PhD researcher Susan Jones questions whether the positioning of the visual arts under the creative industries umbrella adversely affects artists’ prospects. 

Over the last two decades, it’s been policy to integrate and progress development of the visual arts within the umbrella of the creative industries. But is this a conducive environment in which visual artists can make a living and develop careers?

New Labour saw the creative industries as a way to ‘make Britain the world’s creative capital’.  Arts Council England Visual Arts Policy 2007-11 placed artists’ practices within the creative industries because the environment “acknowledges the fluid nature of visual arts practice and the portfolio working lives of many artists”. However, research shows that such work is characterised by insecurity, inequality and exploitation, including self-exploitation by creative people themselves. Rather than open recruitment, there’s a club culture in which finding work relies less on talent or merit and more on the ‘sociality’, the knowing of, and being amongst the right people and in the right networks. The people who get on better are those who can to be out about at conferences and events, with friends of friends and ex-colleagues.

The creative sphere is found to be dominated by women under 35. Although they are good at juggling several projects at a time, often alongside other paid work, they can only build professional status by sacrificing motherhood. Working class men are found to fare badly. Steeped in the modes and traditions of making work, this social group is the least able to manage the rigors of a creative career. They are less comfortable with incessant job seeking, less competitive, less inclined to improvise and ‘rebrand’ in response to change, less likely to excited by serendipitous opportunities wherever and whenever they arise, and less prepared to endure scrutiny and arbitrary judgement by ‘gatekeepers’. The poor pay and uncertain employment prospects results in underrepresentation from ethnic groups and those with low socio-economic status.

It’s also possible location plays a part in creating inequality and that artists based outside urban conurbations where the creative industries are and who can’t, or don’t want to be, around and about, having a drink after work and networking are excluded. There is no evidence yet as to how religion, disability, mental health and neurodiversity (a term which encompasses genetic conditions such as autism, Asperger’s syndrome and bipolarity) impact on artists’ ability to sustain a practice and livelihood in the visual arts over a life-cycle.

It’s possible then the artistic prospects of many more visual artists may be affected adversely by the positioning of the visual arts under the creative industries environment. Through a PhD at Manchester School of Art, I’m examining how artists evolve a livelihood nowadays in support of their practice, including the snakes and ladders they encounter. My aim is to provide new narratives that explain the approaches, roles and functions which arts policy could adopt when seeking to understand and sustain the livelihoods of artists in future.


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Hesmondhalgh, D. and Baker, S. (2009). ‘A very complicated version of freedom’: Conditions and experiences of creative labour in three cultural industries. Poetics 38 pp. 4-20

McRobbie, A, (2002). Clubs to Companies: Notes on the decline of political culture in speeded up worlds. Cultural Studies, 16 (4) pp. 516-147

McRobbie, A, (2016). Be creative: making a living in the new culture industries. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Morgan, G, Nelligan P, (2015). Labile labour – gender, flexibility and creative work, The Sociological Review, 63:S1 pp. 66-83