The Artists' Union England is an attempt to address issues around working conditions and pay in the art world, and to help artists share knowledge and experience. Here, AUE member Richard Whitby explains what unions can do for artists
The arts sector is a small one, run by highly educated people, often extremely politically aware and passionate about what they do. It is also often a terrible place to work. The palpably extreme level of competition and the rush to "make it" leads easily to feelings of failure, desperation and isolation in artists. The scramble for the few jobs and opportunities that exist for the ever-increasing number of graduates creates a pliable workforce, susceptible to exploitation in the form of low wages, disadvantageous contracts and unpaid work. A culture of frantic activity also sometimes convinces people (myself included) that they do not have time for political engagement – every spare minute out of paid work should be invested in the studio. But it needn’t be this way.
The current Artists’ Union England started in May 2014. It's the first artists' union in this country since the previous one dissolved in 1984. After this 30-year gap, the idea of being part of a union is unfamiliar to many artists. So, why should you consider joining?
There are some obvious objections to the idea of an artists’ union. Can individualistic and competitive artists work together? The most visible examples of contemporary art in this country often seem to manifest the most grotesque features of unfettered capitalism; others can end up rendering political engagement an aesthetic choice rather than an intrinsic part of life as an artist. Artists are thought of as middle or upper class, while trade unions are seen as working class institutions. Can artists go on strike, and if they did, who would care? Are trade unions even relevant institutions anymore; aren’t they a thing of the past, inextricably linked to "old Labour" and fundamentally undermined, forever, by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s?
My answer is: no, not necessarily. A trade union can be defined as "a continuous association of wage-earners for the purpose of maintaining or improving the conditions of their working lives" (Sidney and Beatrice Webb, History of Trade Unionism, 1920). Artists certainly do not work in a traditional mode of employment – few of us would describe ourselves as earning a wage, for example. The vast majority of artists’ work is self-employed, with no shop-floor; no easily identifiable bosses. In my experience, both at art school and since, artists are often reluctant to discuss how they support themselves financially. I suspect this is symptomatic of a culture in which "success" means making a living solely from one’s art, plus the tendency for art to be associated with bourgeois privilege rather than wage labour. To use my own practice as an example, I sporadically make some money from it, supplementing that with other types of work in what is often described as a portfolio career. This, for me, means an unpredictable and fractured working life, despite the slick, stockmarket connotations of the term.
Some practising artists are members of other unions that serve artists working in certain capacities. The Broadcasting, Entertainment, Cinematograph and Theatre Union (BECTU), for example, covers many front-of-house workers in the culture industry, and the University and College Union work for lecturers. The organisation a-n The Artists Information Company has been fulfilling some of the functions of a union in its absence, offering very useful insurance deals and guidance on payment to its members.
Artists’ Union England is for now mainly based on sharing information and offering solidarity. Originally set up by 13 people wanting to address the lack of accountable, democratic representation for artists, the union now has over 500 members, with only word of mouth to advertise it. The union’s stated aims include "to represent artists at strategic decision-making levels and positively influence the role artists play within society […] to challenge the economic inequalities in the art world and to negotiate fair pay and better working conditions for artists […] to work with other unions, arts organisations, government bodies and cultural institutions whilst remaining both independent and transparent." At the moment, there is an annual subscription of £30 (rather than a percentage of earnings, like many other unions) – although there will likely be a reduced student membership introduced next year. The union is currently run by an elected executive committee of nine people and all work carried out within the union is undertaken on a voluntary basis.
Within the union, there are a number of working groups dedicated to specific tasks suggested by members. Currently these include campaigning for recognition by Arts Council England, producing a set of guidelines on rates of pay and fundraising for the union’s certificate of independence (an expensive impediment to any union’s founding, introduced by Thatcher and still an essential part of a new union’s existence). Members are also preparing to meet Ed Vaizey, minister for Culture, Communication and the Creative Industries, and working on informing artists of the impact of the forthcoming universal tax credit, which replaces the working tax credit and is likely to have a detrimental effect on many artists’ incomes.
One step towards wresting the idea of artists’ labour away from privilege and towards something more realistic is representation in the workplace, wherever that might be: studio, gallery, arts centre, hospital... As the union grows it will be able to offer insurance, as the Scottish Artists’ Union already does, and legal representation – eventually perhaps even pension schemes and debt collection services.
A union is, almost by definition, not a radical gesture. It is a structure with which to broker better deals for workers, usually on matters of pay and conditions. Soon the Artists' Union will become a member of the General Federation of Trade Unions, and be supported by a network of other smaller unions. By getting involved in trade unionism, artists will able to stand with other campaigning groups, not only as part of short-lived issue-based activist groups, but in solidarity with organised workers.
Organising ourselves is the first step to changing things. We are learning to share experiences and information, in a way that will particularly benefit artists entering the market from college. The art world is full of opportunities for artists to meet around artwork, but the union is a chance to convene as workers. Rather than trailblazing neoliberal-style self-exploitation, the small institutions of the art world and artists’ own practices should be flexible enough to do better, to look after the people they employ.
Although artists do not have traditional jobs, we occupy a mode of employment that is becoming mainstream – more and more workers, especially low-paid ones, have portfolio careers, even if we are not used to calling them that. A union promotes and enacts the principle of solidarity between artists, and by extension all workers, against the tide of neoliberalised employment relations, where atomised workers lose more and more rights.
I have been a member of the union since July 2014. The conversations I have had around the union, and the work I have done as part of it, have not only felt necessary, but have imbued me with a sense of hope that is all too rare in political matters in England today. We have to start somewhere, and we need to start together.
Richard Whitby is an artist and writer from Liverpool, based in London. He studied at Wimbledon College of Art and the Slade School of Fine Art. He was a LUX Associate Artist in 2012/13 and is currently finishing a PhD at the London Consortium. His website can be found at richardwhitby.net.