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Key Issues

What issues are faced by visual artists working in the UK today?

Low pay

The creative industry in the UK is worth £116 billion a year and the UK art market alone more than £9billion, yet an artist’s average earnings fall significantly below the median gross annual earnings for full-time employees. The mean average total income annually for artists is £16,150 of which only £6,020 comes from art practice. Median average incomes are significantly lower. The total median income of visual artists is £12,500 with only £2,000 coming from art practice. [1]

Organisations have been at a standstill from public funding for 14 years, impacting their business model and ability to pay artists and freelancers effectively. The majority of artists and freelancers rely on Arts Council England Funding; the application success rate is just 7%. Further, 90% of artists do not earn enough from art practice to support their livelihood. [2]

A recent study by Industria, an artist-run organisation that examines payment conditions in the art industry, found that artists who worked on a freelance basis on projects in publicly funded galleries earned, on average, £2.60 per hour for their work.[3]

Of those surveyed as part of the study, 73% of artists felt they were not paid fairly for their work within publicly funded institutions.[4] Low pay has also been cited as a key reason for 34% of the visual arts workforce considering leaving the sector.[5] The visual arts sector is committed to being part of the 5th growth industry in this country. Without public funding investment and its growth, the visual arts will start to have less impact on the wellbeing of the UK population, and less global reach.

[1] Livelihoods of Visual Artists: 2016 Data Report

[2] ibid

[3] Industria, ‘Structurally F-cked’,

[4] ibid

[5] Fair and Equitable Survey of Individuals: Accessed 26th May 2023

Precarity of freelance labour

Freelancers make up 16% of the UK’s workforce; in the creative industry this figure is much higher, with 49% of the cultural sector workforce made up of freelance workers[1] whilst 70% of visual arts workers are freelancers[2]. The Covid-19 pandemic highlighted the precarity of freelance labour within the culture sector, with 47% of artists missing out on government support schemes, 40% reporting the cancellation or postponement of commissioned projects, and 54% reporting a fall in sales of work.[3]

The UK’s cultural economy relies on freelance labour and there is an urgent need to move towards parity for freelance workers in the sector.

In addition, the precarity of freelance labour within the visual arts workforce reinforces inequality in the sector, positioning creative careers as only for those with the means to take on precarious and short-term projects for low pay.


[1] ACE, Freelance Futures  

[2] Written Evidence submitted by a-n to ‘A creative Future’ DCMS inquiry

[3]   DACS, ‘Manifesto for Artists’,

Protecting artists’ rights as technology advances

Whilst digital technologies can increase the reach of an artist’s work, they also carry the threat of undermining artists and creators without robust regulation. A 2022 YouGov survey highlighted the growing role of technology in providing cultural experiences, with 81% of respondents considering digital access to culture important in their daily lives. However, 63% of respondents downloaded cultural content for free, while only 44% reported paying for content 1-2 times a month. In the same YouGov survey, 72% of respondents supported paying creative workers for digitally shared work, with 77% believing that technology companies should support initiatives benefiting creators

Copyright protects the creativity that UK artists bring to the cultural and creative industries, which bring in £116billion a year. Revenues from copyright provide crucial income streams for artists, but when content is shared across digital devices, this income is lost. The UK is behind Europe and other countries who have competitive schemes in place to maintain creator’s copyright and royalties in the digital market.

Additionally, visual artists and their livelihoods are heavily impacted by technological advances, with existing IP and copyright protections insufficient to protect against rapidly emerging technologies including text and data mining for artificial intelligence models, which use artwork without permission or remuneration. It is vital that the rights of visual artists are upheld in wider discussions around regulation of new technologies, and that innovative solutions are developed to ensure the long-term prosperity of the UK’s creative economy whilst fostering innovation.

Protecting Galleries and Art Education

Tax reliefs offer our sector additional income to support artists, engage with diverse audiences, take risks and innovate. Given the success of the creative industries, tax reliefs bring about approximately £40 million to the creative sector a year.  The continuation of the Museum Galleries Exhibition Tax Relief (MGETR) would support the UK’s world-leading galleries and enable our sector to produce high-quality exhibitions and commission world-class artists.

The higher rate of MGETR (45% for non-touring productions and  50% for touring productions) should be made permanent with the removal of the sunset clause, currently set to March 2026.

These higher rates were introduced to support the sector through the COVID-19 pandemic and have now become essential to financing the UK’s world-leading visual arts sector, which delivers national and local economic growth, social good and individual well-being. 

Arts education at all levels is critical to continuing the UK’s leading global status. The value of higher education has been devalued in recent years; this has a significant knock-on effect on the pipeline talent that produces the 5th growing economy.