Pay to Play: Trickle Down Economics for the Visual Arts

Pay to Play: Trickle Down Economics for the Visual Arts

Trickle Down Economics has never worked in any other sector, so why do the powers-that-be seem to think it will work in the arts? In an age when much noise has been made by institutions such as Welsh Government to Arts Council of Wales of a drive for inclusivity and accessibility, Bob Gelsthorpe asks why Wales’ leading government-sponsored contemporary art competition is charging artists to enter.

A couple of months ago, Waterfront Gallery in Pembrokeshire announced a callout for the second Welsh Government sponsored Wales Contemporary/ Cymru Gyfoes, looking for 2-D and 3-D works (except for photography and film) to be submitted to the judging panel. Successful applicants will have their work exhibited across Waterfront Gallery and the Pierhead building/ Senedd, with the opportunity to win up to £11,000 in prizes. The brief is for work that is inspired by Wales’ ancient heritage, art history, traditions, landscape (rural, urban or political) and contemporary culture. Which all sounds fairly innocuous until you reach the submission fee. £34.00 for three artworks.

Let’s leave aside for another time the condescending concept of the visual arts encompassed in the brief for this competition, that only work containing the tired tropes of Wales is the best way to push for soft power across the world. Let us here focus on what is a clear demonstration by Welsh Government of their lack of understanding, or rigour in approach, to the Welsh visual arts sector. WG’s sponsorship of a competition with such a high submission fee normalises it, building up rather than breaking down the barriers to access and participation in the visual arts in Wales.

To unpick this we have to look at the start. One of the oldest open exhibitions in the west is the Summer Open, ran annually by the Royal Academy in London. Back in 1768, the original intention was to use the fees gathered from artists to fund the world-class Royal Academy Schools, an intensive post graduate art school programme for about a dozen artists each year. These programmes were free for the artists lucky enough and good enough to get on them, and they came with generous stipends and ample tutor and guest tutor support. A worthy cause no doubt, but the altruistic side of open exhibition fees has, throughout generations morphed into just another income stream for hard-up galleries or projects. This of course has become a necessity in austerity, shrinking lottery funds and more competitive Arts Council grants. But, the issue is when the income stream comes first, and the artists second. The Summer Open, despite being deeply traditional, is at the very least up front about where the money goes.

This system now often equates to nothing more than perfect examples of a neoliberal extraction economy, where the content creators, the very people who keep the sector afloat, must repeatedly subsidise organisations with lazy development strategies, or none at all.

In modern times, the open call was a way of casting a wider net, because, as the narrator in Julian Schanbel’s Basquuiat (1997) laments, no-one ever wanted to miss another Van Gogh:

The idea of the unrecognized genius slaving away in a garret is a deliciously foolish one. We must credit the life of Vincent Van Gogh for really sending this myth into orbit. How many pictures did he sell? One? He couldn’t give them away. We are so ashamed of his life that the rest of art history will be retribution for Van Gogh’s neglect. No one wants to be part of a generation that ignores another Van Gogh.

Yet Wales risks missing another defining artist by normalising these excessive transactions through its sponsorship. The towns, cities and villages of Wales are full of artists; your neighbour might even be one. The arts community will constantly look elsewhere for what our arts sector should do, rather than having the agency to radically overhaul the infrastructure that we so desperately need.

Celebration of individual is what massive prizes seek to promote, see the recent Turner Prize winner announcement, or Theaster Gates’ 2015 Artes Mundi split as high profile rejections of this. Celebration of the collective, and an intersection of voices, are protests against the ‘artist-as-genius’. It makes out artists to be fairly one-dimensional people, working alone in a hovel, straining emotionally over a painting. Think of Kirk Douglas in Lust for Life (1956). But the reality is that artists do the school run, pay taxes, participate in society, are members of communities, and maybe occasionally go on holiday too. Being an artist is a job like any other. An online comic by Melanie Gillman in 2013 sums up the frustration of an entire workforce in four scenes.

trickle down economics

This is pertinent now, as there is a clear retraction in shifting the focus from the artist to the organisation. Arts Council England, publishing its mammoth ten year plan with little to no mention of art or artists, but plenty of mention of ‘being creative’ and ‘creativity’, perfectly woolly terms for a woolly commitment to artists from what should be one of their biggest champions. This rollback of focus represents a seismic re-prioritisation and shows how the extraction economy takes place on a policymaking level. Continuing pressure from all sides, as well as a slowly more mobilised and vocal contemporary arts sector, is possibly what gave way to the campaign encouraging artists not to apply for open calls that demand a submission fee. 

Our galleries and projects must look harder at eroding the barriers to access and participation, trickle down economics haven’t worked in any other sector, why would a supposedly socialist Welsh Government administration expect it to work in the visual arts?

 

Welsh Government was contacted for comment.

Arts Council Wales, who have no involvement in the competition, offered No Comment when contacted.

(Header image is a detail from “Welsh Farm” by Fred Uhlmann)

This article was updated from a previous versions that referred to Arts Council of Wales as Arts Council Wales.