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Why do so many artists not include a fee for their own time when they apply for funding? Lilli Geissendorfer explains how Jerwood Arts is challenging a pervasive low-pay culture.

Photo of Embroidered Forest Scene by Dharma Taylor
Embroidered Forest Scene by Dharma Taylor

© Payley Photography

Whether we're talking about painters, choreographers or performers, there are a lot of preconceptions about being an artist. But one of the most enduring is the idea of the ‘starving artist in the garret'. It implies that artists can survive on air alone so long as they are passionate – equating artistic genius in some way with suffering.

If an organisation doesn’t make pay conditions transparent up front, it can feel impossible to ask for fear of appearing demanding or ungrateful

When I started at Jerwood Arts early last year the team were clear that our first priority as a funder was to respond to artists’ needs. We needed to look at what and who we fund holistically, take full account of what we were funding beyond materials and research costs, and see the artist behind the work.

A year later, we have relaunched with three new pilot funding programmes. We also created an independent pool of artist advisers who are actively helping us shift the relationship between funder and beneficiaries, broadening our taste and reach, and helping us understand the ever-evolving artistic landscape.

Our new Jerwood Bursaries build on our past bursary schemes, increasing the amount available from £1,000 to £1,250. They aim to support artists from all disciplines within the first ten years of their practice to develop their skills and experience on their own terms. We know that the opportunity to explore new techniques and skills, reflect on work with a mentor, or research a new idea without a defined outcome is rare. But the possibilities that can open up through even a small injection of time and money can be transformative.

Low pay culture

A key discovery we made during the first round of bursaries was that the majority of applicants did not include a fee for themselves. This suggested a culture not just of low pay in the arts, but of chronically tight budgets that put time and skills last. Our conversations with artists suggest some of this low and no-pay culture is exacerbated by wider inequalities around gender, ethnicity, disability and socio-economic background.

Artists will always try to stretch resources and make any funding go as far as possible. This means they are far more likely to apply for funding to cover materials and the time of other collaborators than to include an appropriate fee for themselves.

Anecdotal feedback also suggests many bursaries cover material expenses only, or they lack clarity on exactly what they will pay for, so many artists believe asking for a lower amount is more likely to be funded. For others, it is a matter of confidence. If an organisation doesn’t make pay conditions transparent up front, it can feel impossible to ask for fear of appearing demanding or ungrateful.

While we recognise that ambition and dedication are often key to individual success, we are also well aware that not all artists can sacrifice their living costs or have access to other financial support. It therefore felt inequitable to simply reward more ambitious proposals, and so we decided to draw a line in the funding sand and insist that a fee for the applicant’s own time was included. Following discussions with our artist advisers, we went back to our selected artists and asked them to resubmit their budgets with a fee for themselves.

One artist, Sophie Blagden, said: “Being approached to resubmit my budget to include a fee was really encouraging, and made me question why I hadn’t felt confident in asking for a fee the first time around. It’s been very refreshing to be involved in a funding application process that is more open to conversation and change.”

Fee versus outcomes

In some cases, this meant they had to reduce the ambition of the overall application, as one of our selected artists, Dharma Taylor, commented: “Being asked to revise my fee and budget felt like Jerwood Arts and the selectors are committed to fair pay. At the same time, the approach to this would mean that the outcomes of the activity may need to be more modest. I think this is something a lot of artists find challenging when applying for funding and simultaneously wanting to achieve the best results with a set amount available.”

Clearly, we do not want to dampen ambition, but accepting that sometimes ‘less is more’ feels wholly in keeping with our values. That way our funds support the overall improvement of conditions, allowing outstanding artists to thrive and develop their potential.

To support our selected artists in revising their budgets, we sent out links to resources produced by a wide range of organisations to help artists set their fee level. Performance artist Nicola Woodham commented: “This process made me consider what I offer as an artist, as well as the conditions of making my practice. Artists operate with very little financial security and fewer public services to support their lives. Now I’ve experienced a break with the culture of paying artists very little or nothing, I’ll be more questioning of requests to settle for low fees, unless it’s in a non-profit DIY setting where it is possible to barter resources with other artists.”

From where we stand, it’s clear that cuts to local councils and arts councils over the past decade have been deep. At the end of the line of these cuts stand the individual artists, and last in the queue are those just starting out – the next generation who will go on to shape our collective cultural landscape. My hope is that by experimenting with different ways of funding, and putting our values at the heart of our processes, we can play a small part in mitigating this.

Lilli Geissendorfer is Director of Jerwood Arts.

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Photo of Lilli Geissendorfer