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Self-Precarization and Structural Poverty

The Case of Finnish Grant-Oriented Visual Artists
Sari Karttunen
p. 27-51


This article discusses the situation of Finnish visual artists, taking as its starting point ideas presented by Hans Abbing in his book Why Are Artists Poor (2002). The empirical data derive from a survey on young artists conducted at the end of 2017, including both open and closed questions. The questions chosen for analysis concern the definition of art and artists, the nature of the job of artist, the preferred and actual earnings methods and the role of grants. The article argues that although voicing in many respects pragmatic views concerning their job, many visual artists act upon the mythical conception of artist. Hence, they fall victim of their own ideology, only adding to the precarious situation for their part. In a country where the art market is lagging but the public training and support system is well developed, artists expect the state to provide for their practice and defy attempts to foster entrepreneurship. Obliterating the idea of selling products on the market, visual artists have started to redefine their role as public service providers that should be compensated for organizing exhibitions for the people. Visual artists moreover cherish the idea that art should be open to everybody. In these circumstances, in line with Abbing’s theory, the number of artists keeps on rising and their economy worsening despite increases in government support.

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Notes de l’auteur

This research has been undertaken as part of the “ArtsEqual” project funded by the Academy of Finland’s Strategic Research Council from its Equality in Society programme (314223/2017).

Texte intégral

«Maybe I just am such a mediocre artist that I always end up paying myself»
Visual artist (photography, painting, comics), male, 30-34 years

I. Context and aim of article

1Art sociology states that artistic careers are shaped by historical, social and institutional circumstances (see, e.g., Zolberg, 1990). Many features of artistic life are common to the Western world, but the local context also plays a role, such as the Nordic welfare state with its extensive art policy schemes. This article pertains to the case of visual artists in Finland and investigates how the public support system manifests in their revenue models and professional identities. Focusing on the youngest generation of artists who are still socializing to their trade, I will explore the formation of earning ideals and reasonings concerning career choices and sources of financing. My question is : Why does precariousness persist among visual artists in Finland ? Drawing upon Hans Abbing’s book Why Are Artists Poor (2002), I provocatively ask if the grant system helps to sustain structural poverty among artists instead of alleviating their dilemma.

  • 2 ______________________________ According to the statistics by FRAME Contemporary Art Finland, there (...)

2In Finland, visual artists emerge in all surveys among the least earning artist groups and remain far behind salary earners with similar levels of education (Rensujeff, 2003, 2014). The Finnish art market is weakly develo­ped in international comparison, hence sales play on average a minor role in the earnings of visual artists. Also, most of the galleries differ in their operation from the international model (see, e.g., Jyrämä, 2002). In fear of economic risk, many galleries collect, in addition to a sales commission, exhibition space rent from artists, who in turn apply for grants to cover the costs. Moreover, not many galleries maintain a stable of artists whose careers they would manage between exhibitions2. Since the mid-1990s, the Finnish art world has been internationalizing rapidly but the economic effects remain lower than hoped and do not benefit all artists equally. Hardly any living Finnish artist has thus far reached the top 100 rankings on the recognized international lists (see, e.g., Quemin, 2006, 2013).

  • 3 ______________________________ Total income was a category constructed for comparative purposes to (...)

3Public cultural policies are instead comprehensive in Finland, similarly to other Nordic countries, and visual artists, like other independently functioning sub-groups, belong to the focus of state artist policies. There are many types of grant support available to them, and the state also purchases art for public spaces (see, e.g., Compendium of Cultural Policies, etc.). Fin­nish art policy research indicates that visual artists are among the groups that are the most dependent on grants, both from public and private sources. According to Rensujeff (2014), almost one in two visual artists (46 %) had received one or more grants in the reference year, 2010, the aggregated median being 8 000 euros. The median income subject to taxation was as low as 16 000 euros but grants, mostly non-taxable in Finland, raised their total income up to 20 220 euros3. Nonetheless, even grants included, the earnings level of visual artists remains low, and grants do not anywhere near cover annually the entire population, so many need to ensure their survival and opportunity for making art via other means. In 2010, half of the visual artists (50 %) had worked at arts-related jobs and almost one fifth (18 %) at enti­rely non-artistic jobs (Rensujeff, 2014 :78-79). Transfer payments, such as unemployment benefits and various allowances, also play an important role in the subsistence of visual artists (Ibid. :96).

  • 4 ______________________________ The number of visual artists of course depends on the criteria and s (...)

4Despite such gloomy prospects, the number of visual artists has been increasing for several decades, estimated to be currently around 3 0004. The rapid growth is often explained by the popularity of visual expression am­ong the young and the increase in visual art study programmes and their annual intake (see, e.g., Herranen/Houni/Karttunen, 2013). In the recent de­cades, training in the arts has become the chief recruitment channel which has helped women to access jobs. There was a peak in the number of visual art students between the mid-1990s and the mid-2010s due to the introduction of polytechnic-level education. Based on official employment and pla­cement statistics, however, the government ordered notable cuts in the number of visual art programmes in 2013 (Ibid.).

II. Framework for analysis

  • 5 ______________________________ The cultural policy situation in the Netherlands has changed drastic (...)

5In the article, I utilize secondary data that consist of a questionnaire on young Finnish artists exploring their views on the function of art and their experiences of artistic work. The data cover all art forms, but my focus is on visual artists. I am re-reading the data with the help of an analytical fra­mework drawing mainly upon Hans Abbing’s mentioned book. The aim is to understand the mechanisms that keep up a specific, government-oriented, ideologically laden earnings model among Finnish visual artists that seems detrimental to their economies. Extensive public art policy is a contextual feature shared by Finland and the Netherlands, which provided the main empirical basis for Abbing’s study5. Among the Nordic fellows, particularly Norway presents a point of comparison with extensive studies on the status of artists since the 1990s, showing similar idiosyncrasies in the case of visual art (e.g., Solhjell, 2000 ; Røyseng/Mangset/Borgen, 2007 ; Mang­set/Heian/Kleppe/Løyland, 2018).

6Abbing basically claims that increases in the amount of grants do not alleviate the poverty of artists but only keep their number rising. Subsidies are namely taken as a signal that governments take care of artists (Abbing, 2002 :136) ; similarly, low-priced education signals that it is safe to become an artist (Ibid. :140). Based on Abbing, my hypothesis is that the extreme model of self-support exemplified by Finnish visual artists is related to the domestic grant system and the associated expectation that the state will provide for artists. The responsibility of the state may also be connected to its role as the financer of educational institutions and controller of the number of degree places.

