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  • Zosia Jo

Who gets to be artists?

Updated: Aug 4

a proposal for a creative recovery from Covid 19- give artists a basic income



The thing about time is, it creates space for ideas, creativity and innovation. Guy Claxton proved this in his book ‘Hare brain, tortoise mind’. When the active, grasping cognitive brain is allowed to switch off, to kick back, the creative brain begins to whir. But people under pressure, people struggling to survive, wondering where the next month’s rent is coming from, people who’s cognitive brains are engaged with the planning and labour involved in being parents or carers, those people struggle to make space for that kind of time. People who have to spend hours, days or sometimes weeks planning projects and applying for funds via complicated forms for money they might not even get do not have that time- that’s if they even have the kind of brain that can access the form and think in that way to begin with. And there-in lies the deep inequality in arts practice. We live in an arts economy that privileges the young, the childless, the wealthy. And Covid 19 made this more true, not less. As Rebecca Solnit said in her recent interview at WOW festival- we are all in the same storm but not in the same boat, some boats are bigger than others, some are sailing alone, some boats have holes in…

I don’t know about you, but as we entered lockdown and I had a bit more time my mind flooded with ideas of how best to use that time. I’d be on a walk or staring out the window and I would think ‘ooh I could make a video about….’ or ‘how about an outdoor dance that people could just encounter…’ or ‘how could I support folks to be more embodied and to dance their way through this nightmare?’ I have never been more keenly aware of my own privilege than in the past few months during the Covid 19 crisis and the current political climate. And new privileges are piling on top of the existing ones. I have always known that I am white, I am middle class, I have familial financial support, I am straight passing (though it’s pride month and I will tell you that I am in fact pansexual). These things I knew, and I was aware of all the benefits they brought with them. Then we entered this surreal new existence and new privileges emerged. I am in a monogamous relationship and we decided to isolate together so I have had access to touch and to emotional support that doesn’t come via a device; I do not have children and my parents are healthy so I have only had to care for myself (most of the time); I have a large living room and good internet connection so I have been able to train and teach which as a dance artist is invaluable; I am familiar with technology and find navigating online systems accessible. I have also been aware more than ever that I have the kind of brain that can write funding applications with ease. NONE of these things make me a better artist. But they do make working in the arts- and arts funding- more accessible to me. I don’t think this situation is right. I want to change it. I want to use the loud voice my privilege has leant me and the time and space I can afford, to have a bash not at equality, but at EQUITY.

The creative sector in Wales has been fundamentally rocked by the corona virus crisis. There is a strong chance that lockdown will return and it is highly unlikely that theatres, studios and performance venues will reopen in the near future. If they do, they won’t be able to function as they did previously for some time. Our sector, already vulnerable prior to recent events, could be the last to recover from this. Unable to gather large groups of people together for the foreseeable future, we simply cannot return to the existing models of raising income for performance. Despite the best of intentions, the sector has still been struggling to instil diversity and accessibility across arts and performance and huge numbers of freelance artists were already on a precipice having to work long hours and struggling to make a stable living. I write from the perspective of a dance artist but many of these issues apply cross art form, as articulated by Dr Susan Jones We simply cannot go back to where we were before, and now is the time to ask ourselves- do we want to? The time is ripe for a radical rethinking of the sector, one that could potentially transform the arts in Wales into the diverse creative ecology it has the potential to become.

The Arts Council of Wales did a great thing recently. They said, we care. They said, we know that the arts and culture sector will not survive unless we act, and they decided to give out emergency funds to support those who need it and then to offer ongoing funds to support the sector to do whatever it needed in order to survive and adapt. In other words, they dropped the requirement of a product driven arts economy and opted instead to support artists themselves. They even said it would be the lightest touch application process ever to make it more accessible. This was a great thing, exactly what was needed. Diolch yn fawr Celf Cymru.

But there is a problem… the Arts Council’s idea of ‘light touch’ is steeped in decades of the old system, the system forged in a capitalist hierarchical wider political climate. The same climate that has always made things difficult for many of the artists that ACW claim they want to engage, because of their class, race, or neurodiversity. I have news for ACW and for anyone who has not applied before- it was not light touch. It is similar in complexity to the last full application I filled out. I am not sure they fully understand how artists think and work, and I think that is where they are going wrong. They have the very best of intentions, but it is simply not working. And they are restricted by the systems they’ve had in place for years that are no longer serving their priorities. I have helped around 10 artists with their funding applications in past few weeks, many of whom have never applied to ACW before and who’ve been massively put off by the form itself and needed a lot of the terminology explaining. Myself, I’ve learnt by trial and error. Between 2012 and 2014 I applied four times with the same project taking on feedback, adjusting, coming back. Many fantastic creatives don’t manage to break through because they don’t have the time, support, or thick skin to do that! Everyone I have spoken to about their Stabilisation grant proposals have had BRILLIANT ideas, wonderful projects full of urgent political messages, insightful artistic vision, and innovative engagement of audiences and the general public. We need artists right now more than ever, and the Arts Council know this. What has struck me is the incredible drive of artists to make and share their work. If only we all had enough time, space, energy and money to bring our ideas to fruition. ACW has wonderful intentions. They want to make their funds accessible, they want artists from diverse backgrounds to be making work and to create sustainable careers, and they want us all to be engaging with our communities. There is a better way.

