What I mean when I say I am working as an artist

Personal, Poetry, Politics, Theatre

This is a post written mainly for non-artists, to explain what the hell it is I do with my time and how the money happens and why this is important. But it’s also a process for me to explain this to myself, and so I hope it might be interesting to some other artists too.

What a professional artist is

I write and perform poems, and I make performance/ theatre. Increasingly I site this as “experimental performance” or “live art”, which is industry jargon you probably don’t need to worry about – it basically means that my performance isn’t what you’d usually expect to find in a theatre. I also do quite a bit of organising and programming: I co-founded the spoken word organisation Inky Fingers, which has recently got public funding for the first time, and I co-curate the performance night ANATOMY. This is really working as a “producer” rather than working as an “artist”, but the lines are blurry: organising events is a good way of getting to know the geography of your sector and getting your name out there, to a point, and I also consider hosting or MCing nights an artform in itself. But that’s by the by.

I actually only call myself an artist in certain necessary contexts – when marketing myself and making proposals and bids for funding. I am queasy about identifying with the term, which I’ve written about elsewhere. I usually say “I write poems” or “I make performances” or something, talking about the activity rather than the identity. But let’s go with “I am an artist” for now. And when I say “non-artist”, I mean someone who doesn’t think or talk about themselves as “a professional artist”. Everyone is an artist, obviously.

I finished full-time education in May 2010.  I’m now in my second financial year of being a professional artist – I spent a few months after finishing education a bit lost, as many of us do. I’m what the industry calls an “emerging artist”, which means I haven’t been doing it outside of education for all that long and I rarely get paid. The general idea, currently, is that in a few years I should become a “mid-career artist”, which means I will make just enough from doing and teaching art to not have to have a non-artistic job. (The amount an artist has to work teaching or running workshops varies across artforms – poetry relies on it heavily, while theatre does much less so. Eventually I should become an “established artist”, which means either that I’ve been doing it for bloody ages or if I’m supremely lucky that I’m making pretty good money. Whether or not any of this happens depends on the economy of my sector; there’s much less job security for “mid-career” artists now than there was 20 years ago.

But, for now, an emerging professional. You become a professional artist when:

  • you spend more than half your work hours on making art; or
  • you get at least 1p more money for making your art as you spend on making it; or
  • you start calling yourself a professional because you feel like it; or
  • whatever other criteria you want.

The most telling criteria I’ve come up with is “You know you’re a professional when your art has been stolen or ripped off for the first time.” In any case, I’ve met all of these criteria for at least two years, and the first criteria for much longer.

But what does it mean to spend your time making art?

How my hours break down

Working predominantly as a freelance solo artist, I need to:

  • plan the art;
  • make the art;
  • organise places to put the art; and
  • find ways to finance the art.

These things can happen in any order, and which order they happen in largely depends on whether or not someone’s going to pay me and how much control they want over the product.

On average, each month (counting a month as 4 weeks, and a day as 8 hours), I spend roughly

  • 3 days writing poems;
  • 4 days performing or preparing for performances;
  • 4 days writing and answering emails, or doing general admin;
  • 3 days in meetings and interviews
  • 2 days writing proposals and funding bids;
  • and 2 days planning and running workshops.

This is a fairly conservative estimate of how much time I spend on the “hard work” bit of being an artist. You will note that of the 18 days of hard work each month, only just over a third is spent on what you might think of as the fun bit – or at least the creatively satisfying bit – of making art.

In order to make ends meet, I have a “day job”, or a non-artistic job. I am one of the very lucky few artists whose day job is actually in the arts industry, and who has a satisfying job which uses my training and talents. I work an average of 9 days a month on this.

The quick adders among you will have noted that we’re now on 27 days, which is 3 days over the UK’s maximum working week (48 hours, or six eight-hour days a week). That means that I work well over 8 hours most days, and have very few full days off. Could be worse, as I enjoy most of my work. But those were conservative numbers, and I’ve only included the “hard work”. Making art also involves a lot of “soft work”. To make good art, or at least to make successful art (by mainstream standards success), you’ve got to be constantly actively engaged with the world and the art other people are making. That means that I spend a lot of time

  • reading poetry;
  • watching performances;
  • reading / watching / listening / participating in texts and events about art;
  • pissing about on the internet and other communication and entertainment media; and
  • doing things like writing this blogpost.

I didn’t include this stuff because most non-artists (and probably most artists) are likely to sniff at the idea of it being called work. But I mention it because it is part of what I do, and because if work is, at least in part, the stuff we are obliged to do rather than the stuff we enjoy doing, then the work-attitude, the feeling of being at work, does infect me when I’m reading poetry and watching performances and all that. The flipside of that is that the feeling of being at play, when I’m lucky, infects the enjoyable bit of my “hard work”.

All of which is to say, this is why many artists will consider themselves over-committed over-workers.

How the money works

I’ve made £2723 from my art in this calendar year. There’s two months left, but not much art work coming up in it. That includes running workshops for others, but doesn’t include producing work, not that I made any money from that anyway. This breaks down as:

  • £1000 theatre commission for CLASS ACT
  • £1000 grant from Creative Scotland for This is not a riot
  • £150 for paid poetry performances
  • £355 for running workshops
  • £200 for giving talks
  • £18 from box office splits (I know, right?)

Though this is all personal income, the two big chunks do include the money I spent on making the work (including employing others to help), which was around half in each case.

I may have missed something off, but nothing big.

The majority of that will have come from public funding in one way or another.

I’ll earn around £9500 from my day job in around the same time. (I’ll say again that I am very lucky to have the job that I do, although I wish I didn’t have to say that, because it takes the combined education of two MAs and years of artistic experience to qualify for it.)