7Abbing (2002) also makes use of the concept “path dependency”, meaning that certain initial choices tend to predetermine future actions. Drawing upon Dutch empirical data, he calls artists who specialize in government recognition and money “government artists”, while he labels the others as, for example, “market artists” or “business artists”. Abbing (2002 :99) claims that once such inclinations have been internalized and become part of the habitus, it is hard to change one’s position. In the article, my focus is on the youngest generation of Finnish visual artists, those under 35 years of age, many of whom are still in the process of professional socialization. It is noticeable that Finnish art schools, especially the Academy of Fine Arts, often limit themselves to giving information on grant sources and application practices when preparing students for working life, pushing the graduates towards what Abbing calls «government orientation» (2002 :101).

8When examining the specific situation of Finnish artists, I will further keep in mind Abbing’s claim that poverty is a structural issue in the arts. In the Dutch case, Abbing links structural poverty to the government funding system and the related orientation developed among artists, but acknowled­ges all the money «pumped into the arts», including the artists’ self-support arrangements (2002 :130). He points to the fact that the “gift sphere” is exceptionally large in art, reaching from public and private donors to the artists themselves and their spouses and birth families (Ibid. :39, 197). Poverty is built into the arts, as added funding never raises income levels but merely the number of practicing artists (Ibid. :130). In the “exceptional economy of art”, practitioners are willing to work for low wages, and to even pay for the chance to work ; the notion refers to Pierre Bourdieu (1993 :39), who describes the economy of art as an economic world reversed.

9My assumption is that Finnish artists adopt the key ingredients of their grant-oriented ethos already at art school and that their grant and state orientation is one of the key factors keeping up the circle of self-precarization. Satisfied with minimal incomes, thus evidencing their artistic integrity (see Karttunen, 1998) and finding gratification in the making of art, their self-support system aided with grants allows them to turn their back to market opportunities, which at the domestic level remains in any case a limited choice. Moreover, the government grants are awarded by art councils consisting of peers and are also symbolically valuable (see Heikkinen, 2007 ; Solhjell, 2000).

III. Data and methods

10The data used in the article were collected by the Centre for Cultural Policy Research CUPORE through a web questionnaire on young artists conducted at the end of 2017. This was the 2017 edition of the Arts Barometer Survey that is carried out annually in co-operation with the Arts Promotion Centre Finland. With annually shifting emphases, the survey maps out the operating environment of the arts. In 2017 the survey chose as its topic young artists’ views on the function of art in society and their experiences of artistic work. With respect to my research, the Barometer data may be understood as secondary, although the original agenda by and large embra­ced the current interest ; the difference is rather in the focus and framework of the analysis. Personally, I was not involved in the Barometer project.

  • 6 ______________________________ I constructed a filter that picked out those respondents who mention (...)
  • 7 ______________________________ The report chiefly aimed to serve the purposes of art policies and f (...)

11The Barometer questionnaire was sent via e-mail to artists under the age of 35 who were identified from the grant registers of the Arts Promotion Centre and the major art supporting foundations. The web link was disseminated by the nationwide Finnish artist associations and via several art and art education related web and Facebook pages. The questionnaire was targeted at all art forms, but I extracted the responses of visual artists to follow up on my earlier studies concerning this sub-group, which is particularly interesting in terms of self-precarization and its relation to state funding (e.g., Karttunen, 1998, 2009 ; Herranen et al., 2013). Out of the 565 respon­ding artists 206 met my definition of representing visual art. The question concerning art form was open-ended, and I re-coded the original answers6. In the actual Barometer report (Hirvi-Ijäs/Rensujeff/Sokka/Koski, 2018), a slightly different division of art forms was used, corresponding to the current classification applied within the state art administration system7.

12The survey questionnaire was quite extensive and contained nearly 50 questions. Many of them consisted of a list of statements. The degree of agreement was assessed on a Likert scale, and there was always a chance to comment on the given choice and the topic. Material related to the theme of the article could be found throughout the data, but the concentration was highest in the responses to the following questions and the related comments :

  • 12 statements concerning the definition and criteria of art

  • 10 statements concerning the definition and criteria of artist

  • 16 statements concerning the job of artist

  • 4 statements concerning earnings and earning strategies

  • closed-ended questions on income sources, current labour market status and the most desirable way of employment as an artist

  • one closed and four open ended questions related to unpaid work

  • 11 statements concerning grants and grant policies, and one closed and one open ended question on grant application.

  • 8 ______________________________ Over the years, the writings of several other sociologists and econo (...)

13My analysis centred qualitatively on the open responses and comments, which were ample, but I also examined the basic statistics on the multiple choice questions. The method could be described as a form of qualitative content analysis. My analysis was informed by conceptions deriving from Abbing, but I tried to keep my reading as grounded as possible8. In practice, I went through the data repeatedly, marking thought-provoking points and linking them to each other along the iterative process. The study has a strong empirical emphasis in the overall.

IV. Research questions

14In the article, my objective is to describe how Finnish visual artists see their professional and earnings situation and what ideals they cherish regarding it. Their standpoints toward the state versus the market is here of special interest, as is their relation to arts-related or non-arts jobs. My deeper goal is to disclose accustomed ways of thinking and reasoning that underlie the artists’ descriptions and the measures they propose for improving their situation. Could these models of thought, often unseen by the artists themselves, be understood as mechanisms that maintain their predicament or even escalate it ? Could these established models of rationalizing, making choices and acting partly explain why visual artists don’t seem to be able to rise from poverty ?

15Based on a conceptual framework deriving mostly from Abbing (2002), I am reading the responses of Finnish visual artists to the Barometer Survey in view of the following questions :

  • How do young Finnish visual artists describe their current earnings situation and revenue logic ?

  • How do they understand the job of artist in society and conceive the required professional-economic arrangement ?

  • What in particular is the role of the state (and other grant givers), and respectively of the market, in the real versus the ideal revenue models of visual artists ?

