The UK’s general election on May 5 smartly follows the ‘electorate-friendly’ annual budget statement made by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in March 2005. What will the election manifestos of the UK’s main political parties propose for supporting the visual arts during the next five years?

Arts Council England (ACE) is undertaking a review of the ‘presentation of the contemporary visual arts’ in England, in order to produce a national strategy framework which will strengthen the sector. Currently, the visual arts sector is funded from a variety of public bodies including ACE, such as the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council and the national museums (both bodies funded directly by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport); local authorities; the British Council; the UK Film Council; the Crafts Council; the Design Council and higher education institutions. There is also the private/ commercial visual arts sector, including galleries, museums, collections, auction houses, salerooms, insurers, financiers, consultants, publishers, art schools, educational and training institutions. ACE believes that this multi-faceted environment is not meeting the needs of ’emergent arts practice or of potential new audiences, especially culturally diverse’ ones.

Independent consultants were commissioned by ACE to conduct research into the ‘public facing’ aspects of the contemporary visual arts, their presentation and distribution. Initial findings revealed that ‘the whole landscape has changed dramatically’; that a review of art practice, institutions, and public engagement was long overdue; that ‘contemporary art’ now includes a wide range of art forms including artists’ film and video, crafts, live art, photography, new media, art education and critical debate (with crossover to design, architecture, music, media, fashion and games), and that contemporary art practitioners work globally, across disciplines, and are driven by innovation and risk.

Hence the launch of a major Review to be completed by autumn 2005, in time to influence the newly-elected government’s first annual Spending Review for 2006. Four separate consultancies have been commissioned to work with ACE’s funded client organisations to research and analyse the scale, turnover, staff and resources of organisations and agencies regularly programming contemporary art; the current funding structure and its impact; employment issues, career routes, professional development and cultural diversity, and the impact of contemporary visual arts in education, health care, and environmental regeneration. A fifth study, in association with the Council for Higher Education in Art and Design, will analyse the profile of black and minority ethnic, and disabled students in visual arts higher education.

ACE aims to produce a national strategy for contemporary visual art that will help create closer links and collaboration with the heritage and commercial sectors, and enable ACE to adopt a more strategic role, grounded in a clear understanding of the visual arts sector and its broader context. It will also provide well researched and informed evidence in support of ACE’s role as an advocate for the contemporary visual arts, especially in relation to the development of the newly-elected government’s visual arts policies for the next five years.

One important public policy in need of review, analysis and clear recommendations for future improvement, relates to Percent For Art schemes. Introduced in the UK during the late yes and early 8os through the ‘art & architecture’ movement, Percent For Art policies are informal, not legal requirements (as they are in many states beyond the UK). They are operated by public authorities responsible for spending or authorising the spending of public (sometimes private) monies on the construction, refurbishment, or regeneration of the built environment. Such policies require that a small percent of the overall expenditure on such projects incorporates the services of artists to work with the project’s development team to provide creative advice and/or appropriate artworks. Most local authorities in the UK have for decades successfully operated Percent For Art policies; consider the following policy extract from ‘Public Art Leicester’: ‘Whether you are an artist, commercial developer, business, individual, community or voluntary group, public service provider such as a school, youth or health service, Public Art Leicester can provide advice, support and assist in all aspects of commissioning. This can range from project design planning to management, information on the City’s Percent for Art policy and commissioning or principles and practices. Leicester City Council is committed to developing Public Art, to enliven, animate and enhance the built and natural environments of the City.’

There are, however, no national strategic framework or policy guidelines co-ordinating the operation of the many and various Percent For Art schemes throughout the UK, and this renders such voluntary, informal policies fragile and vulnerable to ill-considered or capricious policy changes or removals. ACE’s contemporary visual arts review could make an important contribution in this respect – particularly to reinforce to central and local government authorities the public benefits of such schemes. The more so, in the light of news that Leicester City Council, for many years justly proud of its public art policies, recently decided to close its Public Art Unit from March 2005 and to remove its longstanding Percent For Art policy from its legally required Local Plan. Following a public enquiry into the City’s new Local Plan, the presiding central government inspector supported the removal of the Percent For Art policy. Does this reflect current Government policy about public art, or is there no policy at all?

Another policy worthy of review in the UK relates to the taxation of contemporary artists. ACE’s Review could usefully research and analyse the possibility of tax incentives and tax exemption schemes specifically for contemporary visual artists, the likely impact of doing so on their economic lives, and the likely cost to the Treasury. These ideas are not new. They were successfully introduced in the Republic of Ireland in 1969, still operate today, and are greatly respected and admired throughout the EU.

The Republic’s scheme (now enshrined in Section 195 of the Taxes Consolidation Act 1997) allows income earned from the sale of their works by Irish resident artists, writers, composers and sculptors to be exempt from tax in certain circumstances. (Many creative artists throughout the world have relocated to the Republic over the past four decades, to benefit from the scheme.) To qualify for exemption, the Republic’s revenue commissioners must decide that an artist’s works are original, and generally recognised as having cultural or artistic merit; in which case, income derived from the sale of such works is exempt from income tax. This law also describes works that are eligible for exemption as being ‘a painting or other like picture and a sculpture’ – though worryingly narrow and significantly outdated, it appears that in practice the commissioners apply a very wide interpretation, which embraces the works of most contemporary visual artists. The commissioners do not work in isolation, and are supported in this work by written guidelines from the Republic’s Arts Council and Arts Minister. The Republic’s scheme is reviewed periodically, and its government has accurate statistics about the number of claims for exemption, the number of benefiting artists, and the amount tax exempted. The latest review is currently in train, and ACE and its consultants should consider liaising with the Republic accordingly (see:

© Henry Lydiate 2005



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.