An average artist responds

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The Canadian author and well known knitter, Stephanie Pearl-McPhee has just written a searingly polite but vicious post about the recent obnoxious comments about the arts made by Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper.

The comments on Stephanie’s blog were mostly supportive of the arts but one comment really got my goat because it betrayed such a profound lack of understanding about the realities of working in the arts.

Tonja wrote (cut to show the relevant parts, spelling in context):

“I, also being a relative “average” citizen as yourself, find it extremely irritating when artists of all sorts feel that it is their “right” to be a snob about their art. What I mean is this: I am using my God-given talents to the best of my ability, and while they are not astronomically brilliant, I have to work to provide a living for myself. I am using my TALENTS to provide for my LIVING. Operative word: work – and I work hard. I find it resentful when artists feel that thier talent should entail them to life’s finer side of life simply because their painting (which sometimes I feel I could replicate easily) or their violin playing (which I could possibly mimic by whistling) is “talent”. Pure talent is not an entitlement – and this is what I felt that Mr. Harper was saying – that there are those of us “average” citizens who work hard and labor for our livings while there are people – “artists” – who feel that they don’t have to work simply because of their “talent”. Having a subsidy is not work, it is a privilege that they receive as a recognition for their talents, therefore those artists that receive such subsidies should be grateful.”

Here is the response I posted on Stephanie’s blog:

Ah, clearly spoken by one who has never gone through the hell of filling out an arts council grant form!

Tonja, who are all these artists you know who sit around twiddling their thumbs and expecting to be funded? Because I work in the arts and everyone I know is a) skint, b) working far more hours a week than most people and c) doesn’t get holidays, sick leave or any benefits. Most of them DON’T get grant funding and those who are lucky enough to get funding spend weeks or months putting together highly detailed funding applications and scrabbling around for every single penny.

Most of the artists, writers, musicians and theatre people I know need to work two jobs – their art job and then the job they have to do to pay the rent. I believe that the majority of the artists in the US have no health insurance and I know for certain that the majority of artists in the UK have no pension, not because we’re too lazy to work and sit around expecting our talent to somehow miraculously translate into money but because the arts are appallingly badly paid. Often the artist is the one person in the equation who gets nothing. Are you regularly expected to work for no pay? As a fine artist, I am! People expect me to put in written proposals for free, I am expected to pay my own way when I enter shows, hell sometimes I’m expected to pay an application fee for the privilege of even applying for a show! In the last six years as an emerging artist I’ve never been paid and I’ve have had travelling expenses ONCE.

Talent means NOTHING without a great deal of hard work and there are damn few folk in any area of the arts who haven’t ‘paid their dues’ by spending YEARS working very hard for very little financial reward before ‘suddenly’ becoming famous.

………………

Are there pretentious idiots in the arts? Hell yes! Undoubtedly there are those in the arts who don’t do the rest of us any favours but every industry has its stereotypes (Lawyer jokes, anyone? And what about those arrogant doctors?) and I’m sure there are people in every industry that make their peers cringe.

I know that many people don’t ‘get’ what we do and sometimes we don’t explain it very well. Heck, some days I don’t get why I do it either! But I am incredibly fed up of people assuming that artists don’t work, that artists expect to be funded and moan when we aren’t.

Oh OK, so artists do moan about funding but come on, everyone moans about the ‘upper management’ in their jobs, don’t they? Artists moaning about the Arts Council (or local equivalent) is mostly just our version of standing around the water cooler bitching about those idiots in Accounts!

I’ve certainly never expected to get funding from anyone and I know very few people in the arts who do: as a rule, we’re all extremely aware just how fragile, random and incomprehensible the funding system is. I’ve never applied for an individual grant from the Arts Council England but I have been involved in two groups who got tiny sums for a couple of projects and believe me when I say that those couple of hundred pounds were very hard won – I could probably have earned much more in far less time if I’d gone and stood on a street corner!

Right now there are a lot of very hard-working, unpretentious and worthwhile arts organisations in Britain who are hurting because the Olympics have resulted in widespread funding cuts to the arts (despite our government saying that ‘no, no, of course money wouldn’t be taken from the arts to pay for the Olympics). In the last year I’ve noticed the number of opportunities advertised in [AN] Magazine has absolutely plummeted although whether this is related to the credit crunch or funding cuts, I’m not sure.