V. Quantitative portrayal of the respondents

16The questionnaire was targeted at artists under 35 years of age. As most visual artists in Finland have received education in the arts, and given the lengthy training paths in visual art, only 5 per cent of the respondents were under 25 years old ; 29 per cent were between 25 and 29. Two thirds (67 %) of the population were thus between the ages of 30 and 34. The survey asked about the highest educational degree accomplished thus far ; there was also space for providing details. As many as 191 out of the 206, i.e. 93 per cent of the respondents, had gained a university degree (including polytechnic level), and some 5 per cent were still studying for their first degree. Almost all these degrees were in the field of visual art. Five people had a secondary-level degree in art, while only four respondents had not gained any vocational or university-level degree or performed any studies at all.

17Two thirds (66 %) of the 206 respondents were female, while the percen­tages of male (20) and other (2) remained far behind. As many as 12 per cent did not wish to disclose their gender. By mother tongue most of the respondents were Finnish (89 %), while the share of Swedish speakers remained 4 per cent. Some 7 per cent of the population spoke foreign langua­ges, such as Spanish, English or Russian. Close on two thirds (63 %) of the respondents were residing in Southern Finland, with an emphasis on the Helsinki Metropolitan Area (41 %). As many as 7 per cent were currently living abroad.

  • 9 ______________________________ Despite the formulation of the question, it was possible to choose m (...)

18There was regrettably no question on the overall income level in the Barometer survey, but the fact that the single most important source of income was unemployment benefits for as many as 41 per cent of the respondents tells its own tale ; in the second place was salary from non-arts work (38 %) and in the third place were grants (35 %)9. The share of other transfer payments rose up to 13 per cent ; of these, student allowances unsurprisingly were in a significant role, as 17 per cent of the respondents were studying full time. By labour market position, some 30 per cent were unemployed jobseekers. Salary from art (18 %) and entrepreneur income from art (13 %) remained rather marginal as the single most important source of income. Close on 16 per cent of the respondents were receiving salary-resembling working grants.

19It can be interpreted that by filling and sending back the questionnaire the respondents identified themselves with the concept of artist. Two thirds (67 %) were members in an artist association or union. All the respondents were also practicing artists, although one fifth (20 %) of them could spend less than a quarter of their working time on art. Only around a fifth (21 %) of the respondents agreed totally or closely with the statement that they could live off art ; respectively the share of those who disagreed totally or closely with the statement was high, nearly three fourths (71 %). Two thirds (66 %) worked at another job alongside making art.

VI. Definition of art and economic positioning of the job

20As said, the Barometer questionnaire presented over 20 statements concerning the definition of art and artist. The respondents were asked if they agreed with the statements, and they were given ample space for comments. As for the definition of artist, the question package brought up an apparent contradiction in the artists’ conceptions : the two most favoured definitions were 1) being an artist is a calling and 2) it is a job among others (Figure 1). The role of education in the definition of artist came third, pushing the work of an artist closer to ordinary jobs. The significance given to the artistic community also points toward comparability with actual professions.

Figure 1. The respondents’ views on the job of artist (N=206).

Figure 1. The respondents’ views on the job of artist (N=206).

21The open comments gave clarification to the co-existence of mythical and pragmatic definitions. Although the idea that art is a calling relates to the romantic-modern myth, the respondents aptly noted that many other vocations exist beside art. Further, the claim that “one is born an artist” was explained to refer to an encouraging birth family, i.e. a specific social and economic background. There was moreover an element of self-irony in the comments ; only a strong calling can explain why artists endure their dire economies :

A calling does not necessarily mean anything else than that you continue working without decent pay.

Though I cannot earn my living with art, I cannot imagine quitting. It’s part of me.

22The open comments made it evident that the respondents used the notion of artist in several senses. One end of the continuum referred to the inborn creativity that exists in all people, the other to a specific job. What made professionals different was their attempt to «create art as a serious life practice», as one respondent formulated ; it was a difference of degree, not kind :

There is an artist in every person, by nature. Yet, professionalism is crucial for the practicing artist.

All of us are capable of creation and expression […]. These expressive creations are art, thus we are all artists to some degree.

23Many external indications of professionalism were considered important to artists as well, such as an art degree or union membership, but none of them emerged as indispensable. Training, for instance, does not make anybody an artist but it can socialize a person to the art field. One respondent characterized artistry as a «cluster concept», meaning that there exist several alternative criteria not all of which need to be fulfilled. For him, the decisive requirement was the attitude toward artistic work. Many other respondents also underlined inner characteristics, both inborn and cultivated : talent, inclination, mind-set and, most importantly, a unique vision. Many suggested that (true) artists have an inner necessity to express themselves ; «they cannot but do it» :

Artistry is a way to perceive ideas and the world.

As an artist you may earn your living from art or something else, have a degree or be autodidact, adapt to an organization or not, get grants or not.

[A] true artist will do some other work as an income source but find an opportunity to create. Lack of finance is not the biggest problem. You cannot hide art within yourself when it is true and strong, it will find a way to come out and shine.

24One respondent suggested a willingness to take risks to be able to make art as the decisive factor when defining artists. Readiness to accept the probability of a precarious future was the ultimate test for the artist (the notion of sacrifice was not however mentioned) :

You must invest everything to make it a career of some kind. You must invest from your own pocket to make things roll and educate yourself long and all the time you know that your economic situation is always going to be unsecure. So, I think that risk taking is somehow a large part of what “being an artist” means, that you choose that you truly want to make art.

25The respondents themselves recognized the ambivalence in their job definition. The job of artist can on the one hand be as easily captured as any job, but on the other it resists and escapes all standardizations :

There is the inscribed paradox that even if art is something specific there are no criteria based on which one could assess its manifestation. Hence, we must acquiesce to understanding art as a kind of a social construction. In other words, there is something specific about art, it is not a “common” job, and the essence of art remains ambivalent but at the same time artistry needs to be regarded as a job […].

[O]n the one hand, being an artist is like any other job, but on the other hand, it differs totally from other jobs, a calling in which different rules and a different logic prevail.

26In the questionnaire, many of the statements regarding the nature and function of art pertained to what art must be or do, for instance, should it be entertaining or serve wellbeing. The responses to these questions and the related comments centred on the claim that art should not and cannot be regulated. Art may choose to serve non-artistic purposes, but it cannot be assigned to do so. Of the external goals presented in the questionnaire, fostering intercultural communication was much more popular than advancing health and wellbeing or creative economy (Figure 2). The overall message was that the manifestations and opportunities of art should not be reduced by instrumentalizing it to serve pre-set social or economic tasks. The reluctance towards assigned objectives also referred to the more general idea that it is impossible to define art since it may be just about anything. Art is a broad concept and it may move toward unseen dimensions. It is essential to art and artists that they resist all standards and classifications and may cross borders and limits :

Art does not “need to be” anything. Art is a wide concept and it has no obligation to anything.

