). You can also leave your comments, questions, agreements, disagreements and suggestions for discussion with this post.

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33 Responses

  • Julie says:

    I think this event would also make a great Talkeoke session from the People Speak… (+ interesting project: Funderstorm)

  • Elaine says:

    Too many artists, Too many opportunities and Too much art? as I said it’s like the M25, the bigger it gets the more traffic it generates – what if it stops growing? what if the next set of roadworks are grabbing back the countryside and reducing the carriageway to just two lanes ….. or even one… so, some of us may give up on travelling altogether, some may try a different route, some may use a different method …..

  • Alex Pearl says:

    It seems likely that a superfluity of artists like, for example, a superfluity of elephants will sort itself in time. Elephants (I’ve heard) go through periods of boom and bust. In good times they breed well, destroy their food source through overgrazing and then die out. This short term control of numbers however doesn’t quite work for artists. It is perhaps better to apply a more evolutionary model straight from the Victorian billiard club team captain Darwin and consider the “survival of the fittest”. The fittest, needless to say, are not necessarily the best. Rather they are the ones most able to survive in their environment. Also one way of surviving is no better than another. Is a flea better than a tiger? A squid superior to a polar bear? Actually I’m pretty sure who would win in a fight, but I digress. So now in the early 21st century the artists who survive may be quite varied. Trustafarians, artists with supportive partners (and children), a few loquacious confidence tricksters, artist-educators (perhaps an evolutionary cul-de-sac), arts council form fillers and box tickers, and many more. They may not be the “best” artists but have they ever been? 

    - a duck billed platypus lover.  

    • Alex Pearl says:

      Actually that’s rubbish. The trouble with artists is they don’t die due to lack of success. Hard times may lead to a thinning of opportunities but as soon as things pick up there will be just as many artists as there always were. When a cat dies it’s fleas lay thousands of eggs waiting for a replacement host. When it arrives the carpet comes to life. 

      A flea lover

      • Interestingly, you’re not the first person I’m aware of who, in talking about artists, went immediately to a parasitic analogy.
        I definitely feel like a flea sometimes, starving in the carpet in the hope of a mammal passing by.

      • You’re also right that part of the problem is possibly the fact that thwarted, failed and/or hopeless artists DON’T drop out or give up- unlike, say, failed barristers or failed doctors who don’t continue practising a bit of amateur law or surgery in their spare time.

      • I became the host to a thousand fleas once when I moved into a flat in Brighton. They preyed on my flesh for days until I moved all my belongings onto the street and had the place fumigated.

        How can anyone measure the success of an artist – what does this look like?
        is it possible/okay for an artist to continue to ‘fail’ until their dying day and still call themselves an artist?

  • Alex Pearl says:

    It’s a shame that parasite seems the best model. I did also think about forms of producers such as laying hens or sheep and quite enjoyed the idea of being regularly fleeced. My other, perhaps more optimistic thought, was songbirds. I like the idea that people wish to attract them into their gardens and there is a trade in caged birds for the home. They are valued but less exploited and they live off peanuts.

    A Zebra Finch lover.

  • admin says:

    Phil Illingworth at a-n has some robust solutions to the problem:

  • Alex Pearl says:

    Too Many Artists (gibberish from my basement studio also posted on my blog where there are pictures)

    I was thinking about this problem today. Yes indeed there are many, many artists and I have been at the vanguard of those seeking a final solution. 

    As a bit of lazy research I tapped “my latest painting” into twitter and started to peruse the thousands of results. The rage was huge. I meant to say ‘range’ there, but decided to leave it. 

    Also very recently I noted the publication of a book entitled  “100 New Artists”. The idea of 100 new rivals dismayed me, I suffered more than a moment’s angst about the artworld’s obsession with the new and the next.

    I also realised I had stumbled across two quite separate problems. 

    1. There is too much “art” that either I think is bad or is not “art”.

    2. There are too many artists (of my sort) who make good (or at least as good as mine) art. 

    This lead me to think again, but still incoherently about the “too many artists question”. I have listed my thoughts in no particular order and without any attempt at structure but more of an illustration of my struggle.  

    1. “The Deviant Art Problem”

    The huge numbers of “unartists” (those who I think are either rubbish or not artists at all) shouldn’t really bother me. The fairy porn painter in Cheltenham gets pleasure from her work and others do too. She isn’t likely to apply for arts council grant or to take up valuable space in the Tate, (in fact the “unartists” are strong, they don’t need the support of the state).  We have now a hugely rich visual culture all too visible on the Internet and people like it. In my arrogance much of it gives me something to sneer at (especially if said “unartist” is making a comfortable living from their work). In fact many of these “unartists” have  a far wider appeal than I do and probably, and rightfully, would think my stuff wasn’t “art” either. Actually they might be more generous than me. 

