Subodh Gupta. Chanda Mama door ke (From Far Away Uncle Moon Calls), 2015

The ‘gig economy’ is receiving a lot of coverage in the media at the moment. How can you be an artist in this environment? We reproduce Sarah Shalgosky, Curator at the University of Warwick’s Keynote from The National Association for Fine Art Education annual symposium ‘Artist as Superconnector/Superconductor’ held in March.

The image above shows a work that was installed in the Mead Gallery over a four day period by six freelance Gallery Technicians … who are local artists. This is one of the main art related gigs that is offered to artists and is how many of them support a discrete artistic practice.

The work itself is ‘Chanda Mama door ke’ by Subodh Gupta. These days, the artist’s role is not only to make work for the exhibition; the gallery presses them to engage directly with its priority audiences. It’s our practice to invite a school from an area with particularly limited access to cultural provision to come to the gallery on the day the show opens, to participate in workshops and to meet the artist. Subodh Gupta was understandably reticent but agreed to meet the children. He spoke a little about his work and then a child asked him a question: “how long do you have to practice to become an artist?” Subodh Gupta thought for a while and then said, “I don’t know but I’ve been practicing for 24 years”. And the children gasped.

So, how long do you have to practice to become an artist? To become an architect you have to undertake 5 years of study and a further two in an architects’ office. To become an artist …. do you decide for yourself when you have stopped practising and claim the role?

A traditional route to the status of artist is via the university degree in an art school. However, with tuition fees, accommodation and living expenses bringing the cost of a degree to an out of town student to around £50,000 (with subsequent interest rate of 3% per annum on the debt), for many it now seems an uneconomic choice. I’ve been working with a young artist who attended a major London art school. She has argued that she got very little out of her degree. She feels she has become an artist through working in a much older tradition as assistant to a senior artist. In their studio she has learned techniques and skills, has been exposed to visits from curators, gallerists and collectors, participated in discussions about the work.

Marvin Gaye Chetwynd. The Folding House, 2010

Degree apprenticeships were developed in 2015. Looking through the list of subjects offered, there is one in bespoke tailoring and cutting based in Savile Row but nothing else connected to overtly creative practice. However, in Stoke on Trent, a crowd-funding campaign has been launched to support Clay College. It aims to open in autumn 2017, offering a skills-based, full-time ceramics course taught by professional potters. I was interested in this assertion. In my experience, the tutors and most of the technicians in art schools are always professional artists. Is the difference here the focus on the rapid development of craft skills? Interestingly, Clay College seems to be a hybrid with an arts venue, offering classes and lectures to local audiences as well as an outreach programme and formal apprenticeships, creating a broader environment in which people can engage with artists – seemingly filling a space that would once have been occupied by a municipal arts organisation, with one led by artists.

Clay College and degree apprenticeships aim to reduce the cost of a degree by structuring it over two years instead of three. But how long do you need to practice to become an artist? Does two years of study give students enough time to reflect and develop and for their practice to mature? Can it provide enough of a foundation for maximising later experiences and challenges? Indeed, is three years enough? Many artists lose momentum and turn to other professions in the years immediately following graduation. So after an intensive degree, how might artists sustain their practice and perhaps engage with a critical context for their work?

Over in Birmingham, Eastside Projects has developed The Syllabus in collaboration with Iniva, New Contemporaries, S1 Artspace, Spike Island, Studio Voltaire and Wysing Arts Centre. Shaped by the artists that participate in the project, it includes intensive weekends hosted by each of the partner organisations that aim to provide an open, supportive space for experimentation and critical reflection. Its name suggests the ongoing process of self-education undertaken by artists throughout their careers and prioritises the role of the artist in shaping these opportunities.

A similar phenomenon generated and run by an artist was the The Russian Club Gallery in Kingsland Road, London. Ostensibly a set of photographic studios available for commercial hire, they were managed by Matt Golden, a graduate of the Royal College of Art. He persuaded the owners to agree to monthly salons when established, emerging and student artists would meet for extraordinarily ambitious events involving pop up exhibitions, talks and performances.

Artists are among those who, through taking a multiplicity of jobs to support their largely unpaid practice, presaged the gig economy; the term obviously derives from the music industry. Currently, over 16% of British workers are non-salaried, freelance employees and it is estimated that by 2020, 40% of Americans will work in the gig economy. It is argued that the rise of digital technologies has uncoupled job from location so that freelancers can select from a wider range of temporary jobs and projects while employers have access to a larger pool of workers.

Potentially, this could be good news. More temporary jobs that will allow artists, actors, musicians, to earn a living if their artistic practice is unpaid. Ideally, the gig economy allows independent workers to select jobs that they’re interested in. Perhaps, more realistically, people find themselves in a situation where, trying to balance the time they need to develop their work with the income they need to survive, they pick up whatever temporary gigs they can get. Data entry may pay the bills but how does it enhance and extend someone’s art practice?

