Angela McRobbie’s “Making a living in London’s small-scale creative sector”

Over the last couple of days I’ve been reading the Dominic Power and Allan J. Scott edited Cultural industries and the production of culture (Routledge, 2004).

It contains some excellent chapter articles by some heavy-hitting contributors. One of the best is “Making a living in London’s small-scale creative sector” by Angela McRobbie, Professor of Communications at Goldsmiths College in London. McRobbie is perhaps bets known for her insightful writing on contemporary feminism, but this chapter’s discussion of his research into emerging visual artists in London is a gem.

McRobbie took as her study cohort the 174 artists who exhibited as part of “Assembly,” an “empty space” show in East London in October 2000.

McRobbie emailed the participating artists, asked some to fill out an email diary and survey questionnaire, and then interviewed many of them in perso. She found a cohort of artists of relatively narrow age range, generally between 25 and 36, from a wide range of nationalities, and generally living in share accomodation in East London.

McRobbie consistently found that these artists worked extremely hard on their art:

“These wer all highly qualified young people, many with up to three degrees. The questionnaires also showed a high level of professional commitment … the level of activity was quite frenetic, with each respondent working from dawn to dusk up to seven days a week, criss-crossing London’s many neighbourhoods throughout the day for the purposes of paid jobs and also art work. None had children, though there was mention of partners. However, relatively little time was given over to domestic life … Despite this heavy investment in art work, financial returns were minimal …

To sum up, there were three different ways of earning a living to support the art work. By far the most popular was mainstream art-college teaching for the contacts it bought, as well as access to materials and to a library. Gowever, this was highly sought-after work and often hard to come by. Next were art-related jobs, which again had some advantages in terms of contacts and networks, access to gallery opportunities, technical equipment and a chain of other freelance jobs. These included art handler, i.e. ferrying art works in vans across the city (“very good for contacts”), visual merchandiser (window dressing), graphic designer, photographer’s assistant, record producer, curator (“I made contacts with other artists who were already more sttled down, but this has not assisted my career in the art world yet”) and commercial photographer. Finally, there were non-art-related job, including cleaning work, teaching (aerobics, TEFL, in FE colleges), translation work, marketing and PR, sales assistant, maitre d, as well as “temping.|” This level of activity suggests a degree of realism; it is assumed that art work on its own in unviable, but far from being a problem it is taken for granted so that “other paid work” is used to prop up and provide the financial underpinning for the real work wich is the primary source of identity and of self-status.”

McRobbie’s work is a fascinating snap-shot of the phenomenon described by Demos analysts Charles Leadbeater and Kate Oakley in their excellent paper The Independents. It also describes quite precisely the sorts of artists Marcus Westbury talked about in his ABC TV show from last year, Not Quite Art.

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