Lynda Graham

The Covid-19 pandemic has thrown a stark light onto the precarious working conditions of visual artists and makers working in Scotland. When lockdown began the Scottish Artists Union were overwhelmed with emails from artists struggling to work out how they are going to pay their bills let alone concentrate on being creative. The emails made for painful reading. However, they came as no surprise to those of us who have been involved in the union for nearly 20 years.

The union has seen artists’ incomes slowly eroded over the years, an already fragile infrastructure wobbling since the 2008 recession. Each year we survey our members which shows that that 83% earn less than £10k per year; 88% do not get contracts consistently; 61% receive less than the industry standard rates of pay; and only 11% regularly receive the industry standard rate of pay; 75% seldom or never receive a fee for exhibitions.

Artists have unusual working lives that rely on a combination of different income streams.

It is a way of working that has been significantly impacted by Covid-19. In the short term there are emergency funds to apply to – but what about the future?

Scotland has a vibrant visual arts culture with talented artists working here and internationally. How has this happened if our artists are so poorly treated? The answer is that creative output only takes place due to “subsidy” – not from the public purse, but from artists themselves. Most artists taking part in exhibitions, workshops, projects in communities put in far more work than they are ever paid for.

SAU members Janie Nicoll and Ailie Rutherford delivered In Kind, a research project focusing on Glasgow International 2018, which concluded that GI generated roughly £1.5m-worth of extra business for the city. However, artists working for nothing contributed around £1.5m of unpaid work.

And 80% of our members are involved in working in schools and communities through workshops, residencies or teaching. All of this work takes time, building meaningful connections, trust and confidence with people often facing disadvantage and exclusion.

If we want to support Scotland’s visual arts community we need to look at new ways of sustaining a professional working life. One idea is Universal Basic Income – a periodic cash allowance given to all citizens to provide them with a standard of living above the poverty line.

SAU are also campaigning with other unions to implement the Fair Work programme which aims to see fair remuneration for work and challenges poor working practices.

UBI does not provide all the answers – it needs to work alongside Fair Work practices, an affordable studio infrastructure, more artists working in socially-engaged settings; more support for makers developing micro business; more mentoring for graduates; an end to insecure teaching contracts and unrealistic workloads; pension support for creatives.

Other countries are leading the way. On Creative Ireland Programme’s Artists Pilot Scheme, artists are permitted one year on unemployment benefit without having to look for work, to allow for time to pursue their practice. They receive £168.50 per week, the equivalent of jobseeker’s allowance in Ireland.

Artists are resourceful, imaginative and passionate about their art practice. We must start valuing them more if we are to safeguard the future of the visual arts and maker community in Scotland. If we want that future to exist we need to start using our imagination, take a leap of faith and start resourcing the sector in a more sustainable way. Giving artists basic security will enable them to flourish and generate even more benefits to our society.

Lynda Graham is president of the Scottish Artists Union