The English Government’s plan for the arts is vague and lacks investment. Leanne Wood is calling on the Senedd to support the arts as a key element in the recovery of Wales and Mark Drakeford responded warmly. Recently, 110 MPs and Peers across seven parties have signed a joint statement calling on the Chancellor to introduce a recovery Universal Basic Income (UBI) in response to the coronavirus crisis, saying that the Government’s proposed support is not going to be enough to pull the UK through the economic fallout. Wales made history with its appointment of a future generations commissioner and Sophie Howe is advocating for, and researching around Universal Basic Income and visionary ideas as part of her goals for a greener, healthier Wales in the future. Visionary ideas is what artists do. We can support Sophie’s plans for recovery. Wales has an opportunity to become a world leader for arts and culture and utilise the skills of our rich arts sector to find creative solutions for recovery. In France and Belgium, artists are supported financially in between contracts. In Finland artists have a special tax code and can apply for money simply to run their own arts company, with project grants existing separately. Irish artists also benefit from tax breaks.

The Arts Council of Wales have demonstrated a commitment to supporting artists to maintain their creative practice and financial stability with Urgent Response and Stabilisation Grants. Wales is about to receive £59m which is optionally ear marked for arts and culture. There is concern that this will not be spent on the arts, and that what funds do come to the sector will go to supporting buildings and institutions and not freelancers. The Creative Wales Awards and the resulting projects and development of artists have proved the value of trusting process and supporting artists themselves to invest in research. This also allows artists to work better with each other and with communities. As Dr Jones writes, “by supporting artistic experiment and risk, direct funding which has the effect of empowering artists generates equitable relationships with others.”

Now is the time to consider a Basic Income for artists in Wales. It will fix some of the flaws in the current system as well as supporting the sector to respond with resilience and creativity to the current crisis and whatever is to come. It could increase the quality of arts practice in Wales by supporting a more diverse range of people to sustain careers in the arts and allowing for longer term development of projects, organic and authentic relationship building with communities, mutual collaboration and more training and research time. The lockdown period has shown the extent to which artists are willing to work, to create, to respond and to adapt to current conditions. This proposed system would allow this to continue to the benefit of the whole of Wales.

What if all artists had a basic wage? What if we were all paid the same, just enough to live on, and what if we justified these earnings through a portfolio of work at the end of each year instead of proposing it before hand? Suddenly the privilege of having a form-filling brain evaporates and the quality of an artist’s work speaks for itself. I think we would see more work being created, better work, more thoroughly researched and more accessible. Relationships with communities and audiences would be able to grow organically, without the disruption of having to re-fund projects that have begun to nurture connections. The bottle-neck effect (where we don’t work for long periods and then we all work non-stop without a break because it is summer or Christmas, or there has just been an ACW deadline) will be a thing of the past. We will have more diversity. We will value artists equally regardless of their role in a project- why are choreographers more valuable than dancers?? Answer- they’re not, that’s an outdated hierarchy that creates abusive situations. Speaking of abusive situations- gone! Artists would have the power to walk away from project leaders whom they didn’t feel comfortable working with and all directors (even the famous ones) would have to treat everyone in the creative team with equal respect.

Proposed new system:

  • Artists with experience of a year or more in arts practice in Wales receive a basic wage, to reflect part time work in their art form consistently across the year.

  • Artists present a portfolio of work at the end of each year to qualify for inclusion in the scheme the following year. The expectation is that at least one piece of work, or several smaller works, will have been made and that the artist can demonstrate meaningful connection with audiences, participants or the wider community.

  • The Arts Council review artists work based on qualitative reporting and research- not dry figures but community testimonials, film, photographs, attending performances etc

  • Panels made up of artists, audiences/community members and ACW workers to review portfolios/applications.

  • Artists work towards at least one of the government priorities, according to interest and skill set, including Green development / the climate emergency; health and wellbeing, community cohesion diversity and accessibility.

  • Artists expected to hold the necessary child protection policy, safeguarding training and DBS checks.

  • All creatives included in the scheme to allow for collaborative working- technicians, designers, directors, choreographers, performers, visual artists…

  • Portfolio organisations, venues, local authorities, charities, schools and similar to apply to be ‘hosts’ topping up and supporting the basic income for associate artists placed with them. They can help artists with space, resources, to reach communities and audiences and to embed them in the community

  • Artists work with theatres and venues to connect to communities and share their work, without the need to generate huge amounts of ticket revenue and therefore can reach the communities most in need and can work resiliently and flexibly according to current restrictions or freedoms and in response to the needs of the community.

Benefits of the proposed system:

  • More diversity in arts because fewer barriers- therefore more varied and interesting work, more representation.

  • More sustainable working practices for creatives- we will have more balanced lives and therefore produce better quality work, not be under strain

  • More time given to development of projects and therefore better quality work

  • Training, research and planning time and therefore better quality work

  • Longer term and organic relationships to communities and audiences will be generated because connections can be acted on swiftly and artists can follow up without the delay of planning and funding a project

  • Theatres and venues will be under less pressure to financially support artists during their toughest period to date. Work can be generated to support them without need for huge earned income at box office

  • More accessibility for audiences and participants

  • Art and performance work can be created in response to what is possible and this resilient response can be immediate

  • More genuine relationships built between venues, organisations, local authorities and artists

We are in a moment of massive global change and we need to take the opportunity to rebuild this broken arts economy into a fertile, creative ecology, not just for us but for everyone.

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