I cannot claim that art must do something. At best it does so, but it cannot be forced. Art SHOULD NOT HAVE ANY RULES.

All declarations that art must do something are futile no matter how good or bad the objectives are as such.

Figure 2. The respondents’ views on the function of art (N=206).

Figure 2. The respondents’ views on the function of art (N=206).

27The idea that art and artists resist all standardization was linked to the principles of diversity and plurality ; the other side of the coin was the celebration of uniqueness and singularity (cf. Heinich, 2005). The job and the field were characterized ideally as highly open and tolerant. Many artists contested regulatory attempts even when made by the art world and its gatekeepers ; one respondent criticized the “art school circle” for monopolizing the recruitment of artists, and another pointed to the ill effects of the “economy of art” :

There need to be as many varieties of art as there are artists.

You cannot say that an artist is of a particular kind, since all artists are unique. Different criteria apply to different artists.

Not all art needs to be of high quality. There is a place for amateurs, too.

28“Art has to be available and accessible to everyone” was a statement upon which 60 per cent of the respondents agreed totally and 29 per cent closely. However, visual artists did not understand the statement as referring to the relation between art and audiences as much as to the idea that everybody should have opportunities to make art ; we are all artists :

Art should be the opportunity for everybody to express themselves and not only the prerogative of gifted professional artists. The possibility to make art belongs to everyone in the same way as the possibility to see art.

VII. Earning models, strategies and ideals

29According to the respondents’ definition, the job of visual artist demands continuous risk taking. Particularly in Finland, the entire economic risk falls upon artists ; «the current revenue models in visual art are weak and artists themselves take the risk in everything and may often have to take out a loan to manage the basic costs», as one respondent summed up. Artists have to rent exhibitions spaces and do unpaid work without knowing if it will ever pay back. One respondent characterized the business model in the Finnish field of visual art as twisted. One of the downsides of the internationally famous grant system was that people expect artists to bring in their own money to projects, exhibitions and so on, he remarked.

30Most respondents appeared to take it for granted that living off art through sales was not an option, so they needed to figure out other means to finance their art and subsistence. They spoke in general very little about sales, and many of them produced art works that are not necessarily easily marketable, such as installations, except as “museum pieces”. In the open comments, some respondents explicitly detested the market, while others just appeared to be indifferent about it.

31The responses indicated that the “gift sphere” is essential in the economy of visual art in Finland. The respondents tried to finance their art via other jobs and grants ; in some cases, financial opportunities were guaranteed by a rich spouse or parents. As many as 93 per cent of the respondents had applied for grants. Many of the respondents applied for grants regularly and spent a lot of time on the task ; one of them claimed to have applied for «[a]ll there is, I know the game».

32The respondents exemplify the phenomenon known as “multiple jobhol­ding” (see, e.g., Throsby/Zednik, 2011). As Abbing (2002 :144-146) notes, artists reduce economic risk by diversifying their activities. The labour market situation for young visual artists may change from year to year, but in general it is common for them to have, simultaneously or consecutively, many jobs both within and related to their art form and outside it :

As I have not received working grants, I have financed art making through my own work all through my career.

33Two thirds (66 %) of the respondents did some other work alongside art. With some, the work consisted of the application of their artistic and technical skills, such as commercial photography or graphic design. Some were involved in embedded work in the social and welfare sector as well. Many of the bread-and-butter jobs were poorly paid and seasonal, such as temporary teaching jobs, clerical work at art museums or other cultural organizations, telemarketing, or non-qualified cleaning, construction, dock, or transportation work :

It depends on the year. If I get a grant, then the main income is a grant. If not, then some part-time job becomes the main source of income.

34Unemployment benefits were used by some respondents for securing both money and time resources for artistic work. Some took pride in the practice as an equivalent to a state working grant, while others felt ashamed of the situation. One respondent confessed to having made art clandestinely with the help of unemployment and maternity benefits :

It is nicer to earn your living from artistic work than to live on the dole, since then you’re more independent and don’t have to be under ‘surveillance’.

35In line with Bourdieu’s (1993) description of art as an “economic world reversed”, almost all the respondents (91 %) agreed totally (52 %) or closely (39 %) with the statement that, if necessary, they would be willing to compromise their earnings for a chance to concentrate on making art. Only one per cent (2-3 persons) disagreed totally. However, when earnings hardly reach subsistence level, the opportunity for self-financing and compromising remains low. Three quarters (74 %) of the respondents agreed totally or closely with the statement that they are worried about their employment in the future :

Sometimes I go far into minus just to carry out my work, by supplying myself the material that I need in the unpaid work or by paying participation fees for instance.

I’m willing to compromise on my earnings for the sake of artistic work, but currently I can’t afford to do so.

36To make ends meet, visual artists may cut down expenses by using recycled material or specializing in conceptual or social art.

I myself have managed 10 years with annual earnings below 10 000 euro by making art from recycled materials and living cheap.

37Most of the respondents held the ideal that an artist should be able to concentrate solely on artistic work. This statement was totally agreed upon by 45 per cent and closely agreed upon by 35 per cent of the respondents. The single most favoured way of employing themselves as artists was through an array of income sources (46 %). Grants came second (30 %), followed by wage earning (7 %) and entrepreneurship (6 %). Over 70 per cent agreed totally (36 %) or closely (35 %) with the statement that artists should not depend solely on grants. While most of the respondents (86 %) felt that artists should be given more grants, many also found artistic work to be currently too dependent on grants (59 %). They called for funding forms that would help artists develop towards financially independent and self-sustained professional practice.

38Moreover, there seems to be a hierarchy in the jobs and sources of financing available to visual artists ; because of practical or ideological reasons, not all the alternatives are regarded as equally valuable. The respondents tried to keep their daily schedules from becoming too fragmented and avoid side jobs that consumed too much of their creative energy. Some also argued that all the ways of functioning as an artist were not equally appreciated in the field :

You may of course practice the profession in many ways while having other jobs but then you won’t necessarily gain as much recognition for your work.

