There’s a recent article about the need for new policies to boost the income of artists in Australia, and the launch of a new campaign. Ben Eltham reports on the…

“deteriorating economic situation for Australian artists” … and says that a “Continued lack of investment in individual artists’ careers here has opened a wide income gap between artists and the administrators at the publicly-funded organizations…”

I suspect that the same gap is widening in the UK too, between increasingly proletarianised creative originators and their middle-class managers. I’d be very interested to see a breakdown of visual arts spending in the UK, one that pinpoints the exact total spending on individual artists in an individual art form, after deducting expenses/tax/materials and the voluntary R&D/publicity labour involved. And to then compare that to the parallel spend on administrators.

What might that sort of calculation look like? Well, no doubt the Treasury back-room boffins have been recently crunching the numbers in a far more elegant and detailed way. But a quick-and-dirty ‘Sunday-morning blogger’ calculation might look something like this…

If we assume the Arts Council England overall spending figure of £367 million in 2004-5 is correct, and we accept the rough Arts & Business figure that says that the visual arts probably receive 7% of spending, then visual arts would be getting around £25m per year. Which is what the Royal Opera House alone gets in annual public subsidy. Yet £25m may be an overestimate, since we know from a submission to a 2005 Parliamentary select committee that…

“The overall spend on visual arts organisations through grants for the arts was £14.1 million”

We might here be generous and assume that perhaps £4m of that £14m actually gets into the pockets of artists (400 x £10,000 commissions per year?) rather than to managers, assistants, consultants, printers, publicists, building rental, and suchlike. And that while an individual may have overheads for materials and publicity, these are largely absorbed by the organisations themselves.

So that’s the trickle-down of cash from organisations to artists (although I’m told the number of such visual arts commissions has generally dropped in recent years). How much cash goes to individuals in direct grants? Well, the Arts Council told Parliament in 2005 that…

“Our [Lottery supported] Grants for the Arts funding 2000-04 has allocated £6 million to 852 grants to individual visual artists for animation, graphic design, new media to fine art, photography, crafts and live arts.”

So that would seem to imply an average of £1.5m being given to 210 visual artists per year in direct grants, averaging around £7,000 each person/project. The phrasing means it’s a little uncertain if Arts Council administration costs were included in their figure of £6m. But let’s be generous and assume that all of the money went into the bank accounts of artists, but let’s also assume that perhaps 30 percent was eaten up in materials costs and sundry R&D expenses that the artist was expected to find from the grant. So that would mean the ‘real’ value of cash grants given to artists totalled around £4.2m for 2000-04 (or £1.05m per year over that period).

Now let’s put those two rough annual figures together — the £1.05m from the individual grants and the £4m a year that might trickle down to artists from organisations — and we get an annual total of just over £5m per year that goes to visual artists and which they get to ‘keep’.

It seems that the £5m is shared between around 500 visual artists, allowing for some overlap between individual Grants For The Arts and commissions by funded organisations. For comparison, Prospects lists 100 postgraduate art & design courses in the UK when Art & Design is filtered by the keyword ‘Fine’. Such courses are presumably pumping over 1000 new visual artists onto the market every year.

Finally, weight that measly £5m ‘pot’ against the effective loss of dole money as a support for young artists, and the crippling weight of student loan debt that has been heaped on their shoulders.

What of Scotland and Wales? The Views of the Future report from the Museum of Wales in 2002 said… “overall spending on the Visual Arts in Wales is 30% below that in England” (which presumably means ‘per head’). A report from Scotland in 2004 claimed… “spending on the visual arts [at £1.2m in 2001-2] has not kept pace with the increase in funding available to the arts as a whole.”

Even if the £5m for England is a roughly correct conclusion (corrections are welcome), then it’s still difficult to sift out an art form and say “x number of photographers get £x amount in ‘real’ income per year in public funding”. But £5m may provide a rough benchmark against which to measure the overall “desk-jockey managers vs. creative originators” balance of visual art funding in England. Given that Arts Council England has recently declared that it will “give priority to the visual arts in future” (if the Council has a future), it’ll be interesting to see who pockets the most cash from that new policy.