VAN09 – Activation by Noel Kelly

In December 2008 the French representative organisation for visual artists, Maison des Artistes gathered the executives of the representative organisations of visual artists in Europe to look at social, economic and fiscal systems for visual artists in Europe. The purpose of this meeting was to build a coherent and current picture of social systems, as they exist in the EU member countries; and to prepare a dossier of facts and recommendations, that will be published and presented to the EU and to national governments. The event was hosted as part of the cultural programme of the French Presidency of the EU, and Ireland was represented by Visual Artists Ireland.

In total, 27 invited delegations took part, with a further five observers from EU candidate countries, five from the cultural area of UNESCO and several other non-EU observers (1). The timing for this convention proved interesting. As we see national governments now working in a time of new global economic realities, there is more and more need for us to find ways of lobbying for, protecting and defending social and fiscal systems specific to artists and authors of graphic and visual original works. To this end, each participating representative country provided a picture of systems that currently exist within their own borders. In these presentations, a comparison could be made as to the artists’ social status, and examples of best practices were explored in detail.

It soon became apparent that many disparities exist across Europe. Ireland was held high in terms of funding opportunities, with specific appreciation of the Percent for Art Scheme and the Artists’ Tax Exemption. However, it was very clear that other countries were far advanced in identifying artists specifically within their social welfare systems. For example, in some countries a form of artists’ pension exists. The means of funding these varied from state funding to a levy on art sales that directly feeds into a central fund.

Taking each presentation into consideration, countries were broken in to three main classifications. The first of these contained countries, such as Ireland, who have strong systems of social protection, but don’t specifically recognise artists in this context. There was a move to examine the veracity of adapting these systems to recognise artists specifically, and to understand more the realities of the life of artists. The second group have welfare systems that are less specific, however they reveal themselves to be sensitive to the particularities of artists, with a willingness on behalf of their governments to improve the systems. Finally, the third group have poor systems in place for the population as a whole, and a complete absence of specific provision of any support for artists. They occupy a space wherein full construction of a social system is required. From these classifications emerged a proposal for a law reference / framework that all participants would use to lobby for a form of harmonisation in the EU, and in practical terms, bring it back to their own national governments as a primary research document of what can be done for artists at a national level.

Further thoughts and discussion took place about what we mean by ‘improving the status of visual artists in Europe’. Whilst it was recognised as an objective, the question was raised as to how and by what means? In this, four topics were considered. The preliminary discussion looked at the question of who is an artist. Whilst many dismissed this as being as indecipherable as trying to define what is art, the discussions surrounding the definition of the artist revealed weakness in the implementation of the UNESCO definition (2) – of which significant number of signatory countries have not adopted this into their legislation or support systems. As with all definitions on the subject of art and artists, there was much heated philosophical and ideologically driven debate. As artist representative organisations, it was mooted that we should deny the validity of the placing of limitations as to who is an artist – on the basis of the freedom of expression that being an artist should represent. However, it was seen as extremely important that we be able to use some form of formal definition, so as to provide a basis for dialogue with bureaucratic systems. This importance was identified specifically, so that administrative frameworks could define effectively and legitimately the scope of social protection and taxation for artists. In the absence of any other definition, it was concluded that the UNESCO definition would provide sufficient clarity and members will move to have their respective governments and the EU to recognise it in a practicable manner.

Following this discussion, a further time for reflection was taken on the social condition of visual artists. In light of the previous presentations, and the disparities between protection systems, it became apparent that with such wide gaps unification may be inappropriate at this stage. The workload is simply too high for any one single approach – however, the concept of unity must still hold, albeit as an aspiration. Instead, it was proposed that we focus on the minimum that was required to put in place in each country of the European Union concerning social security; and to reflect together on a harmonisation of financing social protection, calculation of contributions and coverage of social benefits. It was also agreed that as a second objective in this area, we must find a framework for social security in the form of a  common model that incorporates compliance with the possibilities of each, taking into account the structures related
to the work of the artist.

This instantly led to further discussion in the area of taxation. The series of initiatives and schemes across Europe for artists are limited. The Irish tax exemption was used as one example relating to income tax. Also included were the reduced VAT levels across Europe on the sale of works of art. It was shown that investment in the arts is often
facilitated by the allocation of reductions or tax credits. Specifically addressing the latter, it was recognised that although not a key feature in our definition of the artist – and placing ideological posturing aside, that in order to speak to governments, we must continue to make the artist an economic agent, while taking into account the particulars of artistic activity. With the combination of both points of the taxation discussion, it was agreed that we need to have our governments recognise the following: the irregular collection of income by artists; the precariousness of artistic  activity; and also a requirement to continue to encourage investment in the arts and expand the allocation of tax cuts to individuals who invest in art.

Following on from these two days of discussions, a range of suggested actions is currently drafted, that will be submitted to the representative bodies of all European organisations. Once validated these will be published and circulated to the EU representatives and also to local bodies, such as Visual Artists Ireland, for presentation to
national and local government and to the Arts Councils. There are still many issues that could not be tackled, but fortunately, because this was a first time at bringing this group together, a strong foundation of solidarity was built within the participating network of artists in Europe.

It is worth noting that this meeting fitted closely with work that is being undertaken by Visual Artists Ireland. At the discussion we were able to provide a first glimpse of the results of the VAI’s survey The Social, Economic, and Fiscal Status of the Visual Artist in Ireland. As we continue to become aware, the treatment of artists across Ireland is
uneven. We also see more and more likelihood that the systems that are in place, will come under pressure through a lack of understanding and implementation. It is our intention to supplement the findings of our survey, with the publication emerging from the Maison des Artistes meeting, as we continue our work on behalf of visual artists in
Ireland. To quote from one of our French colleagues, we need activation on the ground, as well as through networks such as the French convention.

Noel Kelly

(1) Germany: IGBK – Internationale Gesellschaft der Bildenden Künste; United Kingdom: The
British National Committee of IAA; Austria: IG Bildende Kunst; Belgium: Conseil National Belge
des Arts Plastiques; Bulgaria: Union des Artistes Bulgares; Cyprus: Chamber of Fine Arts;
Denmark: BKF-Billedkunstnernes Forbund; Spain: UAAV – Union de Asociaciones de Artistas
Visuales; Estonia: EAA – Estonian Artists’ Association; Finland: AAF – The Artists’ Association of
Finland; France: La Maison des Artistes; Greece: Chamber of Fine Arts of Greece; Hungary:
Association of Hungarian Fine and Applied Artists; Ireland: Visual Artists Ireland; Italy: Comitato
Italiano de la AIAP; Latvia: The Artists’s Union of Latvia; Lithuania: Lithuanian artists’ association;
Luxembourg: Comité National de l’AIAP; Malta: Ambassade de Malte en France; The
Netherlands: Federatie von Kunstenaarsverenigingen; Poland: The association of Polish artists
and designers; Portugal: Ministry of Culture; Czech Republic: UVU CR; Romania: Romanian
Artists’ association; Slovakia: Slovak Union of Visual Arts Slovak; Slovenia: Cultural Chamber of
Slovenia; Sweden: KRO&KIF – The Swedish Artists’ National Organization
(2) The General Conference of UNESCO, at its 21st session held in Belgrade, adopted on 27
October 1980 the following definition of the artist “Artist is taken to mean any person who
creates or gives creative expression to, or recreates works of art, who considers his artistic
creation to be an essential part of his life, who contributes in this way to the development of
art and culture and who is or asks to be recognized as an artist, whether or not he is bound by
any relations of employment or association”.

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