Urgent action is being called for to protect thousands of Scottish artists whose incomes have collapsed and who face growing debts due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Scottish Artists Union (SAU) says many fall between the cracks of current provision – not entitled to welfare benefits, small business grants, furlough payments or some of the other forms of support that are currently available.

Artists make an invaluable contribution to Scotland’s culture and economy while often being on low and highly insecure incomes and juggling part-time jobs to make ends meet. The challenges they face will last well beyond the immediate crisis.

Lynda Graham, SAU President, said: “Visual artists and makers across Scotland are facing real hardship. Galleries are closed, exhibitions postponed, residencies and projects cancelled; the classes and workshops they run have had to stop. Some landlords are continuing to demand rent even though the artists aren’t allowed into their studio, so they are unable to make or sell their work.

“Despite the fact that they are frequently on low incomes and have little in the way of savings they often find they don’t qualify for Universal Credit or for some of the schemes aimed at small businesses and the self-employed. Some 81% of our members earn less than £10,000 per year from their art and already supplement their income with other part time work which has also been affected.

“What is needed, as a matter of urgency, is for the UK Government to remove the rules and restrictions that discriminate against this very vulnerable section of the workforce and to ensure they have the same level of protection and support as others.”

The union’s call has been supported by SAU member, painter Adrian Wiszniewski who said: “Artists, on average, earn the least of the professions. This should not mean they are the least valued. They have a multitude of skills and talents and the financial benefits to society from a strong cultural portfolio are massive.

“Yet many artists spend their lives walking a financial tightrope. Right now, if they look down, they’ll see there’s no safety net.

“Society, if it’s lucky, gets the artists it deserves. Sometimes it gets better than it deserves.

“If the only support they are offered in a time of crisis is that of the begging bowl then it will be reflected in an impoverishment of our cultural identity, health and wealth.

“But if society gives artists the support they deserve then there will be benefits for the health, wealth and wellbeing of everyone.” 

Another leading Scottish artist, Claire Barclay, said: “Many artists are anxious about the longer term effects of the Covid-19 crisis on studio and workshop provision, galleries and exhibition opportunities, their jobs within arts organisations and education and care contexts.

“If these were to be threatened or diminished, it could be devastating. Freelance and self-employed artists and makers have irregular and uncertain work schedules at the best of times and do many hours of unpaid work to satisfy the expectations of each creative project, as fees generally don’t reflect the hours required.  

“Government support schemes are not attuned to the unconventional nature of artists’ livelihoods.  

“It seems vital that artists, makers, arts organisations, and funders can work together to find ways to limit the damage and protect individuals’ practices.”

In recent weeks the SAU has met with the Creative Scotland, Scottish Government and has joined the Scottish Trade Union Congress (STUC) to campaign for equal treatment for all those working in the Creative Industries.

SAU members appreciate the emergency funding measures put in place by Creative Scotland, however, they would like to see a stronger public message coming from the Board at Creative Scotland in relation to the unprecedented challenges facing artists and how they aim to tackle the fragile infrastructure in the longer term. 

SAU believes that the visual arts sector needs specifically tailored and long-term support to rebuild afterwards. The cultural sector is likely to be among the last to resume normal activity after the lockdown so artist workers will need additional post crisis support.

Ms Graham said: “Artists are integral to our society and economy, they deliver invaluable work in schools, colleges, and through socially engaged practice in Scotland’s communities within health and social services.

“The classes and workshops they run add a great deal to people’s quality of life and to their health and wellbeing. The art they produce and the galleries they supply also play an important part in our tourism industry – helping attract visitors from all over the UK and the rest of the world. 

“One of the big concerns is that Covid-19 could be the final straw for many artists who are already finding it hard enough to pay the bills.

“Strategies need to be put in place that ensure a sustainable future for Scotland’s artists and the wide benefits they bring to our society and economy.”

Unlike PAYE employees, freelance artists and makers receive no statutory sick pay. Without access to other schemes or benefits they face potential destitution as they use up hard-earned savings set aside for old age or illness, disability or incapacity.

In recent weeks SAU members have been contacting the union to explain how the Covid-19 crisis is affecting them. 

The issues they have raised include loss of income due to:

  • Gallery closures and cancellation of events, exhibitions
  • Cancellation of private classes, workshops 
  • Loss of community and educational work
  • Delayed payments on work already delivered
  • Falling commissions and sales
  • Studio closures meaning they cannot work but still owe rent
  • Ineligibility for Universal Credit or forms of support
  • Loss of part-time jobs outside the arts sector.

The SAU is calling for the UK Government to: 

  • Remove the requirement for 50% of income to come from self-employment in order to qualify for support. 
  • Remove the tariff on savings above £6,000 and the £16,000 savings limit for Universal Credit.
  • Establish mechanisms to introduce Universal Basic Income.

The SAU is calling on the Scottish Government to:

  • Extend emergency funding targeted at visual artists and makers similar to the funding aimed at small businesses.

The SAU is calling on Creative Scotland to:

  • Explore mechanisms to support artists’ studio provision during the Covid-19 lock-down period.
  • Include the creative unions in developing a long-term strategy to ensure the sustainability of the arts sector and safeguard fair and decent working lives for Scotland’s professional artists.

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For further press information and interview requests contact Matthew Shelley on 07786 704299 or [email protected]  

Notes to editors

  • The Scottish Artists Union was formally constituted in 2001 to represent the interests of all the country’s professional visual artists and makers.
  • The SAU has around 1500 members and is affiliated to the STUC.
  • Scottish Artists Union Membership Survey 2019 – conducted by The Lines Between
  • See https://www.artistsunion.scot

SAU, Office 231, The Briggait, 141 Bridgegate, Glasgow G1 5HZ. 

Telephone 0141 559 4999