Shaking up how cultural organisations work with freelance artists

Ways to make working with freelancers more sustainable

30 May 2023

Jessica McDermott is a Freelance Artist and Facilitator who has worked with Tate, National Portrait Gallery, The Line, A New Direction, and more. She writes and produces Scenario a podcast telling hidden stories behind photography, is a Member of POST - a collective for artist mothers, and she is advocating for a shake-up in the cultural sector to make working with artists more sustainable.

“What if artists could be contracted to work for organisations for a set number of days a week, regardless of whether there were projects for them to ‘deliver’ or not?”

“What if artist educators could be commissioned to make new work alongside their facilitation?”

Poster of Provocations.jpg
Image: Poster of Provocations

I took part in Space for Change (2022-23 cohort) this year; A New Direction’s peer-learning programme for reflection, disruption, and exchange in the cultural learning sector. And these were some of the questions I posed with my partner Lorna McGinty (Hackney Empire), during our Space for Change final event in March 2023.

Our peer-learning group came together monthly from September 2022 until February 2023. During that time, we took part in activities led by facilitator Sheryl Malcolm, and explored areas that felt pertinent to all of us. For our final event, we formed groups to research and present on chosen topics. The event included presentations on radical rest, co-creation activities with primary schools, healing within diverse communities, and making work with artists more sustainable. After a session with Dawn Estefan on Radical Self-Care, I think we all drew inspiration from the idea of looking inward to make wider change.

Lorna and I focussed on the sustainability of working with freelancers, especially artists, in the cultural sector. Creative learning departments rely on freelancers to develop and deliver an array of art projects and aspects related to them. However, the role is becoming increasingly difficult for artists to maintain and without some radical changes it is unclear what this will be mean for the future of the role or the wider sector.

Problems facing Artists in the Cultural Sector

In March 2023, arts organisation a-n published a report called Structurally F*cked, which found that the median average wage for artists working in the public sector is £2.60 an hour.

So, how can artists be on such a low wage? Well, that comes down to a combination of factors. One is that, unlike most freelance roles, art projects in the public sector often come with a fixed non-negotiable fee, which is set by the institution. And not by the artist. The second is misconceptions over fair rates of pay, and the third is an underestimation of the time required to carry out a project.

Another issue that makes work unsustainable for artists is how late they are brought onto projects. Making it hard to plan the year ahead or, in many cases, to understand the full scope of the project before they start working on it.

What are the misconceptions about fees? One misconception is to base a freelancer's day rate on the equivalent of a salaried day rate. When one doesn’t really have much to do with the other. Freelancers do a lot of unpaid work (meetings, applications, sending out cold emails) to gain each paid project that they work on, so short-term projects should always come with much higher fees.

Another misconception is that fixed fees make pay more equal. But having a one-fee-fits-all approach means that no matter what your level of experience or training, you may never receive a pay rise. Artists with increasing overheads will end up financially worse off. And for freelance parents navigating reduced hours and childcare fees, this is a factor that could push them out of the sector altogether.

The median average wage in the a-n report was also so low because 15% of the artists interviewed were not being paid for their work at all

The Structurally F*cked reported stated that, “testimonies gave multiple examples of the structural barriers imposed on artists by institutions that pay lip service to care, diversity, and accessibility, whilst at the same time fundamentally failing to address the key thing that could begin to dismantle these barriers at the most basic level within their organisations – fair pay.”

Photo of posters on table
Image: posters, flyers and leaflets on tablet at Create Space for Change Event © Faith Aylward

‘Radical Solutions’

Here are some radical solutions which address low pay in the sector and the financial stability needed to maintain an art practice:

  • The Norwegian government pays artists a salary. They are called Working Grants. Artists can apply for between 1-10 years of consecutive funding and each year, they receive the equivalent of an average part-time salary. Grants are awarded to just over 10% of applicants who apply, with the only condition being that they provide opportunities for the public to engage with their work.

  • Ireland recently began a pilot for a similar programme last year which pays artists 325€ a week.

  • Organisations are getting involved too. Strike A Light became UK trailblazers with Let Artists Be Artists, their no-strings-attached one-year salaries for three artists in 2021.

  • This year, Artsadmin launched their Artist-in-Residence programme, where an artist will be paid a salary to conduct their own art research at the organisation.

Actionable Takeaways

Offering a salary to an artist might sound too radical, but it could offer benefits that solve multiple problems. If an artist is working within an organisation they can generate project ideas, more easily adapt to delayed and impromptu projects, and potentially lighten the workload of exhausted staff.

Here are some other suggestions for actions that could be taken to better pay and support freelance artists and their careers:

  • Review your fees. Organisations like the Artist’s Union have already done a lot of the hard work for you.*
  • Consider how you could support an artist’s practice alongside a facilitation role. Could you offer artists an art commission alongside the role? Could their work be promoted on the organisation’s website or social media? Could they be introduced to curators or members of the art acquisition team?
  • Book artists onto projects sooner.
  • Give adequate notice for project changes and have a fair cancellation policy.
  • Review how you cost projects. The number of days on a project should not be based on what you have the budget for, but on how long it will actually take. Budgets must be realistic and should factor in a contingency.

We are a creative and ambitious sector. Let’s create the change that we need to see.

*Note: hourly rates should only be used for renumerating meetings, etc. Talks and workshops should be paid using a day rate.

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