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In October 2020, then Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden distanced himself from an advert encouraging people in the arts to retrain in cybersecurity. Patrick McCrae reflects on how much has since changed.



As we begin to return to normality with the worst of the pandemic hopefully consigned to the past, it seems the government has had a change of heart. Artists are now on the shortage occupation list, meaning that international creative talent can apply for a Skilled Worker Visa if earning £16.8k per year or more. 

Following the advert that attracted widespread derision, it is reassuring to see the government belatedly placing some value on the creative industries, which are so often overlooked or relegated to irrelevance in the corridors of power. Now is the time for a cultural reset, to create a more sustainable arts economy, and solve the artist skills shortage that is threatening the UK. 

The creative sector needs a PR facelift. Too often it evokes references from outsiders to unpaid internships, artists being paid in exposure rather than currency, and an overreliance on philanthropic patronage. 

In redressing the balance to create a sustainable arts economy, we can ensure we retain the best creative talent. To do so, the industry needs to be bold. Three steps that would have a tangible positive impact are:  

  • Scrapping all unpaid internships
  • Effecting change in how creatives value culture 
  • Forging closer links with the corporate world

Scrapping unpaid internships

The creative sector is infamous for its proclivity to use unpaid internships. This is often a topic of ethical debate, but it’s time to take definitive action, and ban unpaid internships from the creative sector altogether. 

As a business owner in the arts, I’ve long believed that if you can’t afford to pay your team, then perhaps you need to face up to the fact that your business is not viable. 

Unpaid internships serve as a clear barrier to people from less advantaged backgrounds who cannot afford to work for free. If we are to ensure the best talent from across the UK can see a career path in the arts, then ensuring we are not excluding groups based on their background is crucial. 

The proliferation of unpaid work at entry level has a knock-on effect, normalising the idea of working for exposure, rather than for money, and that is an issue that penalises artists in their later careers, where more than two thirds of exhibitions are unpaid for artists. It is time to eradicate this outdated practice and start treating art as serious business. 

Changing how we value culture 

There is a broader discussion about how we encourage wider society to place greater value on culture. Over the centuries, art, and the stories it tells, endures. Art not only increases in monetary value, but it is a form of priceless cultural currency that tracks the progress of human history. 

But the arts cannot effect wider societal change without putting our own house in order first. Change has to start from within if we are to effect structural change on a larger scale. 

Mapping out a clear career pathway is a crucial first step in doing so, and that is about leadership, and about shining a light on successful role models from across the creative industries. 

For those at university looking to careers in the City, it’s much clearer. A partner at a law firm or the senior figures in a bank are visible role models and aspiring candidates can see a path to reach that goal. 

We need to give young creatives access to role models and successful entrepreneurs, and we need to change our mindset to celebrate business success in the arts, as well as art itself. 

Forging closer corporate links 

The traditional art world model must be protected. Galleries, museums, exhibitions and patronage all have their place, and form the foundations of our artistic heritage. 

But if art is to continue to prosper and grow, it’s time to expand our horizons and source new revenue streams. Following a pandemic that exposed just how vulnerable the art world is to disruption of physical events, and the knock-on financial effects on a predominantly freelance industry, accelerating that change is urgent. 

At ARTIQ, we’ve seen the benefits of partnering directly with corporates and City firms, and how securing that extra revenue stream for hundreds of artists can be the difference between whether they can continue their career in the sector or not. 

There has never been a better time to look to the corporate world for funding and answers. We are seeing first hand a surge in interest for art rental collections from City firms who want to attract talent back to their physical office spaces, and this model ensures that artists are paid regularly. There is also growing appetite for art in public spaces, which is creating commissioning opportunities for local and emerging artists. 

The UK is renowned the world over for our culture. In a post-Brexit UK that needs to boost sectors with potential, the creative industries could be our leading light. Let’s not let that opportunity fade away by failing the talented young people who can make that goal a reality. 

Patrick McCrae is CEO of International Art Agency ARTIQ.


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