This piece is part of a weekly series of articles curated by Voluntary Arts and authored by cultural thinkers and doers. The series will be published between November 2017 and March 2018. It is being shaped in response to the emerging practice of cultural commoning and as a way of articulating ideas that have arisen in conversations about Our Cultural Commons over the past two years across the UK and Republic of Ireland.

Our intention is that the series will help make visible the cultural commons in action and will encourage new approaches to sustaining creative cultural activity in local places. And we hope that the articles and the conversation they stimulate will contribute to the forming of ever more enabling cultural policy.

As a freelance consultant, working on social investment and social enterprise, my interests are focused on the sustainability of the arts sector and the livelihoods of those working and volunteering in the arts. “Cultural commoning happens when people come together through personal choice to initiate and grow creative activity and practices through participative and collaborative approaches. It acknowledges the abundance we have around us and offers a pragmatic and complementary approach to sustaining the means of cultural creation in local places.” [1] Noting the reference here to abundance, my question relates to the funding of this creative activity and those who engage in it.

entrance ticketIn November 2016, Arts & Business NI and Building Change Trust published a report [2] of research, conducted by Margaret Bolton and me, into financing of the arts. The overall impression conveyed by our report is of a sector that has been and is continuing to be ‘hollowed out’. A proportion of arts organisations had, with regret, laid off staff and volunteers, while others have sought to increase the involvement of volunteers. Some organisations reported that they have been forced to reduce marketing budgets and were concerned about the likely effects on audiences. Others indicated that they had been forced to reduce the time spent on fund-raising, or that they had reduced spending on building maintenance.

Arts organisations in Northern Ireland recognise that highly creative and skilled staff and volunteers are their most important asset. However, some of the organisations that we spoke to expressed concern about retention of staff due to very low salary levels and pay freezes that have lasted many years. A few organisations referred to being unable, or finding it very difficult, to contribute towards pensions. One mentioned a staff member who is paid for part-time hours but works full-time; another referred to a need to work evenings and weekends to keep the organisation afloat. One organisation commented that the organisation had cut its fees to artists. The impression given is that both staff and artists are subsidising organisations and masking the real cost of arts provision.

art galleryThat experience is shared throughout the sector. The Guardian [3] reported in 2015, that, contrary to public expectation, most UK galleries do not pay exhibiting artists. In the past three years, 71% of artists received no fee for their contributions to publicly-funded exhibitions. And this widespread practice of non-payment is actually stopping artists from accepting offers from galleries, with 63% forced to reject gallery offers because they can't afford to work for nothing.

The Musicians Union [4] reports that earnings for musicians are low. Income levels compare unfavourably to other professionals who have invested similar amounts of time and money into education and training. Of the musicians surveyed, 56% earn less than £20k and 60% report working for free in the past 12 months. Pension provision is poor compared to that made for employees in other sectors, and even by other self-employed workers in the wider labour market. Whereas 22% of employees and 29% of self-employed workers in the wider labour market have no independent pension provision, this rises to 65% for musicians.

A study, conducted by Queen Mary College, University of London [5], showed just one in ten authors can afford to earn a living from writing alone - a drop from 40% a decade ago. A typical professional writer, the study found, earned just £11,000 annually - less than the minimum wage. In real terms, the average earnings of authors are down 8% since 2005, according to the report commissioned by the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society. In the year in question (2013), 17% of all writers did not earn any money, despite 98% having had work published during the previous 3 years. Also, women were found to earn on average just 80% of the income of their male counterparts.

stack of booksSo, my core question is: If creative cultural outputs are to be shared for free, who is going to pay for this and who benefits? Public funding of the arts in NI and Britain has already been cut and is about to be reduced even further. And private sector sponsorship tends to be drawn to the larger and prestigious arts organisations.

Will cultural commoning result in the arts becoming the preserve of those academics and public-sector workers paid to support volunteers with the free time to contribute and no need to earn further income? Will arts activity be further concentrated in wealthier areas, that have the facilities and resources to host it? I recognise that much of our cultural commons has been laid down over generations. If we want to preserve, maintain and share that heritage, that will cost time, effort, expertise and money to do so. Charitable trusts, community funding, crowd-funding and volunteer contributions can all help. However, my worry is that public funders may see the exploration of the concepts and practices of cultural commoning as an invitation not to pay artists for their creations and creativity.

In a forthcoming report, A Blueprint for the Future: Supporting arts and cultural organisations in Northern Ireland to become more financially resilient, Margaret Bolton and I map out a programme of support for small and medium-sized arts organisations in Northern Ireland, that builds on capitalisation work by Creative Trust/Working Capital for the Arts (Toronto, Canada). If participating organisations manage, through their own efforts, to reduce their deficits or increase their surpluses, the programme will match-fund by investing in their financial capital. Financially fragile organisations find it challenging to survive, never mind thrive and innovate. By strengthening their capital base, the programme will help to give our arts sector the breathing space to fly.

Niamh Goggin,
Small Change (NI) Ltd.

Niamh GogginNiamh Goggin has worked in social enterprise, social investment and community economic development in the UK, Central America and Europe since 1991. She currently works with Big Local, providing social investment and community economic development support for 150 areas across England; is Expert Advisor to Barclays Credit Union Support Programme and is developing a capitalisation strategy for arts organisations in Northern Ireland. She is a trustee of the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland and of UK Community Foundations and a member of the Steering Group for Fair by Design; Tackling the Poverty Premium, with Joseph Rowntree Trust and Big Society Capital. She lives in rural peace and quiet (except for the slurry spraying) outside Castlewellan.

After a brief break, on Wednesday 7 March, we'll feature Peter Doran of Queens University Belfast considering how mindfulness relates to ideas of commoning.

1. Why Cultural Commoning Matters, Kevin Murphy and Denis Stewart,
2. Socially Investing in the Arts, Bolton, Margaret and Goggin, Niamh

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