response & rant to Axisweb article/report on Behind the Scenes of the Museum: Artists in Collections

I too attended this symposium and I can relate to much of what Gill Nicol reports online. It’s an excellent report of the day and I’m delighted that Axisweb commission such texts – so many journals no longer pay for articles.

I wrote a lot of notes myself but have not collated any of them yet – Gill’s article has prompted me to reflect a little more on it. In her report she refers to the lack of funding:

“What James [Putnam] did talk about in the Q&A was funding. Prompted by a question about how his projects happen, he painted a rather depressing picture of applying for Arts Council funding – a project with 28 artists costing £30k – and not getting it. And of asking big companies for sponsorship, without much success. He spoke of artists doing the exhibition for free – another zeitgeist moment, what with a-n’s big push around artists’ payment rights, and asking the public to help”. (Gill Nicol)

I have just flicked through my own notes, and the most dominant theme for me was that artists are often not paid at all, or are paid badly. My only bold note with exclamation marks relate to that too. One observation is:

“Status of the artist is way below the ‘serious’ issues relating to ‘collections’. Is this about social value or material value?”

In those notes, I also asked myself a question: “If every object is entitled to a decent life, surely every artist is too?”

The whole event made me feel that the objects are higher in value than the people that make them. It is depressing to feel like this – at a time when it is increasingly acknowledged across the sector that contemporary art can make a valuable contribution to how we understand collections. It also makes me very appreciative of the G4A grant I have received to work with 3 museums in Gloucestershire. Evidently this is not always the case.

Let’s not forget that the artists that made the items in historical collections were once ‘contemporary’ artists themselves. What is new today will be the auctioneers profitable business tomorrow. Living artists are as important to us as are those who died many years ago and whose work we all treasure.

I understand that every sector is being squeezed and struggling to survive – galleries, theatres and museums will close down, many people have been, and will be, made redundant. But please let’s not slip into colleague cannibalism – we may be forced to work long hours and for less money, but let’s not fight over scraps and expect to get others to work for nothing to protect our own position. We must stick up for each other’s right to be paid for the work we do. When I hear that paid gallery stewards have been made redundant and replaced by volunteers it not only makes me sad, it makes me very angry.

Would any other professional contribute their services for free because they understand that the ’employer’ is not making much profit at the moment? Would that be acceptable in law, medicine, teaching, a supermarket?

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