Private Money Boosting Public Art In England; Sector Shows Sharp Regional Divides

Public art in England is expanding as private money flows into the sector, although sharp divides remain across the country, according to a recent survey from public art think tank ixia.

Last month, ixia published its fourth public art survey, looking at the people working in the sector, their earnings, and their work. Findings indicate that the public art workforce is approaching 2011 levels after a dip around 2013, and that recovery in the housing and development sectors are fueling public art creation with private money.

(According to ixia, sample sizes for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were too small to be used, so the findings focus only on England.)

The “main driver” for public art was “private sector money aligned to public sector policy,” ixia found. ixia Chief Executive Jonathan Banks broke that down for me a little further:

“We’re talking mainly about the town and country planning system and private sector property developers here,” Banks said. “When a developer applies to a local council for permission to build a development then the local council will ask for opportunities or funding for public art. The request is made alongside requests for support towards social housing, education, health provision, public spaces and other items. The idea is that the developer’s support for these items mitigates any negative social, economic and environmental impacts that a development has.”

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Public art at London’s Linear Park, from developer Ballymore

Overall, 61 percent of funding was raised via the planning system and local authority capital budgets; in other words, the process described above, as well as programs similar to Percent for Art where public art is added to capital construction projects.

ixia also found that there are difference across England regarding not only the number of public art projects but also residents’ attitudes towards public art.

In London, the South West and the South East, there were 28 new projects per million people in 2015, while in the rest of the country saw 15 new projects per million people.

However, Londoners appear to put less value on public art than those who don’t see as much. Only 53 percent of London survey respondents strongly agreed with the importance of public art for regional identity, while 67 percent in the North East, 65 percent from Yorkshire and 62 percent from the West Midlands did.

Banks offered a little more context:

“One way of thinking about the regional variations around public art and regional identity is that the areas where there is the strongest feeling are areas that have been subject to large-scale post-industrial regeneration initiatives since the 1980s,” he said. “The promotion of regional identity is part of these initiatives and public art has, and is, being used to further the aims and objectives of these initiatives.”

Between 1,200 and 1,300 people were working in the public art sector in a full time, part time or freelance capacity in 2015, marking a “significant increase” from around 900 people in 2013 and closer to what was measured in 2011, ixia said.

These numbers do not necessarily mean that more people are becoming drawn to public art out of pure passion. ixia points out that in salaried positions, existing employees are being asked to take on new public art responsibilities due to restructuring and job cuts around them. Meanwhile planners in local authorities are becoming more involved in public art because national policies and guidelines are increasingly stressing its importance.

As the workforce expands, there also seems to be a shift taking place across gender and generational lines.

Since 2011, those in the 25-to-44 age group decreased from 45 percent of the workforce to 34 percent, while those in the 45-to-64 age group increased from 49 to 56 percent.

However, the public art workforce in England is predominantly female (65 percent) and the female age profile was “distinctly younger” than the male age profile, ixia found. Women are also the majority in salaried positions AND among artists AND among consultants, which is not necessarily what I would have expected. The report doesn’t provide information about how men and women specifically are being compensated for their work in public art.

Speaking of compensation: fees are up and value is up compared to the last couple of years.

Artists’ fees were around £6.8 million in 2015, which is up from £4.5 million in 2013. However, fees haven’t returned to 2011 levels – £9.6 million.

Of course, that’s £6.8 million for all artists, for the whole year, so I wouldn’t start doing public art to get rich quick. For the artists whose primary source of income is public art, average earnings were around £24,000.