    2. “Everyone is an artist”
    This is an idea coined by someone very secure in his position,  someone with a blackboard and some chalk. Is it only the insecure that don’t like this idea?

    3. It isn’t Brain Surgery

    It has been stated on this very site that not everyone can be a Brain Surgeon and therefore not everyone can be an artist. Well yes and no. Anyone can do brain surgery at home too, but it might neither be successful or safe, it might be called something else, like murder. It could be said not anyone can do brain surgery in a hospital (although…) In that sense there is a similarity with art. Not everyone can do art in a respected gallery. They have to be trained (usually) and go through some strange archaic ritual called, I believe,  “subscription” or another different ritual which is not like “subscription” at all but gets you to the same point. But everyone can do art at home and it’s not likely to do anyone any harm. Unless they try to copy Orlan or give one of us “proper artists” an embolism when we look at their painting of a butterfly-winged dragon with a quote from Proust tattooed on it’s tail. 

    4. Certification

    There is this idea that artists should be trained, literate etc., have read certain texts and be able to apply them to their work (as if this will help), and to have some sort of certificate. I for one don’t like the idea of someone without such rigour in their lives taking bread out of my mouth. Let’s call these people “artists”. Of course there are naifs and the insane but they are in a different category and no threat to me and neither are the “unartists”.

    5. An Aside

    Successful “artists” (see point 4 above) should make good art. Nice idea but clearly untrue. 

    6. A Conclusion

    So in conclusion (if I can be allowed to draw a conclusion from such a collection of unconnected so called thoughts) 

    There is a paranoia amongst my kind (the “artists”) that the “unartists” are somehow to blame for our lot. But they are scapegoats, it is we who are the problem.    

    So, what is at the heart of my desire to cull “artists”? Is it that I  feel I  have some sort of superior right to funding, sales, attention? Is it that I believe that all these other “artists” are diluting that pot of cash or standing in the way of recognition? 
      If so I am not part of the solution,  I am part of the problem and I have to accept I am one of the “too many”. 

    If I am to complain and say we have too many “artists” I can only aim my machine gun  at “my sort” of artist and I must stand against the wall myself. This metaphor makes it hard for me to pull the trigger and hopefully you get point. 

    By the way the Asimov story ended badly. 

    • You’re right that external cultural forces have relatively little to do with the art world’s crisis, if there is one: the crisis is mostly of the art world’s own making thanks to its snobbishness, insularity and conservatism.

      I think the people you’ve called here “unartists” get a lot of flak and ridicule but they’re not a major problem to anyone at all. There’s nothing wrong with having a hobby, and most of them know perfectly well that’s what it is. They do these things for the love of doing them with no conceptual purpose other than using their imagination, eyes and hands to make something that pleases themselves or their peers. That’s fine. If they’re competing with anyone they’re competing with each other.

      If only some curators, gallerists and their pet so-called “Fine” artists would drop the pseudo-intellectual bullshit jargon they love so much and just admit the same. Many of them act and think like pathetic amateurs and as you say, would be ripped to shreds instantly by actual amateurs on Deviantart… and they’d probably deserve it. A lot of the stuff lauded in Frieze or Art Monthly or whatever has no more depth or artistic merit than somebody’s hentai doodles on Deviantart or somebody’s spare time animation, spoof or supercut on YouTube (looking at you, Christian Marclay).

  • admin says:

    Two excellent videos of Ken Robinson’s talks about the ways that current educational systems create qualification inflation (where once you “needed” a BA, now you “need” an MA, etc)… how they fail young people by cranking out graduates in their thousands on an industrial model, while leaving them ill-equipped to either think for themselves or work productively in the jobs that are available for them… and the value of people who refuse to conform or sit still.
    TED talk:
    Changing education paradigms (RSA Animate):

  • admin says:

    Question/observation: The use of “artist” has become so elastic and inclusive in recent years, it could be argued that the word has lost any useful meaning.

    Are there too many people who CALL themselves artists when that isn’t what they actually are?

