Cities must acknowledge artists’ work if they are to thrive.

July 6, 2021

“It is impossible to celebrate London as a leading cultural capital without noting its highly unequal treatment of its very core contributors—the creative practitioners themselves.”

Art has the ability to challenge and surprise us, ask questions, and bring people together. Culture is often the bonding thread for urban citizens, making us feel rooted, placed, and connected with neighbours and strangers alike.

I experienced the social significance of culture first-hand when I moved to London as an art student without knowing a single soul in the city. I am lucky I landed in the creative community in Hackney Wick and found a place I still call home today, seven years later.

Art and culture do not only contribute to the invisible, ‘soft’ connections and impact; the creative industry is the fastest-growing sector in the UK economy, generating more than £52bn each year, according to the Arts Council England. One in six new jobs in the UK are in this sector, with 58,000 arts and design graduates joining the industry every year.

All the above, of course, is positive. However, it is impossible to celebrate London as a leading cultural capital without noting its highly unequal treatment of its very core contributors—the creative practitioners themselves.

Based on the Livelihood of Artists data report published in 2016, the average annual earnings of visual artists reach just above £16k, of which only £6,020 comes from their art practice, falling below the recommended London Living Wage. No matter how affordable studio rents may be, it is clear that most full-time artists won’t be able to afford to pay for their workspace on top of their other living expenses.

In addition, there isn’t a single industry where women are paid the same as men, and the creative sector is no exception. According to a recently-published study by digital and creative recruitment specialist Major Players, women earn on average £10,400 less than men in the creative industries. Even freelance day rates are significantly lower: women make £44 less per day than their male counterparts. For people of indigenous, ethnic minority and Black backgrounds, the gap is even wider.

Images by Sara Karpanen and Ariel Majtas, Hackney WickED 2019.

As the founder of feminist and anti-racist media and consultancy Women of the Wick, I have had the privilege to interview dozens of artists and creative directors about their work. More recently, I started a community and podcast series titled Girl Get A Real Job with the mission to normalise and initiate conversations about money amongst creative practitioners, with the main focus on women, non-binary and trans creatives.

One of my guests, Margaux Carpentier, is an East London-based illustrator, image-maker and educator whose prolific body of work expands from children’s books to large scale outdoor murals. One of her latest sculptures was recently installed in London’s Mayfair alongside many high-end private galleries. She shares,

“Living in London has been vital for my practice and getting jobs in the past 10 years, but I’ve started questioning why I still live in the city during lockdown. Having access to both physical and mental space is limited here; I pay a lot both for the studio and rent each month. It can easily become a trap.”

And she’s not alone. Due to the inaccessible salary to rent ratios, many young creative professionals have left London, either permanently or temporarily, in favour of rural towns and European cities offering more affordable living and working facilities—especially during the pandemic.

In a podcast episode I recorded with Stour Trust director Juliet Can, Juliet explains why she keeps fighting for affordable studio spaces for artists and low-income workers. The Stour Trust gained a 149-year lease in the future development The Vogue, in Stour Road, Hackney Wick. Juliet says,

“Living in a society where artists can’t afford spaces where they can create and evolve makes me really sad. One of the reasons I got involved in building affordable studios was for us to build those connections.”

The issue is not only the lack of workspaces or the ever-increasing rents, but also the low compensation of creative freelancers’ work.

It is practically a cliche, but artists won’t survive purely by hype, freebies, or mentions in exchange for their work and time. Every small business owner benefits from PR; however, that cannot be the entirety of the value they receive in exchange for their skills. Otherwise, a practice becomes a hobby.

Whether it concerns environmental regeneration, economic growth, community building, or the development of new infrastructure, the creative sector’s contribution is vital. This truth has crystallised during the pandemic with our excessive consumption of movies, books, poetry, digital arts and music at home. Art is essential to everyone, of course, but especially to those inhabiting the urban landscape.

Artists must be sufficiently compensated for their work and time if the cities are to survive. Policy makers, communities and corporations needing artists’ contributions—be that of writing, design, craft, fashion, curation or music—have to acknowledge creative work as real work. Not something extra.

London should facilitate the existence of a multitude of creative workers with affordable spaces and well-paid work opportunities. If policymakers, corporations, CICs and councils truly care about their creative workforce, then they also have to advocate equal pay.

Art is essential to building social connections, which in turn create diverse future cities, the core of connected urban landscape. Artists thrive in cities, and cities need artists to build thriving communities.

About the author

Sara Kärpänen, founder of Women of the Wick

Sara (she/her) is a London-based writer, poet, multidisciplinary artist (MA) and the founder of Women of the Wick consultancy, media and community championing marginalised voices and tackling inequality in the creative industry.

Sara’s layered approach to arts and communications encompasses writing, research, speaking and performance with the primary focus on gender, identity and public space.

Together with the people and organisations she works and partners with, Sara facilitates conversations, runs workshops and co-creates spaces where the individual experiences, voices and stories can be shared, seen and heard. Her first non-fictional book ‘Women’s City’ is coming out in February 2022.