Collectivism felt like a good response to the pandemic, we had literally nothing to lose, and it formalised some more ad-hoc Live Art producing we’d already been doing together for a while.
While artist support had always been at the core of what we had done both individually and together, this new definition of practice under a collective name allowed us to work beyond the sum of our parts, and to think about how we could support the wider sector at a time when it was even more broken than usual.
For us, supporting the sector is manifold, but includes direct support for individuals, creating free resources to streamline processes and alleviate unpaid labour, sector-focused research around issues that damage the working conditions and potentials of freelancers, and strategic reviews, such as pay reviews with organisations and funding bodies. We believe that issues that exist within the sector are deliberate, structural and not insurmountable.
When the opportunity arose to work with East Street Arts on Guild, to create a campaign that would try to improve working conditions for the artist-led sector, we wanted to ensure that we focused on something which responded to the issues that artist-led spaces were facing long before Covid. This was so that it was not a campaign suspended in time, which pretended Covid was the only factor contributing to the impossibility of sustainability for artist-led spaces.
We began with statistics which were collected by East Street Arts when they received applications from groups to be part of the Guild programme. Applicants were asked to identify barriers to their sustainability as an artist-led space. The most frequently recurring answers included “Staff burnout”, “Time poor”, “Need to generate/diversify income” and “Cannot pay staff”. Long-form answers provided anecdotes of members having to work full time outside the sector to subsidise the services they provide. There were numerous mentions of extreme fatigue and burn out through extensive voluntary working, and an inability to consider their practice as anything more sustainable than a time-limited “passion project” because there was no strategic planning possible without some form of financial security.
The most recent numerical data capture (that we’re aware of!) on the sustainability of artist-led spaces was undertaken by the National Federation of Artists Studio Providers (NFASP – which is no longer active) in 2010. At this point, 34% of responding studio groups were run on a completely voluntary basis with no paid staff and 27% of all studio holders were doing unpaid work to support the running of their studios. Eleven years on, we don’t know how these statistics have changed. Anecdotal evidence and cuts to arts funding would not suggest a necessarily brighter picture, but at this point we want to avoid making too many assumptions about exactly what it is that leads artist-led spaces to find they are unsustainable, and instead seek an up-to-date baseline of quantitative data to build from. This can allow us to more transparently understand a snapshot of the current situation, to use as a tool to advocate and agitate for change, for resource and for need within the artist-led sector.
To begin this data capture, we’ve launched a survey, aimed at artist studio holders, which includes those who might run or have a staff position within a studio provider, to understand the labour that they undertake as part of their studio agreement, or to informally ensure the studio can continue to run. While we intend not to have a bias about what data might be captured, we are aware of previous and anecdotal data which cites unpaid labour as an issue and therefore questions are focused around the types of labour people undertake and whether this is remunerated or not. We imagine the answers to these questions will lead to further research needed, which we intend to undertake through interviews with artist-led studios after the survey results have been collected.
This is yet another survey in an age of surveys. It will take you time, and this time will be unpaid (unless you have a salaried job and can do it there, which we recommend). You can enter into a raffle for book tokens as part compensation for completing the survey, but beyond this all we can offer is an assurance that this data will be used, and without it we cannot (together with ESA) try to find practical solutions to the issues relating to money and labour within the artist-led sector.
Keep up-to-date on the OPEN DOORS campaign here.