  • I propose a trip down Southwold Pier to have ago in

  • Annabel says:

    1. Is it irresponsible of art colleges to accept students and to pump them out of their institutions?
    2. Is it irresponsible for the art market to be obsessed with the next young thing?
    3. If an artist hasn’t made it by 40, should they give up?
    4. Do you think the Phylidda Barlow event has made any impact on the art world?
    5. Do you have to be of a certain class to be a succesful artist?
    6. Is it easier to be succesful as an artist (or curator) if you’re monied?
    7. Are the right people (artists or potential artists) getting the support or money they deserve? How do you ensure they do?
    8. Are artists self-regulating? Will they kill themselves out when there are a glut of them?
    9. Are there too many artists?
    10. Are there too many of a certain type of artist?
    11. Why should anyoe be an artist? Do you have a right to be an artist?
    12. What do we feel about the artist Chris Evans asking policemen to talk to art students to recruit them into the police force as part of his work?
    13. Should you have a licence to practice as an artist? or stick to rules as with, for example, the Association of Illustrators, who have an outline of good conduct.
    14. Should all artists make work for financial success?
    15. In Russia state artists were supported, how does that sound?
    16. Holland gives artists and artisans money if they have a shop in their house that sells their work. Would that be a good/viable strategy for the UK?
    17. Arts Council= state patronage?
    18. Does the criteria of an Arts Council application bear any relation to good art?
    19. What do we think of public art? Who should decide what it is-the public?
    20. Self-expression vs monetary success?
    21. Should art interact with a public?
    22. Does art have to be accountable?
    23. Should Michelangelo have been restrictions have been imposed upon him when he painted the Cistine Chapel?

  • Elaine says:

    1. Who is Phylidda Barlow?
    2. Should there be an equity card system for artists?
    3. Is there some correlation between an artist and an estate agent? both require no qualifications to practice….
    4. How essential is an artist? What role do they really play in society?
    5. What is the perception of an artist to the general public?
    6. Is art just a hobby which got carried away?
    7. Why does a designer appear to be more acceptable than an artist (and cost less on car insurance…) ?
    8. Are we the victims of our own success? by getting here and remaining here, we encourage others to jump on the band wagon, everyone can go to art college and become an artist…
    9. Are art schools far too generous with their admission processes, should they be more selective?
    10. There are cowboys in every profession, but are we really seen as a profession?

  • Andy Hamilton says:

    You can hold your pointless meeting in the hideous carbuncle forced on Colchester but do not think it will endear the public to the Firstsite parasites occupying the VAF. It is bad enough the council cultural barbarians believing the more public money they squander the more they will transform the Queen Street nightclub scene into an artistic utopia. By organising a meeting there you are supporting the financial destruction of the Mercury Theatre and the Colchester Arts Centre because they lost funding to support this failed status symbol. Shame on you.

  • admin says:

    @Andy Hamilton —
    We feel no shame. Our agenda is to open up debate about economics of the art market to as wide an audience as possible, including those in receipt of larger sums of money.
    Hope to see you there.

  • I mentioned the topic for this debate at last week’s conference of arts managers (Arts Development UK) and one immediate response was: “There’s too many arts administrators to be sure”.

    In the 80s – when there were fewer artists – Curator Edna Reed commented in a letter to what was then Artists Newsletter (now a-n Magazine): ” I have a feeling that if all the artists disappeared off the face of the earth tomorrow, arts organisers would still carry on with what they are doing regardless.”

    • This is so true. Some supporting, behind-the-scenes people do an excellent job of facilitating artists’ work and getting it out to the public; I respect these people a lot.

      But beyond the influence of these enlightened individuals it’s still too common for artists (and what the audience might want) to be plugged in as an afterthought. These projects could indeed run without artists, since all that’s really wanted is somebody to do as they’re told and carry out a list of instructions to achieve some kind of institutional aim.

      In this region (East Anglia) there have been a spate of majorly funded public events recently that somehow went all the way from proposal to fruition, apparently without the organisers and funders ever considering whether anyone else would want them and why- as was borne out by their extremely low attendance.

  • Dear Andy Hamilton
    I have been wondering about your angry comments for a few hours and I ask you this:
    What cultural significance or experience do you bring to the table?
    May I ask how you have impacted upon people’s lives in a positive way or even in a way that makes people think?
    The people you criticise at Market Projects are significantly successful people, they have both nationwide and international recognition and are recognised talented artists. May I ask, mr critic, do you have an impact, a skill that inspires people ? Who are you to decide what is most important about what is needed in the creative community?

  • Misrepresentative and Stereotypical notions about artists: either romanticised or dismissive generalised assumptions or the role they play in society are inaccurate. Who we are, what we do and why that is important is question to explore and the answers are multi-faceted but that does not mean we should not look at the positions we play in society.

    Making work is just a part of the overall role and job of an artist; one has to sustain your practice outside of hoping someone will pay you for your work or pay to support you in your endeavours. The reality is that sustaining your practice as an artist (which can refer to anyone in the creative sector) are as varied and diverse challenges as for those in any other form of freelance.

