Artist Stevie Ronnie, talks about his freelance experience and why he joined the trade union.
From an outside perspective life as a freelance artist must seem like a glamourous career – endless hours in the studio musing over the latest masterpiece without any boss to worry about. The truth, or at least the truth for the vast majority of us, fails to live up to this expectation. From a personal perspective, most of my time is spent chasing down commissions, meetings with clients, attending interviews, submitting my work for exhibitions or writing funding bids for projects that more often than not don’t ever see the light of day. All of this is done without pay, but it is an expected and necessary part of my day-to-day life.
The time we actually get to make art is rare and precious. This is far from an easy life and all of the artists around me that I see making a good go of it are dedicated, highly skilled and motivated people. Yes, you need to have a flair for making art but to earn a living from it you need to be able to present the right ideas in the right way to the right people. This might all seem a little negative, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I love my job and feel that the arts have an overwhelming positive effect on society as a whole. We artist’s might not be the greatest generators of financial capital but we contribute in other ways: through our creativity, our ideas, our imagination and our art’s ability to heal the mind. Making and engaging with art can both directly and indirectly remind people of what it is to be human, something that seems lacking in today’s fractured society.
In recent years, all of this work has been taking place against the backdrop of ever deeper cuts to funding in the arts from all directions. There was never much to share around but now there is even less and the prospects facing younger artists who are trying to carve out a career for themselves look bleak. Commissions, residencies and funding are becoming insanely competitive so those with little or no experience are forced to work for free, often on the promise of exposure or some future fame that will likely never come to fruition. Art which is not immediately commercially viable is viewed suspiciously by many and artists are often portrayed as an unnecessary drain on the public purse. Art has become the luxury we can’t afford as we head along the path of the US, where a career as an artist is the acceptance of abject poverty for all but those who can find a home in academia or the most privileged few.
The impending policy that is set to make things even harder for artists is the roll-out of Universal Credit. The system is not designed with any consideration for the reality of life as a freelance artist. As with many self-employed workers, our income is sporadic, arriving in unpredictable intervals across each year. Many of us earn below the minimum wage and look set to be deemed as ‘not in gainful employment’ by the Universal Credit system. The tax credit system was flexible enough to take our circumstances into account and has been a lifeline for artists, particularly as the money has dried up as a result of the austerity agenda. My wife is also a freelance artist and when the Universal Credit letter drops through the door we look set to drop out of the system altogether, despite having relatively successful careers and three young children to support.
Artist’s Union England has arrived at a critical time for the future of artists in our society. The problems and uncertainty that we are facing are not unique to the arts and unionising is giving us a chance to add our voice to the voices of other workers in other sectors. Surely there must be strength in our collective numbers? What is society without those of us who work tirelessly not only for financial gain but also for the common good?