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Being an artist, at all career stages, is a minefield waiting to be triggered without informed guidance. Simon Poulter has been canvassing artists about being sold a dream.

Graphic of a face with 'Dreams Here' written above
Selling the Dream

© Simon Poulter 2024

What are the stages of artist development and where can artists find information to navigate them? Let’s call them: recent graduates, emerging practitioners and ‘the submerging’, as someone wryly described later-career artists to me. 

A host of services - offering mentoring, professional development, paid-for exhibitions and studio spaces at varying costs - are now on offer. As part of being sold the dream, most artists want to find the golden thread to eat, make work and practise their art. 

In researching this article, I interviewed artists from across the UK, working at different career stages and in different media. Of the eight artists I talked to, half wanted to remain off the record, to be able to give an honest account of their discontent.

Younger artists taken in by the ‘sharky’ world of creative spaces

I started by asking about mentoring and if it was worth the money. While several felt it offered a polished CV, it did not have any impact on practice or career progression. Those that spoke favourably about it had been guided by practitioners with specific artform expertise or specialist skills, tailormade to their own objectives. Several artists mentioned gatekeeping and how mentors could open doors for them.

Studio space threw up the most controversy, as several younger artists had been taken in by the ‘sharky’ world of creative spaces. The common issues were expense, poorly drafted contracts and over-selling of community-led aspirations, often disguising hard-edged business practice. 

London in particular has seen a rise in private creative studios that pull in recent graduates, hike rents and accept the inevitable churn of talent as artists fall away from the dream. Concomitant with this is the leverage of artists for start-up spaces that morph into creative units or place-based development schemes. 

It’s a familiar story: using artists to bootstrap and underpin riskier investment projects before pricing the artists out. Often, younger artists felt obliged to sign contracts without really knowing what the bottom line was and then feeling hard done by when deposits were late or not returned.

Instrumental goals

What about opportunities and funding for artists? A common reply was that both funding and projects are tied to very specific outcomes, reducing the artist's role in developing their own work. 

One younger artist said: “The expectations placed on artists to engage with specific communities or address societal issues often feel misplaced and burdensome. Instead of nurturing artistic expression, it seems to prioritise temporary social interventions without considering sustainable support for affected communities.” 

This was a clear thread; that arts funding and money from nationally-funded organisations have to support instrumental goals and not the preferred practice-based outcomes. Two interviewees thought money to support the arts was locked up in buildings and overheads, leading to relatively small amounts of funding for artists and making. 

Two interviewees had been in receipt of support from Arts Council England’s Developing Your Own Practice fund, in both cases leading to successful outcomes with mentoring and practice-based research. But the critical next step was still an issue: where are the budgets to support more ambitious and self-initiated projects not tied to instrumental goals?

Current arrangements favour specific groups

A contingent was transparency and accountability of funding for National Portfolio Organisations in England. The artists I spoke to felt money was tied into management and self-appointed gatekeeping roles that either limited access to resources or favoured specific groups. 

Artists from neurodivergent and diverse backgrounds found funding portals such as ACE’s Grantium were often inaccessible and off-putting, favouring those with the ability to mirror the stated aims of the programme and the language used.

When asked about what they would change in terms of arts provision, a clear consensus emerged around funding lighter frameworks that were artist-led or practice-based. 

Values-based approach, with artists centre stage

With the Archer review in play, examining the performance of Arts Council England, it is tempting to draw conclusions from the above. A key one would be to place more funding and resources directly in the hands of artists to make more ambitious work. 

Another obvious recommendation would be to examine the coefficient between overhead and artistic outcomes in regularly-funded organisations. This might require a manoeuvre away from spreadsheets, towards a more nuanced, people-based review to establish value - and involving artists in the process. 

Such a value-based approach might lead to an assessment that the arts in the UK generate great benefit to the economy and are worthy of further investment as ‘sovereign’ Britain remakes its brand.

In summary, this snapshot of artists’ experience concludes that they often get a raw deal, take the most risk and are often exploited. A fairer creative deal is needed that directly supports ambitious work, cuts out the gatekeepers and makes arts funding more transparent and widely accessible.

Simon Poulter is a practising artist based in the South West of England. 

Eight UK based artists were interviewed for this article, ranging in age from 25 - 60. Three of them identified as being from diverse and global majority backgrounds (including working class). One artist was neuro-divergent and completed the interview process via WhatsApp.