My essential reads: Artists’ livelihoods

< Back to search

My essential reads: Artists’ livelihoods

A performance group called "Without Walls" performs “Belly of the Whale”. They are stood on top of a seesaw-like sculpture in front of Wakefield Cathedral at Wakefield Council’s Seaside in the City.
© Wakefield Council (Photo by Andy Hardwick))

By Dr Susan Jones


What do we know about artists’ social and economic status? And why should this matter to the cultural sector and our wider society? 

In the Centre’s research digest exploring the role of the artist in society, we highlight how artists are in a rare position to illuminate and reframe the challenges facing humanity for other disciplines, industries, policymakers and the public. They can make us think differently about the world and ourselves, see alternate points of view and find new solutions and joy. 

Yet, the evidence also shows how current funding structures privilege those with the financial, social and educational means to withstand the structural uncertainty of working in the cultural sector. This precarious work often involves juggling a portfolio of temporary, freelance and part-time work.  

The existing system excludes many people from even imagining a career as an artist. We, therefore, miss out on a multitude of creative responses and perspectives.  

In this article, independent arts researcher Susan Jones spotlights seven must-reads for anyone wanting to delve deeper into the key debates around artists’ practices and livelihoods and understand how to build a more equitable and diverse sector.  


Advocating for artists' value to society is a passion I've held through my life's journey, first as an artist and then as an arts organiser until a decade ago. I've pursued it through doctoral study and in my role as an independent arts researcher.  

The basis for artists' livelihoods is holding agency and capacity to create and capitalise on their economic and social assets. However, the eternal struggle between the intrinsic motivations driving art practices and the “small business” expectations attached to self-employment status is the root cause of their precarious situation.  

This baseline friction creates a social and economic disadvantage that's amplified when artists' practices come face-to-face with the “trickle-down” economic regimes that govern arts organisations, as these struggle to “make ends meet” with funders' higher expectations despite squeezed budgets.  

My essential reads 

1. Structurally F*ucked 

By Industria, with contributions from Lola Olufemi, Juliet Jacques and Jack Ky Tan, published a-n The Artists Information Company (2023).

I have picked this report because it provides a useful overview of artists' economic status and has first-hand accounts of the precarious working conditions for artists. Based on Artists’ Leaks data provided anonymously during the pandemic, this study reconfirms that artists’ living standards and career prospects are severely affected by “world shocks”, just as they were by the economic recession and austerity after 2008.  

The report concludes with calls for artists to speak out about poor terms and conditions and for publicly funded institutions to do better by artists through even-handed contracts and fair pay. 

2. Creating value in place. The role, contribution and challenges of creative freelance work

By Henry, N., Barker, V., Sissons, P., Broughton, K., Dickinson, P., Lazell, J., and Angus, T. (2021) Coventry University, funded by the Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre (PEC). 

This report helps deepen understanding of the diversity of artists' intentions and approaches. It highlights how the sheer variety can make it difficult to capture the value created by cultural workers and looks at ways to forge an open, equitable and inclusive arts environment.  

The report challenges the assumption often evident in policy that artists just need better training to succeed. Instead, it evidences that individuals who are more entrepreneurial – the best at “being self-employed”, well-versed in application writing and so on – are most likely to depart the arts for more stable livelihoods elsewhere.  

The paper ends by laying out areas where policymakers can do more to support creative freelancers in an ever-changing labour market. These suggestions include designing better systems for freelancers to negotiate and manage contracts.  

3. Paying artists: Phase 2 findings by DHA 

Commissioned by a-n The Artists Information Company (2013).

Although a decade old, this study within a-n’s Paying Artists Campaign highlights that the disjunction in ambitions and lack of common purpose between arts organisations and artists is structural rather than financial. Drawing on in-depth interviews, it indicates that increasing funding to institutions is not the solution to creating the necessary change in artists’ economic conditions.  

The study found it rare for galleries to have a written exhibitions policy or formalised frameworks for contracting and paying exhibiting artists. Improving artists’ fees wasn’t a priority for curators. Instead, their preference for additional funding was to generate additional activities such as audience engagement, interpretation and learning activity that would contribute to funders’ performance indicators.  

