The Arts Council of Ireland /An Chomhairle Ealaíonn published a useful report and set of guiding principles yesterday, Feb 11th 2020, on the matter of the remuneration of artists. A link to the report can be found at the end of this short essay. This is a set of personal reflections on livelihood, politics, the value of networks and the need to take care of ourselves and one another.
Maybe because they value their lives, nobody has offered to pay me in the currency of ‘exposure’ for a long time. I have been lucky and happy this past two years, (after 8 years of struggle before that), to have had a range of artistic projects on the go, from which I earn a modest living: some self-started (solo shows etc), others by invitation, through tendering or awards won; some funded, some self-sufficient; some vividly exciting, some less exciting – gigs to pay the mortgage etc – but all enriching once I got stuck in.
Next year might be barren again – that’s the way this business can be and it is vital as an individual artist to have strategies to engage with this reality. One is to be active and articulate in the politics of arts investment – read and act upon the National Campaign for the Arts manifesto; read blogs by John O’Brien and others who are proposing solutions as well as pointing out the problems; attend election arts hustings, network meetings of colleagues etc.; hang around afterwards to chat; have no truck with entities who think to engage you without proper payment; learn how to influence parliamentary decision-making; protest … all of these.
And where you might consciously volunteer to work for free or for your base expenses (e.g. in a young cooperative or at a showcase), let it be your call with a clear goal and timeline that you have worked through, and absolute transparency from those engaging or collaborating with you. For instance, I will quite happily take part in a few weeks, for the third time, in the Monaghan Arts Network Showcase, where professional and non-professional artists gather monthly with the public, to listen, share, promote and converse about the value of art in a rural county. I know that arising from this, when I come to present my new James Joyce solo show in September at the Garage Theatre, there will be an informed and keen audience for it. I know too, that – far from the cliché of indifference, there are swathes of people in my stomping grounds of Monaghan, Louth and Fingal (and I am sure many other regions) who care a great deal about art. I derive joy from meeting them and performing with and among them in mutually respectful circumstances – like trad musicians who meet every now and again for a session.
I acknowledge that not every artist can work as I have happily done for most of my career – as a jack-of-all-trades ‘public artist’, equally at ease engaging with communities, dropping in and out of schools, working collaboratively with top professionals on productions, writing my own stuff, performing solo shows and so on. Some phenomenal actors I know and respect will only act, and will act only within professional theatre and film/TV settings; some opera singers will perfect their craft and only sing on the top stages; some composers need to be left alone to compose. Others – some happily, some unhappily – will pursue what visual artist Jesse Jones eloquently described, in her stirring speech at the Arts Council report launch yesterday, as a “side hustle” – a part-time job to keep meals on the table. All are part of the mosaic of Irish artistic and cultural life and should have guaranteed opportunities to thrive, pay the rent and, if they so wish, raise families, while pursuing their art and enriching the nation. Future arts provision, from implementing copyright legislation to direct state investment (call it funding if you prefer) needs to take constant cognisance of this imperative.
The new Arts Council principles are a step in the right direction but only a beginning. They address the days you will be working. That’s a good thing. They don’t – and cannot – solve the bigger issues of livelihood, rent exploitation, the decline in employment protection in the world generally, and so on.
And that leads me to another observation: until the world changes for the better, beyond what seems possible right now – there WILL be times and situations where even the finest artists will be without work, stressed with doubt and fear. I personally know actors and directors of the highest calibre who have not had respectable work opportunities for a long time. The destruction of the independent theatre sector by the Arts Council in 2010 was part of this for many of my best friends; the changing emphasis in the Abbey Theatre has impacted on others; the decline in film production – and so on. So personal strategies to face up to societal and industry changes do matter. This is not to say, “get over it” or “get on with it” – I have railed and protested about the disastrous disinvestment in independent theatre consistently since it occurred. Protest and political action, however, are a slow game; we will not change the world overnight. And so I am inclined to ask, what can we do personally to stay strong? Activism is one strategy: it does create community, if we gather to talk and campaign together. And community is a good thing.
Activism …. and whatever else it takes. In your life, in my life; in your home, in my home. Creative artists need to use their creativity to survive, protect their families and also protect one another, while never losing sight of the imperative to make art nor losing sight of their own immense (if under-valued) place in a functioning society. I am talking here about our mental health; I am talking about information-sharing and solidarity. I have been to dark and low places over the past decade. I did not necessarily advertise the fact at the time: one doesn’t. I had supports, from family, colleagues and mentors. I had my own mantras and philosophies. Like many of my enduring friends, I am still here – and it is going well for me, for now.
If anyone I know – or don’t yet know but maybe should – is on that rock or in that hard place where it is not going so well, I would be delighted any time to chat.
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Read the Arts Council “Paying the Artist” report here