UK Artists Underpaid for Public Art, Industria Finds

Results from an anonymous survey bring to light troubling figures about pay and working conditions for UK artists in the public sector. The Structurally F-cked report by the grassroots advocacy group Industria delves into 104 artist testimonies about commissions, exhibitions, performances, programs, and other projects they created for publicly funded institutions, all gathered between 2020 and 2022 in an 18-question Google survey called “Artists Leaks.” The report found wide disparities in artists’ wages, from hourly rates as low as nothing to as high as £80 ($99). 

Most survey responses were at the lower end of this pay range, resulting in a median hourly rate of just £2.60 ($3.25). Additionally, the results found that an alarming number of artists had been forced to subsidize institutions with unpaid labor — 15% of respondents’ answers indicated that they had been paid nothing at all for their work. Overall, 73% of survey respondents also answered that they felt they were not paid fairly for their time and experience. 

The report features anonymous testimonies from artists who describe this unpaid labor as “embarrassing” and a struggle. In one response, an artist explained how the lack of pay made them feel “ashamed,” and how only years later “when talking to fellow artists” did they learn this issue was more widespread.

Described as an “artist-to-artist solidarity project” aiming to “counter the very culture of silence and individualism which atomizes artists and primes them for exploitation,” Industria’s Structurally F-cked report was originally commissioned by A-n The Artists Information Company, another UK artist advocacy organization with over 29,000 members.

“The testimonies from the Artist Leaks data thoroughly overlap with our own experiences and those we’ve heard from artist peers and colleagues at all levels of the ‘art world,’” a member of Industria told Hyperallergic. “They were especially pertinent in sharply detailing the ways rhetorical gestures towards ‘diversity and inclusion’ are undercut by a failure to pay artists for their time at the most basic level.”

“Taken together, they developed a sense of the layering of precarity artists who are at the sharp ends of societal discrimination deal with,” they continued. “Financial precarity exacerbated by poorly paid work as artists in the public realm was compounded by racism, sexism (often manifested in a lack of flexibility and accounting for caring responsibilities) and a failure to meet the needs of disabled and chronically ill artists. “

“Can I Have a Grant” by Mr. Fish, a cartoon reproduced in the Structurally F-cked report (© Mr. Fish, courtesy the artist)

The Structurally F-cked inquiry takes into account a number of systemic issues plaguing the cultural sphere, such as a lack of government arts funding and an industry-wide minimum wage. It references the 2018 Arts Council England’s “Livelihoods of Visual Artists” report, which found that in 2015, the mean annual income for artists generated from their art practice was £6,020 (~$7,461).

The report also points to other research led by the Arts Council that demonstrates how the COVID-19 pandemic additionally exacerbated these problems for artists, resulting in job loss, canceled work opportunities, and illness.

“Arts Council England is committed to ensuring those who work in the cultural and creative sector are properly and fairly paid,” a spokesperson for the agency told Hyperallergic. The representative explained how supporting artists in the public sector is one of the main objectives for the agency going forward. She pointed to the Arts Council’s Let’s Create 10-year strategy plan that seeks “to better support individuals to embark upon and sustain a career in the creative industries.”

The “Artists Leaks” survey originally came about in 2020, when the Tate Museums reportedly refused a Freedom of Information request submitted by Industria members that inquired about the institution’s pay structures for artists. In response to this alleged “lack of transparency from an institution in receipt of significant state funding,” Industria developed the survey to give artists a space online to openly share their experiences with pay and work in publicly funded UK institutions and arts programs.

The Tate has not yet responded to Hyperallergic‘s request for comment.

Industria concludes its report with several calls to action to transform the public arts sector, including increased funding of public arts, budget transparency among public arts institutions, and an industry minimum wage requirement. The report also makes several recommendations for artists, such as unionizing and utilizing contracts of employment protection.

“The public ‘art world’ often espouses liberal values, even as it accepts and hands down the terms and effects a market-driven and deeply conservative evaluation of what artistic labour means to society,” Industria said. “There is a deep rhetorical divide between what cultural gatekeepers say they  believe and want, and the conditions they manifest by accepting and reproducing the status quo.”

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