VIII. Troubled relation to entrepreneurship

39The idea of selling the end products of artistic work was rarely mentioned in the answers given by the visual artists. Only a few respondents referred to the speculative aspect involved in entrepreneurial practice of visual arts : «if all goes well, the paintings will sell at an exhibition, but it might have taken a year or so to process them». The responses confirm in the overall that quite many visual artists in Finland still maintain a hostile attitude toward entrepreneurship and the very term “entrepreneur” (Herranen et al., 2013 :170). The respondents used such notions as “forced entrepreneurship” and “requirement of entrepreneurship that falls upon artists” :

Being an entrepreneur or adherence to market conditions should not be obligatory.

40In practical terms, the «fear of being treated as an entrepreneur», as one respondent put it, related to taxation and social security arrangements, but entrepreneurship is also an ideological issue for many visual artists in Finland. One dissident defined the conception most visual artists had of entrepreneurship as perverted ; some also accused grants of distorting competition, as entrepreneur artists were not on an equal footing with «grant artists who had more secure incomes».

41Nonetheless, over a third (36 %) of the respondents agreed totally (16 %) or closely (20 %) with the statement that “more entrepreneurship is called for in the artistic domains”. The share of those who disagreed was a bit higher, around 41 per cent (closely 27 % and totally 15 %). As many as 18 per cent did not take stance on the matter, which perhaps reflected the fact that new forms of entrepreneurship are gaining ground among artists, such as co-operative and social models. The art schools were also expected to give more information about different options of operating as an entrepreneur :

[M]ore co-operative or social entrepreneurship is needed in the art field but not the traditional profit-seeking entrepreneurship. The image of the latter stands as a big obstacle for visual artists to relate to entrepreneurship in a sound, beneficial and open way.

IX. The issue of unpaid work

42The problem of unpaid work has been debated fiercely among Finnish artists in the last couple of years. As many as 71 per cent of the respondents agreed with the statement that unpaid work had been a problem in their job as an artist, while only 16 per cent had faced no problems in this regard. Not paying the artist was the “custom of the country” and the “law of the art world”. Still, unpaid or underpaid work might also appear as a reasonable way for young artists to learn new things in affiliation with experienced partners, to gain an opportunity to realize projects or to have their work shown in prestigious venues. The younger artists simply needed visibility and exposure. They were gathering references and building up their portfolio. Their reputation was dependent on networking and making themselves known to gatekeepers. In return, they hoped to gain more opportunities and paid work later ; unpaid work presented itself as «an investment in the future», as one of the respondents noted.

43Many of the respondents believed that if they turned down an offer, someone more desperate would show up and agree to work for free. They felt that solidarity was lacking among visual artists, who were too many and competing over scarce opportunities ; this made artists easily turn against each other. Their situation was insecure, so they refrained from raising the issue of money with museum people because, for instance, they did not want to insult or upset important people. Unpaid work was also done to support good causes and in non-monetary exchange with other poor colleagues :

There are many sorts of unpaid work […], some of them clear exploitation, while some people exchange time and skills with others who don’t have money.

44Many of the respondents also held – or had held – the presumption that it was an unavoidable phase in an artist’s career that when one is young one has to accept low pay. This was what many of them had learned from their teachers and older colleagues. To persist was a test on their tenacity and integrity. However, as years passed, the narrative would start to lose credibility. As one respondent put it, no miracle was about to happen, he would remain poor and nameless for the rest of his career. The repeated promises of “great opportunities” turned out to be “visibility bullshit” :

At school they let us understand that it was part of the package, that you need to that phase in your life and you will be rewarded later. But there were no rewards, no jobs, just burnout and reluctance to be involved in any training shams.

45Some respondents argued that not all young artists had equal opportunities to invest in the future in the form of unpaid work. One needed to have support networks, social and economic capital, or rich parents. This exemplifies the sociological type of reasoning that many of the respondents presented in the survey. In their experience, the art field was far from fair, and the main reason for this was the inequal division of resources, especially money.

46Many suggestions were made on how to abolish the problem of unpaid work. Firstly, it was necessary to get rid of exhibition space rents, which artists try to cover by applying for grants. Grants should instead be channelled to galleries who would then pay artists for organizing exhibitions. Municipalities could offer free exhibition spaces. It was necessary to convince the public and especially decision makers through art education and promotion campaigns of the value of visual art and artists. Furthermore, art schools should teach artists to manage their work in economic terms. Schools should moreover stop the practice of unpaid and underpaid internships. Some respondents called for stronger and more aggressive unions that would set standard prices and practices. Boycotts and fair art labels were also mentioned as means for ending unpaid work.

47The respondents further pointed to the lack of knowledge about the nature of artist’s work and the related skills. If their competences were recognized, artists could be placed in numerous walks of life and gain “real jobs”. But the sentiments on the topic were mixed ; some respondents were deeply involved in hybrid work, while others detested any reference to “applied uses of art”, fearing that the practice of art based on intrinsic value would lose public justification and funding. The keenest proponents of hybrid models suggested, for instance, that firms should be obliged by law to employ at least one artist and municipalities could hire “organization artists”. In their mind, the sole career model was turning obsolete as an ideal for artists (see also Piispa/Ansio/Houni/Käpykangas, 2015) :

In my experience, the artist’s work and skills are not recognized and taken as seriously as those of people in “true professions”. The work of contemporary/visual artists is also seen quite narrowly, and it is not understood how to make use of their skills.

Maybe the idea of a full-time artist living off art and making a sole career of it is a bit old-fashioned as an ideal and instead we would need to concede to the multiplicity of artistry and find ways to support artistic activity in many different social positions and as part of different types of life paths.

X. Compensation for the process of making art and for services provided

48Many respondents felt that there was a lack of societal will, as one of them phrased it, to consider the situation of visual artists. They argued that visual artists as a group represent a specific category among artists that deserves to be recognized when designing cultural policies. In their understanding, when visual artists organize exhibitions in galleries or operate in open public spaces, they provide a public service free of charge and at their own expense. They expect to be compensated by public authorities, but currently this was not the case : the idea of creating art as socially significant work was not acknowledged :

The special status of visual artists should be recognized widely in society, in that when they are practicing their profession, they are more often the payers than payees.

Artists should be compensated every time they show their work in public.

49Thus, galleries were not understood as stakeholders that present works to potential buyers but as venues where people get to experience art. The respondents emphasized that it is artists who provide and pay for these experiences. They conceived artistic work more as production of services than of tangible objects ; visual art is event or experience production. While some respondents made a distinction between publicly owned or funded museums and private, commercial galleries, many grouped together all the actors putting art on display.

