The British Art World is a notoriously diverse and divided community. The Whitechapel Conference organised by Artlaw on Jan 4, 1980, was remarkable in that it attracted an audience made up of a unique cross section of artists (from performance art to a sculptor/taxidermist, lawyers (from Q.C.'s to students), and art administrators (from artists' self-help organisations to leading West End gallery directors). Over 200 people attended in all, half of them practising artists.

One of the main aims of the Conference was to bind together those present and, perhaps, those who would like to have been there, with a view to further constructive action being taken on behalf of and for the benefit of all artists to improve their working situation. There were three main themes for discussion: 'Artworks and the State', including copyright, moral rights, resale royalties, VAT, and tax incentives for purchasers; 'Art Organisations and the State', covering charity law and tax incentives for benefactors; 'The Artist and the State', dealing with art in public places, artist placements, artists' public exhibition payments, income tax, national insurance and social security; and, raised during the Panel discussion at the end of the day, studio provision as affected by planning and rating laws and local and central Government policies' by-laws and regulations.

It is significant, then, that the following resolution was passed: – 'A body comprising artists and art organisations, with the legal advice of Artlaw Services, should be constituted to represent the interests of all professional visual artists to pursue the matters raised today with regard to lobbying for legal change'.

The matters raised during the day were as diverse as the interests of those attending, but one common thread was apparent throughout all the discussions and emerged as a crucial and notable factor: the need for there to be created a new and better economic and administrative situation in which visual artists and administrators would be free (or more free) to get on with their work.

Debate centred on whether such changes as appeared necessary should or could be achieved, either by reforming existing laws which currently created difficulties, or by the introduction of new laws to promote and facilitate improvements which current laws failed to achieve. Legal change being a constructive vehicle and the main theme, it did not inhibit the raising of other matters which might contribute to a change in the cultural climate. In particular, it was clear that many people felt strongly that a change, in attitudes towards all the arts, and the visual arts especially, by the general public, buyers, dealers, local authorities, regional arts associations, national arts councils and central government could and should be a major factor which would contribute to the creation of a healthier cultural climate. This raises serious practical questions concerning general education, art education and training, the opening hours and general administration of galleries (private and public), central and local government support (or lack of it), political and bureaucratic involvement in the arts – and many others – all of which could and should be pursued concurrently with efforts to achieve specific legal change.

Two legislative shopping lists emerged: one to reform existing laws, the other to introduce new laws; they were discussed in some detail in this column last year (see Art Monthly No.28) and are:


  • Income Tax
  • Social Security
  • National Insurance
  • Copyright
  • Charities


  • Moral rights
  • Resale Royalty rights
  • Public exhibition payments
  • Building cost percentage for art
  • Tax incentives for benefactors

What next?
The formation of a body to represent all professional visual artists, in accordance with the Conference resolution. This body could take the form of a national council of artists and art organisations, a national federation of such groups, a standing conference for the visual arts, a co-ordinating committee for the visual arts – the permutations and possibilities are endless. What was clear from the debates was that whatever body is constituted should be completely independent from any existing organisations or group. There are many organisations currently in existence which represent the interests of professional visual artists, and it may be that one of these might be able to adjust its constitution or aims in order to become the fully-representative body required to be constituted. In the interests of all those concerned for the future of British art, it is vital that the initiative taken by, and the energy exhibited at, the Conference should not be lost.

It is not the function of Artlaw Services to lobby for legal change; that must be done by a separate organisation referred to in the resolution which, as a body representing the interests of all professional visual artists, will have the clear authority to speak on their behalf.

Perhaps readers have views which they may wish to communicate directly to Artlaw Services or to the Editors of this journal for publication and debate.

© Henry Lydiate 1980

This article is from the Artlaw Archive of Henry Lydiate's columns published in Art Monthly since 1976, and may contain out of date material. The article is for information only, and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. Readers should consult a solicitor for legal advice on specific matters. Artists can get free online legal information from Artquest.