Blog: Supporting participatory artists to become economically sustainable

Published: 20 Aug 2018

Author: Susanne Burns
Blog: Supporting participatory artists to become economically sustainable

In mid-September, a year on from the beginning of my Churchill Fellowship travels, I will be heading back to New York to address an international conference of artists about my findings. It’s caused me to reflect on what a totally life-changing experience the Fellowship has been for me.

My project focused on the long-term sustainability of the arts sector. As a self-employed consultant working in this sector, I had become increasingly worried about its lack of stability.

What is often not widely recognised is that artists are largely self-employed portfolio workers – micro-businesses – providing services to organisations, commissioners and public agencies. There are estimated to be more than 250,000 of these artists across the UK, and yet they are largely unsupported and self-sustaining as businesses. The UK is a world leader in artistic innovation, but we have not yet found out how to monetise this innovation and generate greater stability for the artists themselves.

Last Autumn I travelled to the USA and Australia to explore solutions to this problem. I was particularly interested in artists whose work enables others to participate in making art. More and more artists are choosing to work in this way, and this makes it crucial that, as a sector, we address their needs in a collective way.  Their work is often exposed and demanding, working in a wide range of settings including the criminal justice system or the health sector, and yet they are largely unsupported and working outside organisational support structures.

Below: Susanne Burns

Susanne Burns

I learned so much during my travels. It was so valuable to take time out to process the inputs, views and perspectives of others, to truly absorb, listen and most importantly hear patterns, threads and connections.

I remember standing with the team from an inspirational organisation called Heart of Los Angeles (HOLA) on a building site in the Ramparts area of Los Angeles, which will become their new Arts and Recreation Centre, containing classrooms, studios, workshops and a Performance Pavilion. For more than 30 years they have worked in that neighbourhood offering young people access to art and music. Their programme employs significant numbers of artists to work with the young people. It was a lightbulb moment.

Long-term commitments to programmes that embed artists and organisations within communities are key to long-term security and stability, for artists as well as participants. But in the UK, the arts community works within an economy that is dependent on public subsidy, which tends to mitigate against such long-term commitments. This has to change.

Below: Susanne (2nd from left) with the HOLA Team on the building site of their new development in Los Angeles

Susanne with the HOLA Team

Since my return, I have written journal articles, spoken at conferences and presented my findings to public funding agencies. The Fellowship convinced me of the value of greater cross-border exchange and I am working on the development of an international online think tank, which will support this community of interest and practice. The New York conference in September will provide a launch pad for this. The journey is far from over.

Susanne’s Fellowship is supported by The Rank Foundation

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Top photo by Lizgoldner