It’s not just the visual arts either, I know several writers and they’re freaking out about the state of the publishing industry. There are currently lots of changes happening in the way that the arts are organised, distributed and paid for and many of us at the bottom of the arts hierarchy – i.e. those of us who actually make the art – aren’t doing at all well.

So no, we’re not sitting around waiting for taxpayers to fund us and expecting that our ‘talent’ will see us through. Most of us are out there working a second job and/or choosing to survive on very little so that we have more time for our art (I have to do my taxes next month – yet another year where I won’t even have made enough to pay tax) and wondering if we’ll ever get out of debt…

I am an artist & purveyor of obsessive projects based in Hebden Bridge, England. My work involves the accretion of large numbers of small objects - pins in fabric, knots in string or hundreds of envelopes - to make sculptures that deal with fragility, loss, repetition, obsession and time.

5 thoughts on “An average artist responds

  1. Kirsty – some comments. They too come from a basis of experience.

    First – I too would have been very annoyed at the tenor of the comments you quoted. (BTW your link for the politician is ‘dead’). It did seem rather generic and sterotyped to me.

    Second – the Arts Council has been criticised for its last round of grant-giving and there has been an investigation and a report into the chaos which ensued. The report was published at the end of July.

    As somebody who, a very long time ago, used to sit on the other side of grant giving machinery (some of which involved the arts) I can tell you that if there wasn’t a fee to pay to process the grant, there would be a whole load more applications from people without serious intent. The net effect of that would be that they would still need to be processed and that would mean money intended for arts would need to be diverted into administration. Administrators, if faced with this sort of situation, then end up devising ways of quickly scuttling applications to whittle them down to a serious few.

    Fees are a crude way of diverting those who aren’t serious – but they generally work.

    The forms might also be complex – but similarly they tend to test out whether people have really thought through their idea – or whether they just have a good idea which they really need to go away and work on some more.

    You’d be really surprised how many people want to be given money without putting any sort of real effort into making a good case. Seriously.

    Finally, I don’t know any business which doesn’t incur marketing costs to get business and generate income. I’ve always seen time spent on grant applications and fees as exactly that – part of the normal cost of doing business. I don’t know why artists should expect to be let off ‘normal costs’ just because they’re artists.

    So – bottom line. I agree with you – lots of artists exercise a whole load of skills other than their talent to try and make art work for them. On the other hand, any artist or organisation which factors in the costs of being business-like into the total equation is far more likely to succeed.

    [Reply]

  2. Kirsty – some comments. They too come from a basis of experience.

    First – I too would have been very annoyed at the tenor of the comments you quoted. (BTW your link for the politician is ‘dead’). It did seem rather generic and sterotyped to me.

    Second – the Arts Council has been criticised for its last round of grant-giving and there has been an investigation and a report into the chaos which ensued. The report was published at the end of July.

    As somebody who, a very long time ago, used to sit on the other side of grant giving machinery (some of which involved the arts) I can tell you that if there wasn’t a fee to pay to process the grant, there would be a whole load more applications from people without serious intent. The net effect of that would be that they would still need to be processed and that would mean money intended for arts would need to be diverted into administration. Administrators, if faced with this sort of situation, then end up devising ways of quickly scuttling applications to whittle them down to a serious few.

    Fees are a crude way of diverting those who aren’t serious – but they generally work.

    The forms might also be complex – but similarly they tend to test out whether people have really thought through their idea – or whether they just have a good idea which they really need to go away and work on some more.

    You’d be really surprised how many people want to be given money without putting any sort of real effort into making a good case. Seriously.

    Finally, I don’t know any business which doesn’t incur marketing costs to get business and generate income. I’ve always seen time spent on grant applications and fees as exactly that – part of the normal cost of doing business. I don’t know why artists should expect to be let off ‘normal costs’ just because they’re artists.

    So – bottom line. I agree with you – lots of artists exercise a whole load of skills other than their talent to try and make art work for them. On the other hand, any artist or organisation which factors in the costs of being business-like into the total equation is far more likely to succeed.

    [Reply]

  3. Thanks for letting me know about the broken link, Katherine, I’ve fixed it. I’m going to answer the rest of your comment on the blog because you’ve raised some very important issues.

    [Reply]

  4. Thanks for letting me know about the broken link, Katherine, I’ve fixed it. I’m going to answer the rest of your comment on the blog because you’ve raised some very important issues.

    [Reply]

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