Edinburgh Fringe 2017
An honest examination of the role money plays in the arts and the struggle many have to make ends meet in this most competitive of professions.
The Brits relationship with money is not unlike that with sex; we don’t like to talk about it a lot and even when we do, we tend to skirt around the big issues. So Paula Varjack, artist, film-maker, and both writer and actor of Show Me The Money, breaks the ice with a simple audience experiment, standing us all up and then asking us to sit down once she has mentioned a salary above that which we each currently earn.
We had about 70 in the room for this, the last performance of what turned out to be a thought-provoking yet darkly amusing show. It’s easily the largest turn out she’s enjoyed. And, whilst quite a lot were at the younger end of the age profile and appeared to have at least a tenuous connection with the arts, the demographic was not wildly unrepresentative of the UK’s earning base.
It was still something of a surprise, however, that about 50% of the audience took their seats at the first salary hurdle, £10,000. Doubling this saw nearly half of those who remained take a seat and doubling again saw just one audience member left on his feet. And, as he was a Scot, it was unlikely he’d be buying the rest of us a drink in the bar afterwards.
The median UK income for an individual is estimated to be in the region of £22,000. The average UK household income (2 adults) is in the region of £24,000. Not much, you might say. But some 90% of those who list their main occupation as being a part of the arts industry (performing or otherwise) earn barely half this sum which is well short of the level required to live, forcing them to look outside their core profession to fund that gap between expenditure and income.
The gig economy, it would appear, is flourishing in a sector of the UK economy that is estimated to directly employ 700,000 people and, indirectly, many more. Put into context, that’s adds up to all the Edinburgh residents and its Fringe visitors.
This show, some two years in the making, included multi-media interviews that drew upon the experiences of a broad range of individuals working in the arts. Varjack had been very thorough in her research seeking out people from almost every principal city in the UK with at least the smattering of an arts hub.
Part lecture, part theatrical experience, Varjack was not afraid of drawing our attention to the often Kafka-like experiences those seeking funding have to go through in order to access resources, presenting a rather amusing parody of her own struggles to wrest some cash from the Arts Council in order to turn her dream of raising what she clearly believes to be an important issue into the reality she set before us. Access to funds means appealing to everyone, excluding no-one and being accessible to all. Pretty much impossible really, so an awful lot of boxes end up getting ticked for the sake of, well, ticking boxes.
But why should the arts be a special case? Why does it, rather than some other sector of the economy deserve a subsidy? Would the £830m invested in the arts be better spent alleviating child poverty in the UK, for example, or some other equally deserving issue?
It’s a difficult question to answer but, given that spending on the arts in 2014/15 amounted to only around 0.1% of total public spending, eliminating it altogether is likely to cost more than it saves, given the economic displacement it would inevitably cause. Perhaps the time has come, though (and this is where I suspect Varjack was heading), to look at the distribution of arts spending and question why nearly 50% of it goes into supporting what, to many, are minority interests, albeit interests with powerful lobbyists and friends in very high places.
Varjack opens eyes and minds with her careful and balanced analysis. Perhaps scattering a little more grant stardust to those numerous and very talented young people (Varjack included) struggling to be heard is a route to ensuring more can support themselves by working full time in their chosen profession. Economic studies have shown that the industry is a net benefit to the UK even without taking into account its spin-off intangible benefit as an enhancer of social skills.
But it cuts both ways. In the 21st century, a lot of us have to work the gig economy to earn a crust. As an erstwhile economist, I know that only too well. Why should “artists” be any different?