50In addition to compensation for exhibition activities, visual artists demanded pay for carrying out artistic work. While some respondents referred to public commissions, the key object of financing was understood to be the independent, artist-initiated creative process. There were no foreseeable alternatives to grants in this respect ; in fact, similarly to salaries, state grants are disbursed monthly in Finland :

The work of a visual artist is in principle ALWAYS unpaid. The number of grants should be increased in a major way. There is no sense in educating people who then in lack of money can’t practice their.

Artistic work is unpaid unless you happen to get a grant.

XI. Rationalizing basic income

51The idea of introducing some form of universal basic income in Finland is widely supported among visual artists. As many as 52 per cent of the respondents agreed totally and 29 per cent closely with the statement that “the best way to improve the social security of artists is to adopt a basic income”. Many dreamed of a mix of universal basic income and grants. As basic income would guarantee subsistence, even small grants would benefit artists, and the grants would avail a greater number of artists. Democratic distribution of public money is a shared value among Finnish visual artists ; only five per cent of the respondents agreed totally with the suggestion of targeting big grants to a limited group of artists.

  • 10 ______________________________ An artists’ salary scheme established in 1969 is still used in Icela (...)

52An artist salary scheme has been discussed in Finland since the turn of the 1970s but has never been implemented yet, in contrast to some other Nordic countries10. The issue of having a state-paid salary system came up in the Barometer responses as well, but not many of the respondents supported it wholeheartedly. Some asked who would make the awarding decisions, based on what criteria. Despite prevailing policies of austerity, one respondent nevertheless boldly proposed that any person with an arts degree and approval from the artistic community should be awarded an artist salary.

53One respondent rationalized that artists need to be guaranteed either working grants or basic income, since they work constantly and for the common good, while another one referred to the comprehensive nature of artistic activity, which makes it difficult to separate work and non-work. Universal basic income would help artists to free themselves from fragmented multiple job holding and some of the problems that emerge when the grant and social security systems are consolidated. In relative terms, basic income available for everyone would liberate artists from the labels of “unemployed” and “freeloader”.

54When asked about their employment status as artists, 43 per cent of the respondents ticked the alternative “free artist”, indicating that they are by legal definition neither entrepreneurs nor salary earners. In the open answers, several respondents affiliated themselves with the definitions “self-employed” and “precariat”. One respondent presented radical views on the role work in society that went far beyond the dominant discussion about basic income in Finland :

Universal basic income, as it is being tested now (as a tool to encourage people to do part-time work, leaving them in part slightly too poor to survive) is not what I mean when I choose “Universal Basic Income”. I mean the real deal that acknowledges that people don’t need to have employment to be valuable members of society.

XII. Quest for value and respect in society

55The quest for more interest in and respect for art and artistry came repeatedly up in the responses. The visual artists complained that people in Finland are not interested in art and question the justification of state support for artists. Many of the respondents in fact felt that their job was despised and ridiculed in society, and some referred to this when asked about experiences of job-related discrimination. Having to accept unpaid and underpaid work felt offensive, one respondent reported :

Why does public money exist for teachers, for instance, who do work of corresponding value ? They don’t have to rent the classrooms or buy the materials themselves. It is completely a question of choice of values in society.

56One of the most frequently emerging topics was that the work and skills of artists were not appropriately recognized in society ; if they were valued, artists would receive decent pay. Artistic work is not respected like other types of expert work. People presume either that artistic work is self-gratifying or that artists always have the option to sell their works. According to the respondents, the social definition of practicing art as a hobby, calling and pleasure was one of the key obstacles in an artist’s attempt to get paid. Part of the blame was placed on the institutions of the art world. Galleries were accused of exploiting desperate artists, and not even the museum scene was seen to respect the work of artists, although the art field would not exist without them.

57Artists also criticized themselves, since by accepting unpaid or underpaid work they gave the impression that artists don’t need pay. While the respondents argued that art was like any other job, they also frequently used such terms as obsession, urge, ardour, passion and love. One of them noted that artists’ ambivalent relationship to work caused problems in their endeavour to improve their socioeconomic situation. Two thirds (67 %) of the respondents agreed totally or closely with the statement that the content of work is more important than how much it pays :

There is the paradox that artists like their work so much that they are willing to do it voluntarily without pay, too.

Working as an artist feels meaningful which in part compensates for the uncertainty concerning the future.

XIII. Accessibility as an unquestionable principle

58Only a few respondents brought up the idea of regulating the number of artists. They saw the constant oversupply of artists as the main cause of the worsening situation. Around 16 per cent of the respondents saw that the number of artists has risen too high, while some 47 per cent disagreed with the claim. The statement that the reductions in study places have been too large was accepted by a far higher percentage, while the shares of negative and positive views on the number of art students came out even. (Figure 3.) Nevertheless, the proportion of those who did not have or were not willing to share an opinion on these issues was notable ; these are ideologically delicate questions, and taking a stance would also require a good knowledge of the situation.

59The related open answers clarified the logic behind the respondents’ choices. For instance, the principle is that there can never be too much art education : everybody has a right to express themselves and have a try at being an artist. Training in art will always benefit both the individual and the society at large. The problem was not too many artists, but too little funding, several respondents argued :

From the societal perspective it is significant that as many people as possible receive training in art, even if they don’t end up doing that kind of work in their lives.

In view of art itself it is good to have as much art education as possible. In view of funding there is too much art education. The funding should be increased.

There cannot be too many artists in society but there can be too little resources in relation to the number of artists.

Figure 3. The respondents’ views on the number of artists and study places (N=206).

Figure 3. The respondents’ views on the number of artists and study places (N=206).

60Only a few respondents questioned the accessibility ideology. They brought up the necessity of regulating the size and quality of the occupatio­nal group, and they also pointed to the signalling effect of easily available training. One respondent noted that «training can give young people false hopes» :

I think it is wrong to offer training to all people who wish to become artists. It weakens the labour market situation for everyone and gives the students an incorrect picture of the chances to succeed.

I can’t understand why artists oppose cuts in study places since that would be a way to lessen competition and improve quality in the field, if only the most motivated would be accepted.

