Debate: should artists unionise?

Published 19 May 2017

Is an artists’ union necessary? Bob and Roberta Smith RA and David Mach RA share their thoughts. Cast your vote below.

  • Yes...

    With many institutions that support artists under threat, an artists’ union is even more necessary, argues Bob and Roberta Smith RA

    In 2013 I organised the Art Party in Scarborough. It was not a formal political party but more of a grand gathering of concerned artists, teachers and audiences. The idea was to push back against government initiatives such as the English Baccalaureate, or EBacc, a performance measure at GSCE level that diminishes the status of the arts in schools.

    Lots of household-name artists spoke at this gathering. Jeremy Deller told us about how the ceramics room at his school had been a refuge. Cornelia Parker RA told us about how art taught her that play was possible (she had spent a good deal of her childhood working on her parents’ smallholding). The event was a huge success. After the Art Party I stood against the architect of the EBacc, former Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove, in his constituency of Surrey Heath in the 2015 General Election. But I did not stand as an Art Party candidate. I stood as an Independent for the arts.

    Through all this I became aware of a powerful phenomenon in the art world that makes unionising artists an unlikely prospect. Artists are essentially independent beings. All artists are powerful individualists who want to initiate their own activity. Artists do not want to jump on other people’s bandwagons. Herding artists is like herding felines. Give 30 artists a question and you will get 30 different answers.

    There is an artists’ union in England, which was initiated around the same time as I was organising the Art Party. It concerns itself with artists’ rights, as does the Scottish Artists Union, which was established in 2001. Both unions are involved in advocating art in schools and proper pay for the work of artists, who are increasingly caught in precarious working environments.

  • The cultural ecology that has allowed artists their independence is in retreat. If we don’t speak powerfully, they will come for us

    Bob and Roberta Smith RA

  • Historically in the UK the idea of the many speaking with one voice on issues of concern for artists has not been very fruitful. One reason may be that we have powerful institutions that have done that work for us. A network of art schools develops a vibrant and vocal culture. Our regional museums say to people interested in art, “Come in, you are welcome”. The European Union has supported artistic initiatives across the UK.

    But now more than ever is the time to take an artists’ union more seriously. The cultural ecology that has allowed artists their independence is now in retreat. If we don’t speak clearly and powerfully, “next they will come for us”.

    Art around the world is under threat. Blow up the ancient city and you threaten the populace. Imprison the poet, the artist and the curator and you stifle free speech. The fact is that art is an international language, yet as I write, our politicians are taking apart the European Union, even though the UK’s membership of the European Convention on Human Rights strengthens artists’ freedom of speech.

    In last year’s RA Summer Exhibition, Britain’s most democratic celebration of visual creativity, I showed a pair of doors which had written on them, “What unites human beings is huge and wonderful. What divides us is small and mean”. Tragically, Jo Cox MP was murdered that summer. Cox’s rallying call, “We have far more in common with each other than things that divide us”, resonates powerfully with artists. Our commitment is not to nations but to humanity. Let’s speak out about art education in schools, about how for young people the arts foster debate and build independence of mind. Let’s collectively push for the release of the poets Liu Xiaobo in China and Ashraf Fayadh in Saudi Arabia.

    It might seem counter intuitive, but to foster that sense of joyous bag-of-ferrets individualism that we love in our artists, artists need to learn to speak collectively. Sisters, brothers: let’s form a union for creativity.

  • No...

    Artists flourish in the face of adversity, as “can-do” people who stand outside of collectives, says David Mach RA

    I admit to having difficulty thinking rationally about the concept of an artists’ union.

    My Polish father’s first encounter with communism/socialism was to be chained to the back of a tractor and literally dragged off to begin a ten-year hard labour sentence in a Siberian gulag where, among other far more deadly things, he was forced to listen to the camp commandant’s indoctrination sessions, in which he would pontificate on the many benefits of International Socialism.

    My father became a miner in Scotland. He voted for Margaret Thatcher, as many Scots miners would. Sounds implausible but true. They didn’t trust their own union and in our house, nothing red was approved of. Add to that a mother who was sold as a baby in a transaction carried out in a pub – à la Michael Henchard selling his wife and daughter in Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge – to the Glaswegian grandparents I knew. An act of great kindness which left her with quite a set of issues, not the least of which was trust. And add to that my being self-employed and independent and managing quite nicely thank you very much for the best part of 40 years. And take a guess as to what I think about unions.

    We all worried about cuts under Thatcher’s Tory government and felt under threat. She herself was certainly no supporter of the Arts but she did fine artists a favour. We flourished. Not because of her support but in spite of what we thought were her best efforts to do us in. British sculpture thrived in particular under those circumstances, riding high all over the world for a rich two decades, with most of those artists still going strong today.

  • By nature we artists are mavericks, people who want to go it alone because we value our independence

    David Mach RA

  • From that point and in particular in the last two decades, the making of art and the buying and selling of it has changed dramatically, not because we formed unions or were somehow supported or taken care of or given grants (there are none) but because we, as artists, are driven to make things. We are “can-do” people. We have ideas and we produce the goods. By nature we are mavericks, people who want to go it alone because we value our independence and individuality and in a lot of ways need to stand outside or somewhat away from society (ironically I would say this is an accurate description of the RA Membership, a mavericks’ club). And our actions? Well, they have such a huge effect.

    Every time one of us decides to paint or make sculpture or create a new design, material suppliers start rubbing their hands together. Transporters start revving up their trucks. Newspapers and magazines commission their writers, galleries get ready to put on shows, to contact clients, to print invitation cards. Framers order more wood and gold leaf and moulding. Every time an artist makes a move creatively, somebody else is getting ready to make money out of that action. Directors, curators, conservators, archivists: they can all thank us for their jobs.

    We feed into society in a big way. We are a force for that industrial good and boy, we are a big player now. We generate huge amounts of income, millions of pounds, perhaps billions, which now float about waiting for the transporter, framer, gallerist, auction house, private dealer, magazine writer etc. to get his or her cut, with the Government and the VAT man hard on their heels waiting to slice off their chunk.

    We do our bit. If you are an artist working now, give yourself a pat on the back – you are a major contributor to our society, and you did it all as an individual, not as some sort of organised collective, not as a union. Brothers and Sisters, if you ask me, we don’t need one.

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