The 21st Century Artist


By Rosalind Davis

March 2011

At a time when cuts to the arts have turned into a massacre and the hiking of tuition fees that will make higher education inaccessible to many it seems an appropriate time to consider the profile of the artist in the 21st century. Misleading and stereotypical notions both romanticised and dismissive assumptions about the role of artists in society can be inaccurate.

Who we are, what we do and our motivations for working in the arts are complex and multifaceted questions but we should do more to portray the reality about the role artists play in society and dispel the myths surrounding us.

Making work is just a part of the artist’s job. The dream of a wealthy benefactor or meteoric rise to superstardom does happen but only for a tiny number. The reality, for most, is that sustaining a practice in the creative sector is a hard slog and the challenges are at least as diverse and varied as for anyone else starting up a small business.

Out of necessity an artist deals with their own promotion; they must be their own marketing manager, researcher, people manager, project leader, law, finance and business expert, audience and collector development, diary manager, salesman and negotiator. An artist may need to build skills in leading and managing people, teaching, social engagement and politics as well as having the stamina to survive rejection, funding and employment cuts A career as an artist is full of fantastic fulfilment and development but fraught with rejection and the lack of financial stability. Perseverance, dedication and a lot of hard work are vital to success but can often go unnoticed by the wider public.

Government cuts in the arts will jeopardise the arts in every area of the country and every sector. Jobs will be lost and art institutions on every level may be closed. More than ever we need to highlight what we contribute to society and, yes, the economy:

‘For every £1 that is invested, £2 is returned to the greater economy. From a purely economic standpoint, it does not make good financial sense to cut programmes that double the return on investment, and which cost so little to begin with. British tourism relies heavily on arts and culture, valued at £86 billion in 2007. It also directly employed 1.4 million people. Between 1997 and 2006 the creative economy grew faster than any other sector ‘

The government did not respond to this enquiry; we have no major political clout and that is what needs to change. This fact alone is proof enough of the entrepreneurial and creative ways the arts sector has contributed to the economy.

In addition another undervalued role an artist has is their instrumental part in regeneration schemes: “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.

Artists raise wastelands ( across the world) into somewhere interesting and attractive to a wider public. However there is little security, recognition or recompense for these efforts.

We are quite clearly a vital part of economy, community, culture and society and this should be recognised and valued further. Government needs to step up and recognise the wider role the art community plays and safeguard this vital area.

Artists need resources to sustain us however “Recent data indicates that the value of employment opportunities for professional artists has already declined by 27%, when compared with pre-recession data from 2007. It is anticipated that 1 in 6 posts in universities will be lost”

At Core Gallery in Deptford (which I co-direct) we have launched an educational programme for artists: DIY Educate. We focus on nurturing talent and supporting artists to achieve their aims so that those who take part in the programme can go on to have sustainable careers. This means understanding and explaining the various roles we may negotiate as artists and is increasingly crucial that we become empowered in our practice. Arts funding and other philanthropy should be more focussed at these grass roots initiatives which look to support and build capacity and skills.

We have a fantastic artist community in the UK but we’ve been introspective and rested on our laurels. We need to do more to promote and protect the interests of our sector and highlight the value we have to society as well as educating themselves in the ways of sustaining and strengthening their own practice.

The only way we can give voice to that is to work collaboratively as a sector and make our voices heard. Artists can join the AIR Activists initiative which seeks to campaign to enhance artists’ working lives and professional status, one can sign petitions like ‘save the arts’, writing to your MP, or taking control and doing something on your own initiative. Invest in art. Get involved, fight for your rights and make your voice heard. Just make sure you do something.