It’s dip. Show time again: a time for looking back over the past years work and exhibiting it for public view; a time also for looking forward to taking the first few steps along the rocky road to becoming a professional working artist.

Most new graduates from art school believe they are now qualified artists; but do they really become professionals by virtue of completing three or four year’s art training? There is no common view of who is or is not a professional artist and many new graduates will soon face working situations where their degree or diploma will be insufficient qualification to gain acceptance as a professional.

Current debate about the role of the artist in society centres mainly on philosophical and aesthetic issues, but there is a further, equally important issue: economic survival. This demands the fullest consideration as part of that debate, because there are numerous practical problems faced by all artists throughout their working lives, many of which are caused by society’s complete lack of understanding or acceptance of the status and role of the professional artist as a working member of the community; many of them involve the law.

Take a classic example, Dedalus, a sculptor who graduated last summer from a northern art school and came to London to explore his options: try for a place on a post-graduate art course; enrol for teacher training or find work as a supply teacher; take any job or sign on as unemployed; and, in any event, find a flat and/or studio space. By October he’d been through them all except one, to no avail, and presented himself at a London employment exchange to sign on as unemployed for the purpose of obtaining work and supplementary benefit. Before being allowed to sign on, he was asked his occupation and gave it: artist. The man said there was no such category of unemployed person under the relevant legislation; artists were always self-employed, and the fact that Dedalus had a fine art degree was irrelevant – unless he wanted to sign on as something else, say, a teacher or a labourer. Of course, if he did not sign on, he could not receive his supplementary benefit from the social security office, he signed as an unemployed labourer and received benefit until Christmas.

During this period he made and sold some small pieces, buying further materials with the money. Then his co-tenants asked him to leave the flat or stop working in his room because his work and materials were messing up the flat which, as the Landlord had pointed out in a friendly Christmas message, was not to be used for business purposes. Dedalus took a job as barman at the local, but, despite income from this, he still could not compete with other businesses capable of offering more competitive, commercial rents to secure studio premises. Eventually, he found a place to live through the Acme Housing Association and a workspace through SPACE – the two London-based charities, which specialise in providing artists with low-cost-short-life housing and studio accommodation respectively. He also applied for and received a small Arts Council grant to help convert the workspace into a working sculpture studio.

Recently, he applied for and received an award from another arts organisation to enable him to buy materials and to carry on his work as a sculptor. Things are looking up. However, he’s still got serious professional problems with the taxman, which concern his status as a professional artist for tax purposes.

The Inland Revenue discovered he sold a small piece to a bank for £100 last year, required him to submit an income tax return stating his income from all sources (which he did), but now refuse to accept that his sales were the fruits of his labour as a professional artist. The tax inspector prefers to treat him as a ‘hobbyist’, for four reasons: he does not make a profit; he signed on early in the year as a labourer; he works as a barman; and he has not bought any self-employed national insurance stamps. All this, despite Dedalus’ arguments that he spends fifty hours per week working as an artist; he has received grants, housing and work-space through recognised arts organisations; he maintains separate studio premises; although he made a loss on the year, he did earn £600 from sales and spent £2000 on materials.

The problem of status is, of course, circular: if he stopped working as a barman, he could not live or carry out his work as an artist – nor could he do so on social security, even if he were allowed to sign on; if he carries on as a barman, the taxman is unlikely to recognise him as an artist for income-tax purposes; if he buys national insurance stamps at the self-employment rate, it may break his budget and still would not guarantee professional recognition at the end of the year.

What the facts of this case show is that from the outset economic survival as a working artist is beset with problems of professional status. The law makes no provision for determining the status ‘artist’ for tax, unemployment, social security and National Insurance purposes. Many artists working from home are likely to be regarded in law as businesses and so risk losing their security of tenure under the domestic Rent Acts. Even to become eligible for help from arts organisations providing grants, awards, studio space, housing accommodation or other essential arts services, there is evaluation and assessment of the-applicant as to whether or not s/he is an ‘artist’ within their terms of reference. The fact that an applicant is a fine art graduate may be considered relevant by those having to decide, but what criteria are in fact used and whether they are generally acceptable is the crucial issue for debate.

It is important that any discussion is based on sound information and knowledge about the problems of survival as a working artist. Only when the wider implications of individual problems are seen as a whole and discussed in the wider context of the status and role of the artist in society, can more general solutions be found. And then artists and those acting for them can make unified and concerted efforts to advocate the acceptance of those solutions.

That is why Dedalus’s case is such a valuable example.

Pragmatic, short-term solutions to his problems might be: to sign on as artist/labourer, when artistic or other work was not available; to keep all records of income and expenditure, and find an accountant (see Art Monthly No. 15); to register his name with the Registrar of Business Names and open a second bank account for that purpose; to buy national insurance stamps at the self-emmployed rate whenever he’s not signing on. In the long-term and in the wider context of all working artists, they and those acting in their interest might approach the Inland Revenue commissioners (as indeed the Arts Council has done over the taxation of grants and awards), the Departments of Employment and of Health and Social Security, and the National Insurance Commissioners. In this way, a general solution or solutions might be found for each or all of the situations outlined above, which would enable those dealing with an individual artist to spot her. Let’s hope so, because at present she’s nobody’s child.

© Henry Lydiate 1978

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.