    Out of necessity an artist deals with their own promotion; they must be their own marketing manager, researcher, people manager, project leader, law and finance, business consultant, diary manager, salesman, negotiator. You may need to build skills in leading and managing people, audience and collector development, education, teaching, professional practice, social engagement and politics. Surviving rejection, funding cuts, knockbacks to name but a few things. Its a lot to do and should be applauded, not criticised by the stereotypes, one has to be brave to take this job on ( and it is a job) but its worthwhile not just for the individual but for society as a whole.
    Government cuts in investments in the arts will clearly jeopardise and devastate every area of the country so we all need to reiterate to others how necessary we are in society.

    ‘Jobs will be lost, institutions will close their doors, and the UK will be in danger of losing its position at the forefront as a destination for culture and tourism.’

    For example, artists are instrumental in regeneration schemes, they move into affordable and generally run down areas: Peckham, much of East London, now Deptford and artists have raised these areas from wastelands into somewhere interesting and attractive. However regeneration also means increase in rents, which means artists are then squeezed out once the developers move in on these ‘attractive’ locations.
    Artists are used by businesses or governments to show that they are receptive and culturally aware (Tony Blair: yba’s and Sam Cam ‘London fashion week), used as a brand by others but really it is a façade to sell property, profiles, business, food and drinks

    More often than not artists are not paid or given recognition for their efforts
    As artists we should promote and protect the interests of our sector and discuss the role we have in society further.

    Artists in the last ten years have worked more in schools and communities, inspiring more people than ever to have a passion for art and take it up: to some people’s consternations and others appreciation artists have moved into different spheres, making interactive and participatory work and using new mediums; and the profile of art and artists has been raised.

    We have a wide skill set as I think is made clear here. However we need resources to sustain us. One has to really be dedicated to this calamitous career, full of fantastic fulfilment and development but fraught with rejection and lack of financial stability.
    We are clearly a vital part of economy, community, culture and society and this should be recognised and valued further.
    Extract from an article published in artlicks.
    “Hoxton… was a derelict place, unaffected by the property boom. Artists marked it as their own and after a few years a community had developed and the area was slowly rejuvenated.

  • Who is an artist?
    In their book Muses and Markets (1989) Frey and Pommerehne identify eight critera that may be applied in order to determine who is an artist:
    (1) Amount of time spent on artistic practice
    (2) Amount of income derived from artistic practice
    (3) Reputation amongst the public
    (4) Quality of work (defined somehow)
    (5) Membership of professional body
    (6) Professional qualification
    (8) Subjective self-evaluation

    Some – in the interests of equality perhaps – seek to avoid problems of elitism and ‘official designation’ and apply only the self-assessment criteria.

    If artists may chose to enter, remain, stand inside/outside any predesignated artist community what creates the cohesion and heightened critical mass from which quality emerges?

    • Re: criterion (2), I immediately thought of a-n’s recently published research on the income of artists. I can’t remember the exact figure off the top of my head and I’m not going to do the internet statistician thing of making one up, but there was the revelation that a significant number of people who choose to describe themselves as artists nonetheless earn a minority of their income or nothing at all from their art, and that some even make a loss.

      I’d like to know more about where these loss-making artists are losing their money to, assuming we’re talking about more than simply buying art materials. Presumably these are the people who pay for their own exhibitions or residencies (so-called… if the artist pays for them from his or her own pocket then this is just short term studio rental by another name)? Or are they talking about the costs involved in exhibiting in shows that don’t pay exhibition fees, expenses or anything else?

      Anybody have any insights into this, or more data?

  • The evidence I think you are referring to is from the a-n and AIR Big Artists Survey ( – that incidentally pretty much mirror DACS’s recent findings on artists’ income (see Artists and the economy talks).

    “57% of artists generate only 0-­25% of their income through
    their art practice. Almost a third of artists surveyed earned less than £5,000 a year from practice. Average turnover from their practice in their last financial year was approximately £9,000.”

    And note this is couched in the Big Artists Survey as “annual turnover from art sources”, rather than all income that an artist may acquire from other sources. Is teaching in an art school or working in an arts organisation “art practice”?

    Is it better (or OK) to finance your practice from non-arts work so you’re not muddling your art practice with art services provision?

  • admin says:

    A third of the available spaces for this event are already filled, so book now (via!

    Arts funding: why so many artists don’t apply for the money

    Dany Louise introduces a report she wrote on arts funding that reveals some surprising statistics

    • This categorically undermines the popular and frequently repeated factoids/myths that
      [a] arts funding is lavishly spread around to any idiot who calls themselves an artist
      [b] British artists are (or have been) living the life of Riley thanks to public subsidy.
      They haven’t because 95% of them don’t even apply for it.

  • Annabelle says:

    Too Many Artists represented in Galleries.

    I question Gallery managers/directors why do you take on more and more artists on your books. Artists are taken on with exclusivity clauses and the galleries do little to promote the artists. They claim to show the work to the audiences at art fairs and within their galleries but this is not always the case.