4. From ‘Great Expectations’ to ‘Hard Times’: A Longitudinal Study of Creative Graduate New Ventures 

By Hanage, R., Scott, J. and Davies, M. (2016) published in International Journal of Entrepreneurial Behavior and Research, 22 (1). pp. 17-38. ISSN 1355-2554.  

This study is one of the few longitudinal qualitative studies looking at artists’ livelihoods. It uniquely evidences the reality gap between policy assumptions about supportive infrastructures for creative individuals and new creative graduates’ lives and career progression.  

Policy and its delivery agents commonly “talk up” the successes, but here we get to understand how little individuals are in control of their artistic futures and the underlying causes and consequences of failure. 

5. Pivotal moments in artistic practice by Sonya Dyer 

Published as an essay by a-n The Artists Information Company (2019) as an extract from the book commissioned and published by Space Studios. 

Sonya Dyer’s essay is an important contribution to debates on artists’ livelihoods because it identifies the tendency of funders and arts organisations to pay disproportionate attention to artists at the emerging stage of their career. In contrast, those at the “less sexy” and far more complicated mid-stage are often overlooked, yet these groups are often in need of support.  

Acknowledging that females dominate among visual arts practitioners, Dyer considers the impact of parenthood and caring responsibilities on sustaining careers over a lifecycle. Under such circumstances, she asks how individuals from economically disadvantaged backgrounds can contemplate working as a professional visual artist “in the shadow of a lifetime of precarity”. 

6. Care fuelled leadership by Lucy Wright 

Published by Axis (2023). 

This artist’s perspective highlights that however hard artists may work to develop and make a living, they often feel like outsiders, unwelcome and unheard in their own sector. Wright’s descriptor of a “Hunger Games” scenario of scarce resourcing for individual artists encapsulates how continually pitching for –  and failing to get – competitively offered opportunities and funding diminishes artists’ well-being and livelihood prospects.  

7. Getting paid by Emily Speed  

Published on 2009-2014.

When running an arts organisation, my understanding of what it was like to be an artist on a day-by-day, week-by-week basis was considerably enhanced by reading the artists’ blogs on a-n The Artists Information Company’s site. It was Emily Speed's Getting Paid blog that had the greatest impact on me, as reading each of her posts was a revelation.  

I couldn't fail to realise how hard artists had to work even to “stand still”, and that the impact of the 2008 economic recession was considerably worse for individual artists than for publicly funded arts organisations and their employees. The pressing need to explain why - just like all other professionals working in the arts - artists needed proper payment from galleries and exhibition organisers, was a key driver for the Paying Artists campaign. 


My intention in producing this brief, personalised selection of free-to-access resources relating to artists’ practices and their (lack of) economic and social status is to identify the gulf in perspective, knowledge and expectations between those who hold the power – the public funders and ‘hard’ infrastructure of funded organisations – and the individuals conceiving and making creative work. Alongside some significant research illustrating the baseline relational faults, there are examples of artists’ own voices which provide a route to understanding why supporting artists to be artists matters to society.  

To better understand artists’ impacts, I believe that future research should rely less on annual surveys and measurement of predetermined performance indicators, and instead use more open-minded, qualitative and longitudinal approaches.  

If an equitable and inclusive arts ecology is the goal, the tendency to conceptualise visual artists as a homogenous glut who are ever adaptable and readily available to provide visual stimulation and innovation should be abandoned. Instead, artists should be integral to policymaking so that funding structures and priorities are radically reimagined in the creation of a vibrant and just society.  

About the author

Dr Susan Jones is an independent arts researcher working across creative industries and academia. Her doctorate and studies since have qualitatively examined artists’ social realities in relation to arts infrastructures, with writing published in Art Monthly, Arts Professional, Art Review, Corridor 8, Cultural Trends, Double Negative, The Guardian, a-n The Artists Information Company and Axis. The ‘impossible arts infrastructure’ is the topic for podcasts for Art Monthly and MIAAW.  

Published: 2024
Resource type: Essential reads