As part of AirSpace Gallery’s 10 year anniversary of Artist-Led activity celebrations, Paying Artist Campaign Project Manager Julie McCalden attended a Soup Kitchen with representatives from key artist-led organisations to discuss the present situation of, and future for, artist-led activity in the UK.

Coinciding with AirSpace Gallery’s anniversary exhibition DECAPOD, this edition of the Soup Kitchen was an opportunity to discuss the challenges facing artist-led projects.

I had been invited to talk about the Paying Artist campaign and four artist-led projects, operating with different models and objectives, provided an overview of the breadth and diversity of the sector.

Funding was the biggest issue affecting the groups. AirSpace Gallery, FIVE YEARS, Islington Mill and The Newbridge Project all had different funding structures with mixed income streams; self-funding, earned income from studio rents or membership fees and grants from funding bodies. None of the projects was secure, facing problems from business rates to eviction and, as anyone who’s been involved in artist-led activity will know, the organisers themselves are not always paid for their work.

Much of the conversation, over soup, focused on fair pay for artists and the many associated issues in the artist-led sphere.

As artists themselves, it won’t come as a surprise that artist-led projects have the best intentions and many of the best practices when it comes to paying artists. With their fluctuating incomes and the challenges they face in terms of insecurity and sustainability, paying artists, like paying the organisers, is something that can’t always be realised.

But the value of the artist-led sector and the role this type of activity plays in contributing to a healthy arts ecology should not be underestimated.

Arts organisations and artist-led projects operate in different but overlapping spheres. With a limited number of exhibition opportunities available through organisations and their tendency to programme artists who are already exhibited by other organisations, it’s no wonder artists often opt for the DIY approach.

The artist-led sphere is where the majority of artists are nurtured. It’s here where artists will more commonly find opportunities and support networks, professional development, the space to show their work and the increased visibility that comes with all these platforms have to offer. Artists often view the artist-led as a destination in its own right and the more experimental and vibrant place to be.

Often operating in a gift economy, artists and projects in the artist-led trade in labour, skills, knowledge, equipment or other opportunities and benefits.

While these types of exchange were deemed valid for these projects, they were not felt to be appropriate for funded organisations where employees are salaried and exhibition fees could be properly budgeted for.

Speaking about the event AirSpace Co-Director Anna Frances commented “The Artist Soup Kitchen is an ideal platform to bring together artist led organisations from across the UK to discuss the impact that the Paying Artist Campaign has on organisations like ours. As artists ourselves” she continued “we at AirSpace Gallery are completely on board with the campaign and keen to deepen the understanding of what artists do, and how this should be valued. The event was a great opportunity to hear from The Paying Artist Campaign about developments in relation to small to medium arts organisations and what came through really strongly was that through much of the research already undertaken, it is organisations like ours that are really doing a good job of supporting artists; the question of how to continue to do that with shrinking funding opportunities is one to return to. The event really showed the need for more focus in this area.”

Exhibition Fees in the Artist-Led

The Paying Artists Campaign’s Exhibition Fees Framework is due to be published this summer following consultation with the sector on our draft which launched earlier this year. The framework, which shows exhibition fees for solo shows and group shows taking place in small to large-scale organisations, is due to be implemented by the publicly-funded sector over the coming years.

For artist-led projects it will contain a set of principles around artists pay as well as best practice advice and suggested exhibition fees to include when applying for funding.

About the Soup Kitchen

AirSpace’s Soup Kitchen’s are a series of events promoting discussion and engagement in a convivial setting to enhance critical discourse in the contemporary visual arts. With over 20 Soup Kitchens under their belts and a recipe book due out later in the year these popular sessions succeed at both fostering dialogue and providing exhibiting artists and speakers with invaluable feedback.

The Soup Kitchen was attended by Anna Francis, Andrew Branscombe, David Bethell and Liz McAndrew, AirSpace Gallery; Charlotte Gregory, The Newbridge Project; Stina Puotinen, Islington Mill; Mia Taylor, Marc Hulson and Edward Dorrian, FIVE YEARS; Emilia Telese, artist and independent researcher; Julie McCalden, Paying Artists Campaign.

There was also an absent presentation in the form of a publication The Nomadic Studio and postcards – Archives of the Artist Led by Michael Heilgemeir.


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Photo: The Artist-Led – Then, Now and Next at AirSpace Gallery, 2 April 2016