cartoon by the late, great, David Austin

For some time now I have been interested in the earnings of visual artists. Figures appear in the press, but I’ve no idea where they come from. (This piece is partly cannibalised from what I’ve recently been writing to friends, so I hope they will forgive me)

Visual artists are bottom of the pile. in terms of the spread of their earnings. Authors can get an advance, and do get royalties and Public Lending Right from libraries; actors get TV & film repeat fees; musicians get money from publishing and PRS (Performing Right Society). PRS, according to recent figures, retrieved £623m in 2009 for its 65.000 members. That works out, if evenly distributed, at £9,500 a head. My son tells me that only a privileged few get up as far as £5,000pa. So it appears that the bulk of the money goes to those least in need. (I don’t know what the constitution of the PRS is, or whether it is in any sense redistributory).

Anyhow, visual artists have only one shot – you put your piece of work up, and it sells, or it doesn’t. No advance, and no subsequent royalties. There is a move to install something called Artist’s Resale Right, (Droit de Suite), but it is at a pitiful level, and so hedged about that only top artists will benefit, if it ever gets off the ground.

I heard Andrew Brighton (who did work for Gulbenkian: I don’t know if it was published, and I can’t seem to trace it) speak about research he had done, many years ago now. He decided that the only way to define who was an artist was to invite people who so described themselves (and he found that people who had been art school trained did so describe themselves, even if they had produced little or no art at any time since leaving college). I remember his broad conclusion was that there was a stratum of well-known artists at the top of the pile, who earned substantial amounts. Below them there was a stratum of let’s say distinguished artists who were not particularly well-known (second division), who had some prestige but not very much income. Lower down still was a stratum of artists who had no national reputation, but who scurried around small galleries and shops, selling pictures/prints. postcards & cards. (Third division) These did significantly better that the second division above them.

Below them (this is my addition) those who produce serious work but who do not make a profit, let alone an income, (fourth division). The whole situation is complicated by the fact that the Art Schools historically provided employment for those in the second division by way of full- or part-time employment (for instance Hubert Dalwood the sculptor was head of sculpture at Hornsey for a period; Terry Frost, Victor Pasmore and many others taught). In my view the Art Schools (properly Schools of Art and Design) were distorted by providing, in effect, a subsidy, not intended by the State, but nonetheless there, for both artists and designers. Because of what has happened since, namely the reduction of part-time teaching in the Schools, this indirect subsidy may have withered away (I’m not close enough to know for sure). People lower down (div 3) energetically run private courses for amateurs as a way of making an income – again, without proof, I think this area of activity has expanded.

Because visual artists are so dependent on publicity they do not usually get fees for the publication of reproductions of their work (apart from contractual things like greetings cards). I mean they are so grateful to be noticed that they take it for granted that they aren’t entitled to ask for a fee – whereas most writers would automatically expect to be paid for an article. This seems to be the area where we could effect change. We need a body which recovers fees for the use of images, so that at least some money finds its way back to actual living artists. Let’s call it PIM for Published Image Right. It would only work if it became understood that any use of an image would entail a small fee, so that it became a universal expectation. (If such a body already exists, tell me about it & I’ll join). I’m not so bothered about heirs & assigns: ‘the estate of’ and so on: it’s the living creators who need the income. There is also the issue of respect: because we don’t ask for anything we aren’t taken seriously. At the moment no-one expects to pay fees to ordinary professional visual artists, only to famous ones (who don’t need the money anyway).

I’m as much at fault as the rest of you: here are three examples. A picture of mine was used as the January image in Jarrolds’ Norfolk Landscapes calendar for 2006. I was pleased to see the picture reproduced, and I wasn’t offered a fee. More recently I wrote an article for Tate Etc Magazine. I was happy to do it, but I wasn’t offered a fee. Currently, like many others, I sent an ‘Artist in the Studio’ picture to the Sainsbury Centre for the exhibition presently showing. When I complained about how our material was presented and the lack of credits, I was told that “the display of photographs is not a promotional tool for for artists in this region…” As we don’t get a fee, I wonder why they think we send material in?

I don’t wish to raid the Mafia for terminology, (Judge Falcone is one of my heroes), but it is, as I said, a matter of respect.