Many musicians give music lessons in schools and colleges. For some it’s a vocation, for others … it’s a gig. It is notable that at primary school level, art is rarely taught by artists. You may have young graduate musicians teaching everything from keyboard to the steel pans but art is left to the class teacher. Last year I developed a project that took artists into three primary schools in north Coventry over a three week period to support children in year 6 to make work in response to our exhibition about the California Light and Space movement. Evaluation focused not only on the benefits to the children but to the teaching staff who discovered new ways of working, new techniques and strategies, new ways of talking about art to children and a far wider view of what is possible for a child to make. As secondary schools start to strip out those areas of the curriculum that are not mandatory, there does seem to be a space opening up for ad hoc organisations where artists can help young people to develop their artistic practice.

A major concern for me is the gap between professional practice and the art to which people are exposed in mainstream education and which is the foundation for their interest in art in later life. As an organisation funded by the Arts Council, I need to show public demand for what I do. I have to say, that no-one has yet requested a show of work by artists including Louise Bourgeois, Beverly Buchanan, Heidi Bucher, Marvin Gaye Chetwynd, Rachel Feinstein, Nan Goldin, Klara Liden, Hilary Lloyd, Sarah Lucas, Joanna Piotrowska, Penny Slinger, Andra Ursuta, and Francesca Woodman. But that’s what we’re showing this term because I believe it’s good work by interesting artists. And some of my unsuspecting audience will discover this for themselves.

Talking to the artists who were on the Syllabus programme in Birmingham, I asked what they felt about audiences and public perceptions of their work. The majority suggested that this concern belongs to curators; it’s my job to connect audiences to art rather than that of the artist. However, it’s easier for institutions with a specialist interest in contemporary art to ride out antipathy than it is in a local authority gallery facing appalling choices. I think programmes are becoming safer, they are certainly becoming longer; the range of art to which audiences are exposed is substantially diminished and opportunities for artists are fewer.

In March, Coventry published its Cultural Strategy and it was announced that the city has won over £1million to start to put some initiatives in place. Reading through the strategy, it’s exciting and visionary and perhaps, unsurprisingly is full of things that the City Council, the universities and other agencies can and will do. Hunting for the word artist, I found imperatives such as:

  • Supporting artists in developing targeted health education projects with children and young people and older residents.
  • Leveraging the role of artists in leading peace and reconciliation initiatives.
  • Annual residency for leading artists focusing on the architecture and heritage assets of the city.

There is a sense of state benevolence: that Coventry will create its own gig economy for artists to deliver objectives for the people of the city. Artists are our instruments for public good. And that can be taken to extremes. I remember in 2014, the call for artists to boycott the Sydney Biennale when its founder and principal sponsor won the contract to provide the mandatory offshore detention camps for migrants. Notwithstanding the fact that Biennales cannot take place if there are no security staff, no public facilities, no venues and above all, no visitors … the artists were the ones called upon by Sydney arts educator, Matt Kiem, writing in the Sydney Herald, to express concern at a national policy, implemented by a private company, by withdrawing from a significant, possibly career-changing event.

Perhaps, rather than using artists as vehicles for policy outputs, they – and the public – would be better served by involving them in the development of policies. In Margate, Turner Contemporary has developed a project where children at four primary schools were invited to select different artists to work with them to imagine the social and physical changes that their town needs to make over the next decade.

Heidi Bucher. Untitled (Herrenzimmer), 1977-78

In supporting the project, the town council agreed that the children could present their ideas to them in a formal meeting and they would find ways to include them in its development plan.

Thinking about the city itself as a gig economy for artists, I believe there are many areas of existing practice that could become gigs for artists. From contributions to the built environment, to involvement in local businesses, it should be possible to look at every sphere of activity and find a space for an artist. And we all need to be active in this.

Last year I managed to persuade the university executive to stop commissioning pens, umbrellas and pointless cubes of glass as corporate gifts and instead commission work from a young graduate maker, Rhian Malin. The small porcelain vessels that are now given to contacts across the world are far more representative of the university’s values: they demonstrate support of creativity, of young graduates and of the local economy. The engineering department has just turned two of its lecture theatres into studios where students and staff will work alongside each other to experiment. They are considering an option to open this space up to artists in the region to work alongside the engineers and to see what this proximity to creative practice engenders.

In my first senior role, back in 1985, I was working at the Mappin Art Gallery in Sheffield. I was invited to a meeting with the somewhat anxiety inducing title, “Sheffield Artists Are Angry”. They saw themselves as a brilliant and innovative resource for the city and demanded that its institutions availed themselves of it.

As President Obama said recently, it’s not enough to be angry; you need to organise. Perhaps the problem with the gig economy is that it’s perceived as a one way street … an orthodox construction of demand and supply. As a superconnector-superconductor, might it be possible to challenge what this economy asks of artists, to set new agendas and to open up ways in which other people can engage with artistic practice?

Room, at the Mead Gallery, University of Warwick runs until Saturday 24 June 2017.