Andrew Eaton-Lewis: The idea that being an artist isn’t a proper job is not confined to philistines

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THERE’S been much discussion recently about what people in Scotland’s arts world earn.

James Kelman made £15,000 from writing last year, he revealed two weeks ago. On Thursday, The Scotsman reported that most professional visual artists in Scotland earn less than £5,000 a year. At the other end of the scale, Andrew Dixon, Creative Scotland’s chief executive, has just been given a £60,000 pay off after resigning (under a cloud) from his £120,000 job.

I know a few people in the arts world who think this is a scandal – bad management rewarded while artists are underpaid. It is certainly an embarrassment that a novelist of Kelman’s stature earns so little, although not a surprise. Kelman writes books that are defiantly uncommercial, is prickly with the media, and unlike, say, Irvine Welsh, has never had his work adapted for film or TV. He is loved by critics, less so by the public. There’s an argument that Creative Scotland should intervene to support a writer like this, but I’m not sure how well it would go down with, say, the Daily Record, populist sponsor of Creative Scotland’s awards ceremony last week.

The slim wages of Scotland’s visual artists are a concern too, and the comments below the story on the The Scotsman’s website were revealing and depressing. Most had no sympathy with the artists at all. The following is typical: “Artists should produce stuff people want to buy in sufficient numbers to make a living. If they can’t or don’t want to, they should get a proper job.”

The perception that being an artist isn’t a “proper job” is not confined to a few grumbling philistines. A survey by the Musicians Union found 60 per cent of professional musicians worked for free last year. As a musician I can believe this. I have lost count of the number of times I’ve been expected to perform without pay, usually for “the exposure”. Visual artists, actors and writers tell similar stories.

Creative Scotland, in the name of engaging the public with the arts, has encouraged a culture of volunteers, while expecting professionals to live precariously on project funding. Worse, some of our leading arts organisations bask in the achievements of artists they expect to work for free. We are our own worst enemy sometimes.

I spent this year working on a project on which actors, dancers, musicians, writers and filmmakers worked together, and was struck by how different people’s expectations were of what they should be paid. It’s good to see unions speaking up for visual artists and musicians. I’d like to see unions for all artforms pool resources and campaign for a better deal for everyone.

Twitter: @aeatonlewis