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1 Creative Industry

Artists and others (writers, actors, musicians etc) form the base of the creative industry, sustaining the apex of high-earning items like the ITV serial Downton Abbey. No peaks without a broad sustaining base.

In 2000 this industry accounted for 7.9% of Gross Domestic Product, with four-year growth at about 9%  (goods & services grew 5%). Their exports at £8.7 billion equated to 3.3% of all goods & services exported; heritage tourism contributed over 20 billion. A current estimate of the proportion of GNP contributed is from 10% to 14%, depending on who you ask. According to a speech in the House of Lords, the arts industry is bigger than the financial sector, has the third largest computer & games market in the world, the third largest for music sales, and provides 2 million jobs. Manufacturing jobs have halved since 1997: the creative sector is expanding.

2. Where do artists come from? What do they do?

Most, but not all, visual artists were educated in the Art Schools – historically The Schools of Design, founded in 1837 because we were falling behind the French & Germans in our manufacturing (sounds familiar?). There were 149 art establishments in 1968: many amalgamations since.’Fine Artists’ were & are a minority. Most ‘art students’ are designers – that is Graphic Design, Interior Design, Fashion/Textile, Film & TV design, Ceramics, Industrial Design and so on. The categories aren’t exclusive. Broadly there have for a long time been about as many female as male students, and (before the mid-‘seventies) working class as middle class: the schools were more open-minded and tolerant than many other educational areas. Outlets: teaching, industry. According to research into employment promoted by Mrs Thatcher (then Education Minister):

“The majority of leavers (72%) took 3 months or less to find their first art or design activity”

Ritchie Frost and Dight: The Employment of Art School Leavers HMSO 1972


(Incidentally this is the only thoroughgoing professional research into Art & Design Education at Government level).  So artists at that time were better at getting work than graduates from many other disciplines.   18% of them went into teaching or lecturing. In 2007/8 (latest figures) there were 158,890 students on Art & Creative courses.

3 What do artists earn?

We are now talking about freelance visual artists, as opposed to designers working in industry.  Here are some recent figures from the Scottish Artists Union (there isn’t an English one, but the figures would be similar):


“Statistically, visual artists remain at the bottom of the income ladder for all art forms. The Scottish Arts Council Audit 2003 showed that 82%of visual artists in Scotland earn under £5000 per annum, and 28% are earning nothing at all from their arts practice while contributing an extrapolated £22 million to the Scottish economy primarily through the purchase of materials.”

Only a tiny minority of artists make a good living from their work. The majority subsidise their work by teaching, running courses, selling cards, or unrelated employment.  However, artists go on producing until they drop – there is no retirement, so they contribute a lot per lifetime.

4 Why is Art so expensive?

‘Artists’ generally produce a single unique object – unlike (say) musicians who produce multiples (records), and writers (books) get royalties, actors get TV repeat fees etc. We normally get one shot at the money. If a reasonable income was £15,000, then to generate it painters producing a work a week would need to charge £288 per picture – if they could guarantee to sell them all – but that wouldn’t allow for gallery commission (from 30% to 90%), materials and framing, which would knock income down to no more that nine and a half thousand.  Many artists don’t produce as much as a piece of work per week (though a hardworking cartoonist may produce six cartoons a day). Most artists are not financially in a position to claim back their portion of VAT though they constantly pay it on materials and exhibitions. The Value which they Add  does not come back to them.


The Affordable Art Fair, in Battersea Park advertised itself as “Contemporary Art under £3,000.” That’s London for you. The Metropolitan idea of ‘affordable’ is very different from the provincial one  By contrast this year’s Christmas Exhibition at the Harleston Gallery in Norfolk has some items below £100 and many below £500 (and has sold over £7000 of work to date). Since the Gallery and then the Harleston and Waveney Art Trail have been in place  here, many local people have decided that they can afford to buy art, many for the first time. But an appreciative public is hard-won.

5 What can art contribute to a local area?

“[the]research unit at the University Paul-Cezanne in Aix en Provence announced that the 2009 Picasso exhibition and related programme of activities earned €62 m of additional income for the town.  The principal beneficiaries were local restaurants as well as the hotels, which recorded up to 30,000 additional nights.  In addition 227 full-time jobs were created. And the investment? Just €6m.”


Letter in the Guardian, Weds 6 Oct 2010













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