I'm an artist - can I take your order?


Few Irish artists make a living solely from their art – with cuts in funding, even recognised artists have to take part-time work to support themselves, writes GEMMA TIPTON

IN RESTAURANTS in the US, it’s a cliche that your waiter isn’t really a waiter, but “actually” a model or an actor. You can find yourself wondering, as you try to calculate their tip, how many of them will make it, to the degree that they no longer need to wait at tables while dreaming of their big break. In the art world things are very different. Examples of visual artists making their living solely through sales of their art are the exception rather than the rule – so much so that when we hear of the creative and cultural industries driving our economic recovery, it’s less a story of the power of creative endeavour than a testament to the levels of self-exploitation that are par for the course for so many of Ireland’s artists.

In the art world, levels of recognition don’t equate to income. “You could have a huge reputation as an artist,” says Alice Maher, who has exhibited in the Royal Hibernian Academy and whose work is held in some of Ireland’s major public and private collections. “But you still mightn’t be making a living from your work. Some of Ireland’s best-known artists are in that position.”

Neither did the economic boom bring stability to all. “The artists who benefited from the boom were the ones making ‘product’,” Maher continues. “By that I mean work that people could buy, paintings mainly. For those who worked in installation, performance and other non-saleable work, nothing much changed with regard to income.”

So what do artists do for a living, and how does that affect their art work? When times are particularly difficult, governments look to culture, but also face the problem of how to fund that culture. The Arts Council of Great Britain grew out of the second World War Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA), which was established to try to maintain British culture during the war; but funding to the arts is always problematical when times are tight.

Both the Arts Council of Ireland and Visual Artists Ireland have recently published bodies of research showing the high levels of “other” work that artists do to make a living. Support and project grants are available from the Arts Council, while Visual Artists Ireland has recently launched a small Hardship Award. Even in the good years artists have worked long hours at other jobs, before heading into the studio to make their own work. Prior to his fame as an artist, Damien Hirst worked as a roadie, including spending time on tour with Barry Manilow. Hirst’s art income is the exception, rather than the rule, however, and for the majority of artists, paid work is part of the day-to-day business of trying to make both a living, and art.

Installation artist and painter Brian Harte taught art in secondary school for a year. “I found it very difficult, as it was impossible to switch off from it,” he says. “Most artists work to fund their studios. Income from art is irregular and unreliable, so part-time work offers a little more security. I’ve worked as a picture framer in the past and now I do some work as a scenic artist when I can get it. It interrupts my practice, but it’s worth it to keep my studio going. It’s also stimulating to step out of myself, to play a role, in a sense.”

Harte is working on a new project, The Gadfly, with Anne Ffrench. Ffrench’s approach is different, although still a means to an end: buying time to make work. Currently working as a care worker, she says she prefers to work by night, in order to leave days free for studio work. “I have learned from experience to keep my paid work and art practice separate, as I found it impossible to do another art-related job and keep my focus and energy alive for my own work.”

Keeping art work and paid work separate is an issue for many artists, although for others they can be mutually enriching. Alan Phelan, who works mainly in sculpture and installation and who has exhibited at the Irish Museum of Modern Art (Imma), works part time in an educational archive. This has enabled him “to do the work I want to as an artist, which has rarely been commercially that viable. I have been lucky with Arts Council grants over the years, which have really helped to breach those gaps in finances while working on projects. The paid work I do does tie in with my artistic interests also, as I have a keen interest in political history.”

Another artist who benefited from what one hesitates to call “the day job” is Brendan Earley, who until recently supplemented his income by working as a gallery technician, beginning when he was a student in New York. “I learnt more about art and its production and display from this part of the college than any of the lectures I attended.”

He recalls loving the constant turnaround of exhibitions, learning as he went along. “Some artists were difficult and some were sublime, with fame having very little to do with it. Very few stood out – mostly because we were working towards a deadline and the work always comes first. Brian O’Doherty was one exception, an extraordinarily generous man and one whom I learned a lot from. In the end, though, one loses the generosity and it just became too much of a chore working on someone else’s vision. At that point I knew I had to give it up and move on.”

For many artists, work becomes a security blanket, but also a double-edged sword, and one of the most vexed of artists’ “other” jobs is teaching. The pedigree of artists as teachers is illustrious: greats including Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky taught at the Bauhaus, while Henry Moore worked at London’s Royal College of Art.

However, teaching is time-consuming, and, as Anita Groener, who lectures at the Dublin Institute of Technology, says, “teaching can crowd your mind. I can go and stand in the studio after a day at work, and my head will still be spinning with stuff from college. One has to be disciplined to keep the two worlds separate and working effectively.

“On the other hand,” she adds, “I find it invigorating to be working with fellow artists in the faculty. Working with art students is also stimulating.”

But even in art colleges, the available hours are disappearing. Gary Coyle describes artists as being “like the canary in the coalmine” of the economy. “The downturn has hit the art world pretty badly. A big problem for artists is that the part-time teaching hours are gone. In the past you could get a couple of hours teaching here or there, but that has become increasingly rare.” With causal hours disappearing, artists have to commit to longer stretches of teaching time, Coyle says, leaving less and less room in art schools for practising artists. “You’re either an artist or a teacher, but you can’t be both. Sales are getting more difficult, so there are fewer and fewer options,” he says.

Maher concurs with this somewhat bleak vision. “I used to do some work as a visiting lecturer, but those hours are drying up now. That’s particularly hard for younger artists, who used those part-time hours to survive. But even mid-career artists, with strong reputations, still rely on teaching hours to supplement income, and those hours are disappearing fast as the colleges’ budgets are all slashed.”

Maher has been elected to Aosdána, the State-supported system to honour our most acclaimed artists. “It’s a godsend,” she says. “In the good years, when your income goes above a certain level, you don’t get the Cnuas [the Aosdána stipend of €17,800 a year], but it’s there to apply for if you need it in the hard times. When you’re going through a really bad period, you’re so glad of it. Being on the Cnuas prevents us going on the dole, which is about the equivalent in money terms of the Cnuas, but what it means is that top level practitioners can keep contributing to the culture without having to sign on.”

Talking to artists about the work they do constantly brings up their dual use of the word “work”. There is their art work, and then their paid work, and while one has its hourly rate and holidays and sick pay, the work that they’re really passionate about is the other work – the one that they would do anyway, even if no one ever paid them a cent for it.

“An artist is working all the time,” concludes Maher. “You could never calculate the ‘hour’ time it takes to make a piece of work; it’s all day, all night, all your life, and no retirement either.”

Put like that, it’s no wonder that government think tanks admire the creative ethos. It also puts the €40,000 tax exemptions for artists into perspective; these exemptions don’t apply to all the other work they do in order to make their work.