THE WORD The cultural desert the financial crisis threatens
A new survey by Acme, the largest provider of affordable artist studios in England, reveals that only 12% of artists can support themselves from their art because of the cost of living crisis, more than 40% and 30% said they may have to quit because of financial pressures. Here, Acme’s co-director Lea Loughlin paints a bleak picture of the cultural desert that could result
Helping artists be artists has been Acme’s core mission for the past 50 years. We have supported over 8,500 artists through affordable studios and work/live space, residencies and awards opportunities and via cross-sector advice and advocacy. Our core values of humanity, trust and stability run though all aspects of our work, informing our decision-making and approach.
The Acme Artist Tenant Survey was primarily intended as an internal document to better understand the challenges of our artists and their studio needs and, by extension, to help us identify where Acme’s provision might need to be strengthened
We received responses from the full spectrum of contemporary arts practice: painters, printmakers, sculptors, photographers, installation, video and performance artists, metal and glass workers, and writers, with many tenants working across multiple disciplines. Artists who used messy or potentially dangerous materials found having an Acme studio was essential in maintaining safety and as a place to create, but the studio was also described as an equally important psychological space to think, daydream, plan and explore.
Seen in concert with Acme’s other recent research, Understanding the Value of Artists’ Studios (2022) and Studio Practice Fund Analysis & Discussion (2021), a picture of the immense commitment of artists with a studio-based practice in the capital begins to emerge
Alongside particular and everyday precarity, the widespread economic, social and political impacts of recent years are taking a toll on artists’ resilience. Financial pressures, precarious working conditions and the cost-of-living crisis paint an increasingly grim picture of artists’ lived realities.
Despite Acme artists’ resilience and commitment to their practice, these challenges have a negative impact on how much time they can commit to being in their studios, and the need for multiple forms of additional work to fund their practice and housing. In turn, this impacts on their physical and mental health. In our 2014 Acme Tenant Survey, 10% of respondents considered themselves to have a disability, or physical or mental health condition. Nearly ten years on, this figure has trebled to nearly 30%.
Increasing financial pressures and the cost-of-living crisis has left many artists doubting the feasibility of continuing their practice. The findings are stark for the majority of artists, with nearly 75% struggling financially. Over 40% of our tenants can cover general outgoings but cannot contribute to a pension or savings. Almost 30% described their finances as tight but were able to contribute to a pension or savings, and just under 5% said they were unable to cover their outgoings and could not afford to continue as an artist for much longer.
We also asked our artists to think about the longevity of their artistic practice and the impact it has on their lifestyle and security. Of the artists who felt they would not be able to continue their practice in five years' time, almost 30% gave financial pressures as the reason.
Reasons cited include being expected to work for free or for “exposure”, lump sum fees for projects that translate to an hourly rate far below the minimum wage, and selling work rarely, if at all.
Even though nearly half of our respondents consider themselves to be mid-career artists, only 12% are able to support themselves financially through their art practice, with income required from other sources to survive. It’s clear that it is becoming harder than ever for artists to live and work in the capital. Notwithstanding Acme’s position as having some of the least expensive secure studio rents in London (£13.76 per square foot inclusive), artists are spending on average 27% of their total income on their studio rent.
Acme works to support the largely invisible individual artists upon whose labour the arts and culture sector rests. With over 1,000 artists registered on our waiting list to secure long-term occupancy, it is clear that there are not enough genuinely affordable options for artist studios with long-term tenure in London.
The holistic value of workspaces for artists, the value of artists’ studios and of supporting artists needs to be prioritised, as distinct from the value of creative workspace or creative industries more broadly. Without the rich and varied contributions artists make, the city becomes a bleaker place.
By publicly releasing our tenant survey, we hope to share an understanding of the specific commitment and situation of artists whose practice requires physical studio space. It is our hope that these findings can inform those who are genuinely committed to making permanent places for artists to live and work in London and beyond.
The Acme Artist Tenant Survey will be published on 13 July 2023 (acme.org.uk)
Picture shows Hsiao Mei-ling in her Robinson Road studio, ©Hugo Glendinning, courtesy Acme Archive