The quick adders among you will this time note that I’ll only just clear £12k in one year. This is half the average UK salary for people with 1-4 years experience in their industry. It is also £2-3k short of the Scottish Living Wage, and it might even be shy of the UK Minimum Wage.

How do I live off that? Especially considering I pay £200 a month in debt from my postgrad?

  • I share a room with my partner in a small shared flat. That helps a lot.
  • Our flat splits food bills and eat together. We are very frugal energy-wise.
  • I am also frugal. I spend very little outside of daily expenses, compared to others my age and class.  I don’t take any drugs (other than alcohol and coffee), I don’t drink much alcohol comparatively, I very rarely go on holiday to anywhere other than my parents’ house, I get all my clothes second-hand. I do drink a lot of coffee though
  • Sometimes we get food out of supermarket bins, but more out of principle than need.
  • I don’t have dependants, or any other debts.
  • I have middle-class support structures.

That means I actually have disposable income and a small amount of savings. All my disposable income goes on poetry books, event tickets, games and music, plus occasional nice food out, whisky, and one or two beers a week. I don’t feel particularly short of money.

I’m not putting my finances out in public to ask for pity, and clearly not to brag. I’m putting them out there to explain what it means to decide to be a professional artist.

What does it all mean?

I work, and I work hard, for vastly more hours than I’m paid for. For the very little public money I get for my art, I give a lot back: I organise two major performance projects voluntarily, I give around 20 hours a month as trustee of Forest, a local arts centre, and whenever I do get paid I make jobs for other people. I’m not trying to big myself up – I’m just trying to explain.

I am not doing art because it is easy, nor because it is easy money. I can only be doing it because I love it and because I think it is important.

I, along with other artists, get mind-bendingly furious at the kind of people who comment on articles about arts funding calling us “lazy” and “scroungers”. They have no idea. No idea at all. And I suspect one of the reasons that artists and the industry are really a bit rubbish at explaining what it is their work involves and why it deserves funding is that we’re too damn overworked to take on a major communications campaign.

My finances should look pretty awful to anyone outside the industry. But I do think that my peers mostly have similar balance sheets. I don’t have the feeling that I’m anything unusual. If anything, I suspect I’ve had a little more success than others with my level of experience, though I, like most artists, am constantly berating myself for my failures and for not succeeding faster. In short: I do not feel like my level of work and pay is anything unusual for an emerging artist. I don’t have a good sense from older artists and others in the industry about whether this is a big shift from past decades. I would like to hear from others whether my finances look appalling to them, or whether you too shrug and think that’s just how it is.

It should also be clear that I grab the work when I can, and that I have to be able to manage a lot of projects at once, shift flexibly between them, and be prepared to work strange days and strange hours. I do not have a weekend. This is called “precarious labour” or “cellurisation” or sometimes something else. Artists, or, more horribly, the “creative industries”, have been particular drivers of this economic shift in labour practises. There’s a lot of socioeconomic theory about what it means and I could talk about it for hours, but not here. Bifo’s After the Future and Fibreculture’s Issue 5: Precrious Labour are good places to start reading, and the Precarious Workers’ Brigade is good place to start doing.

I could say that I am only able to do art because I am frugal. But my class comes into it a lot: it helped me to get the education which got me the day job; it supported me while I was a student so I didn’t have to do much bar work, which meant could spend my time practising art and learning a lot of organising skills; it provides a support structure so that I can afford to be financially precarious, or at least so that I can feel like I can. I have much lower barriers to being an artist than the majority of the population.

I said that I’m writing this to explain to you (and myself) what it is I’m doing. But of course I have another agenda. I am very modestly successful, for my career stage, and yet this is how hard I have to work for this little actual employment. This is the basic reality of trying to be a professional artist. We cannot have a healthy arts culture, or a diverse arts culture, or high quality art, without  funding. Without more public funding. (The reasons for why it needs to be public rather than private can wait for another time, or for the comments if you want.) There are more precise, more subtle, and more wide-ranging arguments to be made. But I hope that outlining the basics of my reality adds to them.

2 thoughts on “What I mean when I say I am working as an artist

  1. Your finances are not abnormal; and £2700 is good income for an (emerging) artist, I guess, although I wouldn’t count the grant as a part of income. You are right to feel queasy about calling yourself an artist too, but it’s good you contribute, in terms of giving workshops etc. I would expect most people who are emerging artists to have a day job, day jobs are great and you aren’t bogged down in art all the time, it can make you feel much more real. Jobs, meaningless or otherwise also focus the time you really have. I wouldn’t expect many people under 30 to be FT professional artists, which means if you graduate at 20 or 21, then expect 10 yrs of working, or signing on, or doing what it takes to get your name known and your style established. I too was only ever able to ‘do art’ because I was frugal. It’s problematic that because artists are focused on art, they tend not to be able to get (or don’t want) complex and hence well-paid day jobs. I think you are doing not too bad at all, and that artists really need to prove themselves to society before society starts to repay them financially. Also, you really need to suck up to the right people!

  2. Hi Harry. Just discovered this via your post over on In Battalions. Thanks for sharing this, fascinating to read. As someone nearly 10 years ahead of you, this all sounds very familiar. I’m just intrigued to know what your part-time job is! Sounds like the holy grail – part-time survival money that doesn’t interfere too much with doing your artistic work – I think they should give young artists training in how to find *that* job….

    In my experience, being frugal is fine and something one can keep up forever – but being insecure, constantly pitching and thinking about where the next contract is coming from – that’s the bit that gets wearisome….

    Good luck with everything!

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