XIV. Discussion and conclusions : could the precarizing circle be broken ?

61The Arts Barometer data gathered in 2017 present young Finnish visual artists as highly dependent on public and private grants and transfer payments. Like their colleagues in most Western countries, they also finance their art by working at other, often temporary and poorly paid jobs. All the same, they stand out as strongly committed to their chosen job and are quite well informed about its realities. They want art to be considered a job among others, but they also define it as a calling – why else would artists settle for so little pay, they reasoned. The odd few may dream about turning art into a proper career, even at international level, but the majority takes the modest chances as given. For most artists success means managing to keep up their vocational quest and figuring out ways of surviving.

62The Barometer data point to major ideological restraints that hinder Finnish artists from using common professional measures to close their ranks and improve their status and economic remuneration. One of them is the artists’ preference for accessibility, diversity and multiplicity ; the principle of live and let live. Everybody has the right to be an artist, and no definite criteria for distinguishing between professionals and amateurs should or can be given. Even to their own disadvantage, visual artists hold on to their egalitarian principles.

63The data indicate that visual artists suffer from low esteem in Finnish society, which reflects badly on their economies. When they try to improve their situation, they face the dilemma that their conception of the job combines mythical and pragmatic features ; ambivalently art is both a divine calling and an ordinary job. The mythical aspects may serve to preserve the belief in the specificity of art in society, but they also seem to lead to self-precarization. In Finland at least, visual artists appear to be victims of their own vocational ideology. As Abbing (2002) remarks, the economy of art is cruel.

64For young visual artists being an artist is a choice that relates to what they value in life and the role they wish to pursue in society. However, their job not only receives little respect but may even be denigrated as superfluous and parasitic. Artists themselves believe that many sectors in society and economy would benefit from their skills, if these were properly identified. Yet when the government launches art in welfare and care related programmes, many visual artists rise to opposition, not accepting the imperative to serve pre-set, external purposes.

65Finnish visual artists have similar expectations of the responsibility of the state toward artists as the ones Abbing speaks about in Why Are Artists Poor ? Making and exhibiting visual art is conceived to be a non-profit public service, hence the state is expected to guarantee proper working conditions for artists and compensate their activities. The state is also seen as accountable for the employment of artists as an organizer and regulator of education in the arts ; in the artists’ minds, the state owes them the right to be employed.

66In a context where the art market remains weak, artists need access to other sources of financing. In Finland they turn to the gift sphere, which includes private and public art grants, many kinds of transfer payments, support from family, non-monetary exchange between friends and colleagues, and their own work at other jobs. Finnish visual artists tend not to build their career plans on the idea of selling works ; this option simply does not exist for them, for either ideological or realistic reasons. In the lack of financial alternatives, artists are trapped : they resist dependence on grants but at the same time demand for more subsidy. Other business models, particularly entrepreneurship, remain underdeveloped or even spurned. The formative steps toward the path of state artist are taken at art school where students adopt suspicion of the market and an orientation toward grants and self-support. As the horizon remains limited, most of the young artists of our study will probably continue on their humble career trail, at least in economic terms.

67In terms of future developments, the Barometer data brought up visual artists’ wide interest in the adoption of universal basic income. Many of them support the idea strongly, believing that it would guarantee their subsistence and free them from the stigma of freeloaders. Grants would remain important to artists in terms of their chances to make art, but on top of basic income even small grants would be helpful ; the respondents also reasoned that with basic income the grants would serve a greater number of artists. Universal basic income could bring about changes in visual artists’ relation to the state, as it would not be an art policy measure or a peer-evaluated system, and it would also lack the specific, competed symbolic value. But it remains to be seen if universal basic income would slacken the signal that the state gives artists, and thus temper the increase in new recruits. It might well have a completely opposite effect, encouraging even more people to practice art at varying levels – in full accordance with visual artists’ ideals of accessibility and multiplicity.

68In the space of this article, it was not possible to compare visual artists to representatives of other art forms. In the Finnish case, it appears that it is specifically among visual artists that the rejection of ordinary economy remains the most persistent. In Norwegian studies, visual artists have also emerged as the extreme category on many dimensions (Mangset/Heian/Kleppe/Løyland, 2018 :540).

69It posed a limitation to my research that the Barometer Survey did not ask about the artists’ income levels, so I could not pit their ideological statements against their actual earnings. It is also probable that the data are biased toward grant-oriented artists, as the survey was conducted jointly with Arts Promotion Centre Finland and disseminated mainly through their contacts. In this context, the responses can also be understood as messages to the government.

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Compendium of Cultural Policies and Trends in Europe,

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Structured Summary

Presentation : This article examines the persistent precarization among visual artists in Finland, based on ideas presented by Hans Abbing in his book Why Are Artists Poor (2002). For several decades, visual artists have emerged in Finnish surveys among the poorest artist groups. The art market is weakly developed in international comparison, so sales remain on the average marginal in their earnings. The art policy and funding system is well established, but it cannot fully cater to the expanding number of visual artists. The spectrum of funding instruments includes working grants for artists, which are awarded based on peer assessment, making them not only economically but also symbolically valuable. The empirical data derive from a survey on young artists conducted in late 2017, providing both quantitative and qualitative material for analysis. The article shows that visual artists in many respects approach their job pragmatically but at the same time cherish mythical conceptions and act upon them. Many of the res­pondents expect the state to provide for their practice and scorn any hint of business activity. Just now, discarding the idea of selling products on the market, visual artists are redefining their role into public service providers that should be compensated for organizing exhibitions for the people. They furthermore claim that the practice of visual art should be accessible to anyone interested. In these circumstances, in line with Abbing’s theory, the number of visual artists would keep on rising and their precarity would persist, even if the government should increase its financing. The article suggests that public support intertwined with the ideology of art sustain structural poverty among Fin­nish visual artists.

Theory : The paper is empirically based and grounded in its approach. Conceptions presented by Abbing (2002) are used for facilitating and structuring interpretation when iteratively reading the visual artists’ survey responses. The aim is to understand the mechanisms that maintain a specific, government-oriented, ideologically laden earnings model among Finnish visual artists, even though it seems detrimental to their economies. Abbing claims that increases in the amount of grants only keep the number of artists rising, because subsidies are interpreted as a signal that artists are taken care of by governments ; likewise, low-priced education communicates that it is safe to become an artist. This leads to “structural poverty” among artists. The article also makes use of the notion of “path dependency”, by which Abbing means that certain initial choices predetermine future actions, e.g., it is hard for a “government artist” to turn into a “business artist”. Via Abbing, many ideas presented by Pierre Bourdieu concerning the “exceptio­nal economy of art” also come to be used in the article.

