If I were the Minister for Culture….This is what I’d Do…

This second stage of the analysis looked at the answers to  the second question : “If you could change three things about the conditions under which you work tomorrow, what would they be? ”

94 people responded to the questionnaire, which should give 282 separate comments. However, some people made less than three comments/suggestions and there were three comments that did not seem to relate to the question. So in total I identified 260 discrete comments.

I identified recurring ideas and experiences, and then grouped them under thematic headings.  At the most basic level we can now see the number of times each idea occurred, and that gives a sense of the relative importance of each theme.  So we can now say what area of policy action is of most importance to people actually working in the arts/culture sector.

To be honest – I was really surprised!

The recurring themes were:

Environment:  comments/recommendations about the wider context of the arts sector, ranging from housing policy to school curricula, from child care to insurance, copyright, legislation and regulation.

Funding:  ranging from calls for topping the EU arts funding level to rescue packages, from sponsorship supports to multi -annual funding. All ideas to increase the amount of available funding  in the sector.

Respect: all references to the lack of respect experienced, ranging from a complete lack of understanding of what is involved in artistic work on the part of the government, the funding agencies, welfare, the media and the general public, to issues with self and mutual respect

Income: the experience of poverty  and income related issues, double jobbing, the inability to plan for the future, financial anxiety, false-self employment etc. inclusing suggestions for  welfare supports, pay scales, basic income requirements.

Access and Exclusion:   references to feeling excluded from the sources of money by  what is perceived as a bloated bureaucracy, questionable funding criteria and assessment processes; issues of race and gender; the lack of access to decision making power at a policy level, and in general not being trusted or listened to.

Definitions:  the need for change in policy and funding definitions; outdated notions of art and art form categories and the related need for change in funding priorities and practices around artforms and elegibility.

Places:  the need for places to make, show, and perform work.

What was remarkable about this stage of the analysis is that it suggests that the politicians, the agencies and the representative organisations are all focusing on the wrong policy priorities.

The following chart gives an indication of the relative importance each theme, of what is on people’s mind and agendas:

The Top Three priorities (in terms of frequency ) are:

  • Access and Exclusion (19.23%)
  • Respect (18.85%),
  • Income (18.85%)

Together these three themes account for 56.93% of all comments between them.

There are many ways we could interpret this, but at the most fundamental it captures an experience of being marginalised and excluded. The experience captured in this survey suggests that artistic work  is not considered work, artists are not listened to, they are ignored by public, policy makers and media, they are treated with suspicion and contempt by both welfare and revenue, and they are placed in increasingly precarious situations,  and subjected to pointless form filling and box ticking exercises as they  strain to meet the requirements of agencies rather than vice versa. In tandem with this experience they are told that the  product of their work is essential to national well-being, to international “soft power”, tourism etc.

What is the source of this disrespect, this experience of institutional contempt for artists?

I propose that the expressed  need for income protection and stability captured in this survey holds the answer.  The fundamental policy problem (and policy challenge)  is that we have a market for the output of artists (people buy books and artworks, tickets etc, funders fund organisations or projects) but there is no functioning market for  labour. There are no “jobs” for artists and consequently no “employers” and so the work. the labour, is rendered invisible.   This is why the €1 million rescue package from the department offered “grants” that were for the finished work but not for the labour required to produce that work.  Its a problem that  is very similar to domestic labour and caring. It is not work because nobody will employ you to do it. As Donald Clarke once remarked “you don’t see ads in the Irish Times saying ‘Wanted: Novelists. Magical Realists need not apply!”

What this data suggests is that the principal policy problem in the arts and culture sector is not Funding (which is for organisations and projects, and accounted for 11.15% of all responses) – it is the absence of personal income driven by the absence of an effective labour market for people who work in the arts and culture sector.  The problem this creates is that artists must work and take the chance that they can sell the product of the work. However, because the labour is invisible this creates a follow on problem: the price for the finished product does not to include the cost of labour. The art object appears on the market as if by magic.

Interestingly this separation of labour from the product of the labour is a creeping phenomenon across many sectors. Deliveroo, Uber, Amazon Warehouse workers, academics (increasingly) and many others. The increasing  separation of labour from the output of labour is in danger of making the cost of labour invisible.

Funding by its very nature is payment for the product of labour, it is output focused and project based.  Increases in funding – as we currently understand it – will create more outputs, but it will not address the fundamental problem of the absence of an effective labour market for those who work in the arts sector.  The absence of a market for labour identifies the arts and culture sector as an extractive economy – everybody has to work all the time to produce stuff but there are no structured rewards for the work (so the price of labour is close to zero) only occasional rewards for some of the stuff,  which can then become priceless at a later point in the value chain.

The  sector is built on the structural exploitation of the people labouring in the sector, with the price of labour kept very close to zero.  It is this systematic exploitation that creates the experience and practice  of disrespect.

So, the next Minister for Culture needs to recognise that  the key policy action is the creation of an effective, regulated market for labour,  that guarantees an income stability for all people working in the sector.  Taking this action will require respect – and a great deal of courage and imagination.

Interestingly the next biggest theme after Access, Respect and Income, was Environment. This is about the wider context of the arts sector, and is clearly related to the top three, particularly Respect. This contains calls for rent control, affordable housing, single tier health care, childcare, copyright enforcement, changes to education policy and others. From a policy point of view none of the identified changes require increases in Funding. They do require a very different political vision of society and citizens rights.

These observations on the first pass at thematic coding require additional analysis and I will produce a third and final blog on this.  At this point what this data seems to suggest is that the Funding argument is a distraction. The key policy action is to design a mechanism to create an effective labour market for people working in the arts and culture sector. This involves consideration of ending false self employment, reforms to the taxation of people in the sector, effective access to welfare, and some form of basic income. The second action is to  reform  the housing and property market and healthcare.

Funding as it is currently understood cannot address the issues of Respect, Access and Income, and it is possible that the current design of funding tools serves to perpetuate the situation in which the work becomes invisible, driving the cost of labour down to zero.





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