4 Demands for Economically Responsible Art Education

Our future generations of artists deserve to be prepared for the unruly reality of the labor market of the cultural sector. We therefore find it hard to understand why many art students graduate without knowledge of the Fair Practice Code or the Guideline for Artists’ Fees; have no idea about the trade unions and professional organizations that represent them; hardly dare say ‘no’ to underpaid labor; have not thought about whether and how they want to sell their work; have no experience with funding applications, (salary) negotiations, or filing their tax returns; have never heard of bread funds or cooperatives; do not know the mores of patronage; are unaware of the fact that many artists live on income from side jobs; do not know what (public and private) money flows exist in the cultural sector or even what the average income of an artist in the Netherlands is.

We know that art academies have long since lost the status of progressive, avant-gardist institutions, and that the opposite it true today – that society is changing, and academies have a hard time catching up. We see the reports are appearing around social unsafety at academies. We support the efforts of students politicizing institutional spaces, and the teachers who take action against false self-employment, revolving door contracts and the excessive workload. To this list of demands for change, we add: art schools should adjust their curriculum to prepare students for their professional future. Post-precarity starts in education, and art schools should take their responsibility. In order to do so, art schools must:

1. Implement post-precarity courses in the curriculum. Alumni feel the current gap in art school curriculums every day. Programs should be expanded to include real-life budget simulation role-plays; collaborative application-writing; experiments with the establishment of bread funds and NFT banks; and other explorations into solidarity and survival mechanisms.

2. Support social engagement and self-organization. Students deserve support in strategizing, petitioning, organizing, squatting, reading groups, and community kitchens. Art academies should embrace initiatives like Cultural Workers Unite, Tools for the Times, and No More Later, and foster the discussions they bring up around labor, gentrification, internationalization and marketization.

3. Inform students about what to expect after graduation. Academies should inform students of the existing funding structures, the housing market, and the kinds of jobs that alumni typically have – and the possible alternatives to all of those. Invite organizers of self-organized studio spaces; hold Q&As with gallery owners and philanthropists; pay group visits to alumni; discuss how to divide time between art and side-jobs; explore gig-working platforms and how (not) to use them.

4. Involve students in institution-building. Precarity, in the end, is a political and ideological problem, which needs political solutions. Art academies should acknowledge and support this political struggle. They should encourage and financially support participation councils to get in touch with students and include them in discussions with the unions; improve the position of student councils; involve students in the development of policy planning; and other forms of political and institutional involvement.

It’s a lot, but it’s the least art academies can do. Because these topics are urgent, especially after two years of corona. Continuing negligence of professional competences is detrimental to the whole cultural sector. Right now, the only alumni able to sustain being an artist, are the market darlings and the ones with a strong (financial) support structures. Those with less privilege, unsurprisingly, choose a different career path. This is especially true for the growing number of international students, who pay very high tuition fees and often face problems around visas, housing and limited income opportunities. The fact that the management of art academies are so full of ideals around equality and inclusion, should lead them to a very simple conclusion. If we do not want art to be an elitist bastion, art educations should put more care into the future careers of all students – with or without privilege, with or without market success.

Even though this urgency is so obvious, we see that art academies still find justification to neglect labor conditions in their curriculum. There are two different excuses in sway.

Some art academies believe they are already fighting precarity by stimulating ‘cultural entrepreneurship’. They are wrong. The concept of ‘cultural entrepreneurship’ is too limited to capture the reality of working conditions in the cultural sector. It is true that the percentage of freelancers – technically all entrepreneurs – in the cultural sector is extremely high: 70%, and in the visual arts even 90%. But this is not the result of artists’ desire to be entrepreneurs. This is simply how labor it the art world works. Artists and cultural workers almost always work on a project basis, with many small institutions, relatively small teams and (extremely) small budgets. In this situation, wage employment at cultural institutions sometimes undesirable (because artists like the flexibility), but nearly always impossible. So instead of entrepreneurship, what we have here is the fragmented and flexible character of labor in the cultural sector, which lacks social security.

Whereas some art academies have an unhealthy focus on cultural entrepreneurship and therefore forget to address actual issues of labor, other academies refrain from discussing the reality of work altogether, so as to not infringe on the students’ autonomy. We emphasize that the above has nothing to do with the tricky discussion around autonomy. We subscribe to the idea that freedom is essential in art education, but so are basic survival skills. To those who argue that focusing on professional competencies undermines the artistic freedom of students is undermined, we answer: the opposite is true. Professional ignorance does not lead to artistic freedom. Freedom comes from social awareness of one’s own position and the ability to control it. An academy that supports autonomous art must therefore pay attention to professionalism.

We demand that art academies take better responsibility for the future of their students.  They must devote time and attention to professionalization. They may not lapse into clichés about cultural entrepreneurship or autonomy but should be honest about labor conditions in the art world. Only then can graduates autonomously determine their social position.

This text is an outcome of the Post-Precarity Autumn Camp: How to Survive as an Artist?, that we organized with Hotel Maria Kapel and Platform BK in Hoorn (The Netherlands) in the fall of 2021. It was fantastic and inspiring to explore the professional aspects of being an artist together with 20 recent alumni for during five intensive days of workshops and activities. Still, we were left with a bitter aftertaste. With hardly any exception, participants wondered: ‘Why did we never learn this during art school?’ We truly hope that art academies will pick up on this responsibility in the near future – it’s urgent.

Read more about our ideas around post-precarity and the INC research strand Our Creative Reset here.