Show Business: Let's Talk About Money in the Arts
Written for BLOUIN ARTINFO UK
We need to talk about money. Bryony Kimmings (a talented and popular performance artist) has broken the silence that surrounds the question of money in the arts, particularly within the theatre industry. In a recent blog, Kimmings discussed the fraught business relationship between artists and venues. It was an important and provocative piece but perhaps the biggest shock of all was Kimmings’ willingness to discuss her salary. It has started a conversation, which has been muted for far too long.
In many industries, it only takes a few glasses of wine before people start mouthing off about their salaries. But in the arts, the issue of salaries is shrouded in secrecy. As critic Catherine Lovecommented in her blog: ‘Kimmings, meanwhile, has started a genuine conversation about money – something we’re all reluctant to discuss.’ Andy Field (an artist and curator) backs up this idea in his blog, when he writes that he is ‘trying to create a paradigm shift in how everyone talks about the money they currently earn.’ That paradigm shift would be any discussion at all. At the moment, there’s just silence.
This reluctance to connect the arts with the idea of money, salary and serious vocational potential begins, for many, at University. When I was an English student (and let’s face it – this is where a large number of arts practitioners begin), my career options were not discussed. Our degrees were considered strangely irrelevant to our subsequent vocations, as if those three years spent studying English or Drama were an end in themselves; interesting but completely removed from our eventual careers. Unlike the Medicine or Law students, I was not encouraged to take up work experience or begin making contacts. I was studying English for heaven’s sake; my career could wait.
This precarious link between the arts and jobs world persists after graduation. Unpaid internships and (very) low paid first jobs are endemic in the arts. For those first few years, a career in the arts can feel more like a hobby that a serious career choice. The underlying implication is that you should consider yourself lucky to be working in the arts at all. The notion that we should be grateful for any employment, no matter how poorly paid, starts to take hold. It is an attitude that is hard to shake off.
Indeed, many people working in the arts have no desire to shed this attitude. Some theatre practitioners consider their low salaries to be a point of pride. It is seen as a badge of honour, as if a low salary somehow equates to greater artistic integrity. In some cases this might be true: artists who refuse to compromise their shows in favour of jumping through funding hoops will inevitably earn less. But the idea that a lower salary equates to higher artistic principles is a dangerous and devaluing one.
In response to Andy Field’s blog, one commenter wrote: ‘We must believe that everyone involved in the arts is involved because some portion of their soul or heart is devoted to the arts for the same reason yours it.’ I can’t agree with this. We must believe everyone is involved in the arts because they are good at what they do and have something valuable to offer. Of course we’re passionate about what we do – but we need to be passionate about getting paid properly, too.
The idea that I should be grateful for my career choice is propagated by friends and peers. Doctor and lawyer friends sigh wistfully; ‘At least you’re doing something you love.’ True, but this something that I love requires high level skills and involves 12+ hour days, often 5 days a week. Working in the arts is a hugely demanding and all-consuming career choice – it isn’t something we’re doing ‘for fun’.
We need to stop fostering any sort of romantic notion about the role of the artist, or anyone working in the arts. The bottom line is that we all need to earn a living. The sooner we are more open and honest about that – from as early an age as possible – the better.