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'Why are artists poor?' (or art is not free)

Updated: Nov 14, 2018

The title is provocative [1]. It plays to our preconceptions of the starving artist, consumed by their passion, surviving on scraps and living in the proverbial garret. The fact is that, as with any profession, there is a mixed economy of artists out there. The pyramid is very broad at the bottom, but the pinnacle is very high. A few artists are extremely wealthy as a result of their art. However, the sides of this art pyramid don’t slope up like the sides of a triangle. Rather they form a concave curve leading to a tall but very narrow peak[2]. (By the way, this isn’t based on hard evidence, but more on my observations throughout a life time spent in the arts.)

Just to clarify: I use the terms ‘artist’ and ‘artists’ to mean anyone who is involved in the creation of the arts, makers such as painters, sculptors, photographers, musicians, composers, actors, playwrights, film makers, dancers and so on. The focus of my thoughts here is on the so called ‘visual’ arts and the contemporary fine arts and crafts. This can also include non-visual forms such as sound art, and ephemeral forms such as live or performance art.

Back to the contemporary fine artists. The reason I want to talk about this group which includes painters, sculptors, photographers, crafts people, etc, is because they are very particular within the group of aspirants. The basic difference is that musicians and actors exist within an economy that has the expectation of a financial transaction. If you go to see a gig or a theatre play you normally expect to buy a ticket or pay some kind of entrance fee. The amounts may not be huge, but there is the possibility that by seeing/experiencing the musician’s or the composer’s, actor’s, playwright’s ‘art’, money has changed hands. Get enough people to come through the doors and you have an economy and an income of sorts. Plenty of artists make a living through these transactions.

Fine artists and crafters are different. The economy of this area of the arts is based on sales. You go to a show, you like the work, you buy the work and take it home. You experience the work for free (often with a free glass of wine in your hand…). No sale, no income. I see the show, I like the work, but I don’t have a spare £100 - £100,000 to spend on art so I don’t make a purchase. And this is presuming the work is saleable in a straightforward manner. Only at the very highest end of this market, in the rarefied world of collectors and dealers can an artist sell artefacts from ephemeral work. Entry by artists to this club is carefully controlled because of supply and demand. The market cannot be flooded with expensive art. There has to be a rarity value for art to be valuable.

You have a large number of fine artists competing to join a very select club

The value of being part of this club is very high, the numbers who are accepted (through genuine talent, through luck, through connections) is very small. This situation is similar to the music industry. Vast numbers of young musicians want to be the next big thing, a pop star with a record deal and mass audiences, but very few make it. However, in the meantime, musicians, like actors, can charge entry to their gigs. If they don’t get their lucky break they may still be able to get enough people through the door to break even and maybe even pay themselves.

Art should not be free

It is deeply problematic to pose this question, but why are national art galleries free to enter and national theatres not? Should entry to all art by dead artists be free, whether it’s by Turner or Picasso, Shakespeare or Pinter, Beethoven or Britten? Conversely, should we pay to see the work of living artists who are working in the economy of today? The Hayward Gallery in London charges entry to its predominantly contemporary shows and hopefully the artists who show there get paid a good fee.

That art should be free to the masses is a well meaning liberal ideal. Of course Joe and Janet public should be able to see ‘great’ art and be illuminated by the artist’s ‘genius’. (Do I sound like a cynic?) The alternative is that access to art is exclusively the preserve of the financially able. I understand the difficulties these questions raise. I am playing the Devil’s advocate. However, the question remains: why are the ‘visual’ arts from the fine art tradition expected to be free to all, and yet we are expected to pay for theatre or concerts?

While artists continue to be prepared to show their work to an audience for free then the majority of them will remain poor

While I am still able to go and see mediocre art at a local library for free then the overall quality of art on public show will remain low. Charge admission and what you show needs to be good. Not every show needs to charge admission. Selling shows can provide an income for the artist. It is the expectation that the art exhibition is a free event that I want to change. Charge for the experience and as a consequence provide an experience that is commensurate with the fee charged.

It is likely that the more experimental forms of art making will continue to rely on some form of public funding to enable them to get made. In brief we need new art to enable art to move forward and reinvent itself, otherwise art becomes stale. We might not always like new art, but it has to exist. Charging an admission fee for any artist showing their work to a public does at least sharpen the mind of the artist and will improve the quality of the work and the manner in which it is shared.

The slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune.. Ray Lee in House Performance Company 1984

[1] Hans Abbing Why are Artists Poor? Amsterdam University Press 2002. The book is interesting and useful, though a bit dry. It reads like it was written for a PhD and probably was and fair enough.

[2] This diagram also holds for other seemingly glamorous, desirable occupations such as pop musician, actor, possibly authors, maybe even professional footballers would fall into this category. A vast pool of aspirants making almost no money, barely a living if that, a smaller number who get by, some who are comfortable and, proportionally, and a tiny few who ‘make it’, earning vast amounts of money creating the magnet that attracts the masses.


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