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When is a Fee not a Fee? / 28 December 2015

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As a freelance artist I always have one eye on current opportunities. I know we are living in austere times but that is no reason for arts organisations to compound the austerity of artists by offering ‘opportunities’ that pay so poorly that they are economically unviable to apply for. We’ve all heard the  ‘it will be good exposure’, ‘it will look good on the CV’  lines that really amount to nought.

In the run up to Christmas I noticed several ‘opportunities’ that stood out as prime examples of the above. Seven Stories advertised for artist volunteers before changing it  – after having had it brought to their attention the reality of the opportunity - to actual paid opportunities – although not saying what that pay was. However the opportunity I want to focus on here is the advertised ‘opportunity’ by Venture Arts. Their ‘Artist Callout’ included the following text

‘ OutsiderXchangeS came about to develop the talents and profile of learning-disabled artists and also to investigate the potential to make new, interesting, challenging work through visual artist ideas exchange and real collaboration.

Venture Arts are looking for 5 artists to work alongside 5 learning disabled artists to develop ideas, share practice and, through collaboration, develop contemporary art.

All successful artists will receive £1000 artist fee and given a free studio space for five months (February – July 2016) coming together for 1-2 day(s) per week to share their studio with a learning disabled artist involved in the project.


So, £1000 for 1-2 days a week for 5 months. That equates to around £50 a day for 1 day a week or £25 for 2 days. Ok so there is a ‘free studio’ but which artist is going to move their studio for 5 months?

This poor fee was brought to the attention of Venture Arts and the advert was amended to

'All successful artists will receive £1000 artist bursary and given a free studio space for five months (February – July 2016) coming together for 1-2 day(s) per week to share their studio with a learning disabled artist involved in the project. The bursary is intended for artists to use in the production of their own work.'

So the fee became a bursary. Still, it just doesn’t add up. Let’s unpack this a bit more. The original advert on line has been amended with an ‘in the interest of better communication’ including

'For learning disabled artists this is an opportunity to work alongside other artists, one or two days per week when they will use the shared studio as a drop in studio. Learning disabled artists will not be based there at other times. For other artists, this will be an opportunity to interact with learning disabled artists. The open call is intended to attract artists who want to learn from learning disabled artists and the exciting field of learning disability visual art practice.

'the selected artists will have their own free studio space for 5 months, which will be adjacent to or adjoining the shared studio space. The studios will be at Baltic 39, Newcastle and project spaces run by Castlefield Gallery in Manchester. Artists will not be expected to lead or run workshops, or support learning disabled artists.'

To my mind this does not add clarity to the situation. It seems the call out falls between wanting an artist collaboration and a volunteer.

The idea is to create a platform for collaboration to take place between artists. We envisage that all artists involved in the project will be inspired by each others practice in creating work. The £1,000 bursary is to support artists in their own practice.

At the end of the day Venture Arts, working with their partners in the project, want a collaboration that develops contemporary art which can be showcased in the venues. The partners – Baltic, Castlefield and CVAN – are all funded by Arts Council England and this is an Arts Council Funded project. However, it would seem that none of the organisations appreciate or value the time and work of artists within the funding structure of this project.

The partners, as NPO’s, need to engage with the Creative Case for diversity as a requirement of their funding. It is an ACE priority. This seems a cheap and cynical manner in which to achieve this. I wonder if the Lead Artist, Tanya Raabe-Webber, is being paid in the same manner – I hope not.

I work extensively within Arts Equality and Diversity, I have been the recipient of several Creative Case funding awards and I have an awareness of working with diverse artists. It is not as simple as putting two artists in a room and saying there you go – collaborate, make some art.

I am not going to unpack all the salient issues here but they need to be thought about. Presumably, and it is a presumption, the artist with ‘learning disabilities’ – and I really do not like the labelling inherent within this – will probably be classed as a ’vulnerable adult’  which then impacts on safe working practices, DBS, access needs etc.  How will access requirements be met – around working practices – times, amount of concentration, does a carer need to be present, are there any other ‘complex needs’ to consider? There is no evidence that this has all been thought through or if it has, it is not clear.

If a new graduate is – and I use the term ‘selected’ rather than ‘employed’, will they have the requisite skills, or if an artist – experienced in practice and diversity – is selected  why are they not being paid for this skill set?

I have raised issues around this callout with other artists. There has been much discussion on various social media platforms. I also raised it with Artists Union England who campaign, amongst other issues, on fair pay for artists. Together with them we will be taking this matter up further in the new year.