Ideas That Unify Us, 2017.

Ideas That Unify Us (ITUU) is the culmination of 7 months research, conversation, contributed cross-stitched views and ideas, design and production. The project and subsequent artwork aims to respond to Re-Rooted live and media arts festival as well the creative arts sector as a whole. Hopefully it will act as some record of the current climate in the arts and spark future discussion and debate.

Our starting point for ITUU was trade union banners and why, until recently, visual artists have not unionised themselves in the same way as the performing arts or other creative industries. The People’s History Museum in Manchester is a great source of information about the beginnings of trade unions in the UK and specialises in union banners, holding largest collection of trade union and political banners in the world and an in house conservation department.

Re-Rooted live and media arts festival took place at the Humber Street Gallery, Hull from 24-26 March to reflect on the legacy of Hull Time Based Arts and Running Out of Time (Root) Festival. During the festival we distributed small cross-stitch packs to all the delegates, asking them for stitched responses to the festival, the ideas that unify us and the things we should stand up for and be proud of as artists. The responses can be seen further down this page and on Instagram using #IdeasThatUnifyUs.

The artwork takes the form of a trade union banner and we have used historic iconography used across many union banners. The hexagon pattern represents artist activity, referencing the beehive that symbolises Industry and Cooperation of the workforce. The predominant colour red represents Courage and Labour. The white cubes represent public galleries and institutions that rest on the shoulders of artists and artistic activity. Other symbols have been taken from the cross-stitched contributions.

ITUU was commissioned by The Yorkshire Visual Arts Network (YVAN) and was first presented at Nourish 2017 as part of Hull 2017 UK City of Culture.

A special thanks goes to all the individuals who contributed their cross-stitched ideas.

#IdeasThatUnifyUs 

In 2016 figures were published revealing that the UK’s creative industries contribute £84.1 billion net a year to the UK economy, generating nearly £9.6 million per hour and accounting for 1 in 11 jobs. The industry grew by 8.9% in 2014; almost double the UK economy as a whole. It’s hard to discredit the industry’s importance to our economy and that’s just one side of its contribution. In an article titled ‘Creative industries are key to UK economy’ John Kampfner wrote:

“Which other sector can do all of the following – help improve social mobility, help repair societal rifts, drive exports, grow the economy and define the UK internationally?”

With the government’s constant refusal to understand the link between arts education and economic success it endeavours to slash creativity from education, the devastating impact of which we may not see for a generation. In a changing world creative outlook is increasingly important, teaching future generations the importance of diverse perspectives and adaptability is the only way to prepare them for a future none of us may recognise with a job market we can’t imagine.

As the arts have been discouraged and withdrawn from education, public arts funding and resource has reduced. With smaller pots of money cultural organisations are also under more pressure from funders and central government to quantify their worth, to prove the economic and social benefits of their activity in numbers and pie charts. Despite this the organisations have continued to flourish, delivering progressive educational arts programs, socially engaged projects, seeking out new and better ways to reach audiences and engage them in the arts. But how are these organisations still flourishing? Who is really supporting them and holding them up?

Perhaps it comes down to forward thinking directors and employees; finding new funding avenues, seeking sponsorship and partnership agreements to achieve bigger and better outcomes and audience numbers. A capitalist structure where only growth will secure or increase your funding at the cost of other, less shiny, organisations. Ultimately the delivery of this ever-growing activity comes down to the artists, who are often underpaid and under supported. The artists bear the responsibility of researching and producing new work fit for sparkling reviews, delivering meaningful workshops and community engagement often without formal training, all whilst being at the end of the funding food chain and usually the last person invited to the decision making table.

This is not to undermine the roles of all those employed within the arts, the problem is the disparity in earnings between them and artists as well as the fact that artists are not helping make decisions. Scrolling the Arts Council England arts jobs listings shows starting salaries for administrative and technical roles at publically funded organisations at £16,000 whilst salaries for directors start from £30,000 per annum. Comparing these figures to the figure of £10,000 per annum that represents the average earnings of an artist is alarming. It shows how the artists creating the art are valued significantly lower than the people who mediate the art for public consumption.

There are few cultural organisations that would expect free labour from a plumber when a pipe unexpectedly bursts but are happy to spend months researching, fundraising, and planning an exhibition in which the artists involved are not paid a fee. It’s becoming commonplace and expected that the reward to the artists is the public exposure and the chance of a future paid opportunity. When a fee is involved the artists will normally work so many hours on the project that they then fall below the minimum wage and will usually be asked for additional material (contextual text, social media promotion, blog posts, etc) from the organisation with no talk of any additional money. Expectation is always far higher than the pay on offer. This points no fingers; it’s an industry wide problem. The very organisations that are in place to help support and nurture the core of our creative industry are the first people to ask for a favour, ask you for just a bit more and let you know its worth it. Unfortunately the figures show the exposure is not worth it.

The creative industries have professionalised over the past 20+ years and being an artist is no longer seen as a hobby but as a profession alongside being an architect or graphic designer but artists are still forced to subsidise their practice through other financial means. For anyone who has ever had a period of unemployment or financial uncertainty you might remember the feeling of dread and worry hanging over you. Well often for an artist on a low income this is a permanent state of being that one must learn to live with. If the gap continues to grow between the pay of the artists and the pay of the mediators then all the artists will either produce work in private or become the mediators. Artists can and have existed before cultural organisations, now it’s as though the organisations are seeing if they can exist without the artists.

There is now a trade union for visual, applied and socially engaged artists, Artists’ Union England www.artistsunionengland.org.uk

Also see; www.payingartists.org.uk