Method : This paper draws upon data collected for the 2017 edition of the Arts Barometer Survey carried out annually by CUPORE in co-operation with the Arts Promotion Centre Finland. In 2017, the survey mapped out young artists’ views on the function of art in society and their experiences of the job thus far. The questionnaire was sent via e-mail to artists under the age of 35 who were identified from the grant registers of the Arts Promotion Centre and the major art supporting foundations. The web link was disseminated by the artist associations and via several websites and Facebook pages. The author extracted the responses by visual artists from the totality (206/565) to follow up on her earlier studies concerning this sub-group, which is known for its low earnings level and grant dependency. The questionnaire contained around 50 questions, both open and closed, as well as ample opportunities for commenting on the topics. The analysis centred on the open responses and comments, but also multiple-choice questions were explored to frame the qualitative material. The method was a form of qualitative, iterative content analysis.

Results : This paper finds confirmation to the paradoxical assumption, drawing upon Abbing’s ideas, that the structural poverty and precarisation among Finnish visual artists is connected to the domestic grant system and the associated expectation that the state will provide for artists. The data point to major ideological restraints that hinder visual artists from using common professional measures to close their ranks and improve their status and economic remuneration. They resist strict demarcations between professionals and amateurs and attempts to define art. The mythical aspects of the job conception may be needed for preserving the belief in the specificity of art in society, but when taken seriously by the artists themselves, they lead to self-precarization. Finnish visual artists hold similar expectations of the responsibility of the state toward artists as the ones Abbing speaks about. Making and exhibiting visual art is conceived to be a non-profit public service, hence the state is expected to guarantee proper working conditions for artists and compensate for their activities. The state is also seen as accountable for the employment of artists as an organizer and regulator of education in the arts. The formative steps toward the path of state artist are taken at art school, where students adopt an attitude of suspecting the market and an orientation toward grants and self-support.

Discussion : In the prevailing ideological and economic framework it seems difficult to break the self-enforcing circle of poverty among Finnish visual artists. In terms of future developments, the Barometer data indicated that visual artists have a keen interest in the adoption of universal basic income. Many of them support the concept strongly, believing that it would guarantee their subsistence and free them from the stigma of freeloaders. Grants would remain important to artists in terms of their chances to make art, but when added to basic income, even small grants would be helpful. Universal basic income could change visual artists’ relation to the state, as it would not be an art policy measure or a peer-evaluated system, hence lacking the specific, competed symbolic value. Basic income might slacken the signal that the state gives artists and inhibit the number of new recruits. But then again, it might encourage even more people to practice art at varying levels, consistent with the open-arms ideals fostered by visual artists.

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2 ______________________________ According to the statistics by FRAME Contemporary Art Finland, there were 119 galleries in the country in 2017, out of which 71 responded to a questionnaire conducted in May 2018. Among the responding galleries, 21 were run by private companies or enterprisers, 19 by artist unions or associations belonging to the Artists’ Association of Finland or the Union of Finnish Art Associations, and 13 by other registered art or artist associations, societies or foundations. Around two thirds of the galleries (69 %) collected exhibition rent from artists in at least part of the exhibitions. More than half of the galleries (54 %) collected a sales commission, which varied between 10 and 50 per cent ; it was the highest in the case of private galleries that did not collect exhibition rent, while for the others it varied between 10 and 40. It was mainly the private galleries that made representation agreements with artists ; four out of five in this group had them (Frame Contemporary Art Finland, 2018, pp.2-3, 13-15).

3 ______________________________ Total income was a category constructed for comparative purposes to gauge the benefits that artists gain from most grants being non-taxable.

4 ______________________________ The number of visual artists of course depends on the criteria and sources used in the measurement. The figure 3 000 is a rough estimate used by the national artist unions and Arts Promotion Centre Finland. The current population of Finland is 5.5 million.

5 ______________________________ The cultural policy situation in the Netherlands has changed drastically since the early 2000s when Abbing wrote his book (see Compendium etc./Country Profile of the Netherlands).

6 ______________________________ I constructed a filter that picked out those respondents who mentioned representing at least one of the following media/art forms : community art (visual media), conceptual art, drawing, digital art, environmental art, installation art, graphic art, media art, painting, photographic art, public art, sculpture, video art, and visual art. One in four of the thus defined visual artists also mentioned other media, for instance, sound, design, writing or theatre. The filter extracted 206 individuals, 151 out of whom remained within the bounds of visual art ; they however often used several media within the sub-domain, e.g., installation and sculpture. Nearly three quarters of the respondents said that they sometimes crossed the traditional borders between art forms.

7 ______________________________ The report chiefly aimed to serve the purposes of art policies and followed the current division of art forms within the state administration system. My demarcation corresponds to the mandate of the National Council for Visual Arts except for three differences : 1) the omission of comics, 2) the omission of illustrations, and 3) the inclusion of media art, which at present belongs to the mandate of the National Council for Audiovisual Art.

8 ______________________________ Over the years, the writings of several other sociologists and economists of art have of course also significantly influenced my understanding to artists, such as Bourdieu, Crane, Moulin, Throsby and Zolberg, from whom I have adopted concepts like “field of art”, “reward system” and “work-preference model of artists”.

9 ______________________________ Despite the formulation of the question, it was possible to choose more than alternative.

10 ______________________________ An artists’ salary scheme established in 1969 is still used in Iceland. The salary is paid out monthly by the government, and it is taxable income (circa 2 700 euros per month). In 2017, around 370 persons received artists’ salary in Iceland (

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1. The respondents’ views on the job of artist (N=206).
Fichier image/jpeg, 74k
Titre Figure 2. The respondents’ views on the function of art (N=206).
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Titre Figure 3. The respondents’ views on the number of artists and study places (N=206).
Fichier image/jpeg, 41k
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Sari Karttunen, « Self-Precarization and Structural Poverty »Recherches sociologiques et anthropologiques, 50-2 | 2019, 27-51.

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Sari Karttunen, « Self-Precarization and Structural Poverty »Recherches sociologiques et anthropologiques [En ligne], 50-2 | 2019, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2019, consulté le 18 mai 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Sari Karttunen

Center for Cultural Policy Research CUPORE and University of the Arts Helsinki.

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