What was the Artists Union?

Notes by Avis Saltsman -
Page Ten

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The Report of the 4th Annual Conference concludes...

Report from the East Midlands Branch, Artists Union - from Roland Miller

The branch was founded on November 22nd 1978 as a result of canvassed interest amongst artists and others in and around Nottingham, Loughborough, and parts of Lincolnshire.

Initial meetings were promising, but the loss of the Secretary (on moving out of the region) was a setback because there have never been more than three people in the branch willing to take on the responsibilities of Officers’ positions.

In the summer of 1979 an exhibition was mounted by invitation of the Midland Group Gallery, Nottingham. (The Gallery and its ‘arts centre’ facilities have provided a good base for the branch since its inception). No enthusiasm was evident for an exhibition of members’ work, instead Shirley Cameron and I assembled a documentary display explaining the Union’s work and advertising the branch activities. There was a good response in a visitors’ book, which produced several interested enquiries about membership. The exhibition consisted of three handlettered panels and eighty slides, projected in continuous sequence (The material is, incidentally, available for use by other branches).

In October 1979 the branch entertained two members of the Polish artists’ and film union, at Cotes Mill, Loughborough. This meeting and social event was a considerable success. However the subsequent resignation of the branch’s (second) Secretary was a downer.

Since April 1979, when the Sheffield branch voted itself out of existence, the East Midlands branch has included members of the Sheffield branch, the boundaries of the branch are, effectively:
Leicestershire, Nottinghampshire, Derbyshire, Lincolnshire, Humberside, South Yorkshire.

The branch exists at present as a list of names & addresses, from which:-

13 are actual members, (officers - Chair/Secretary & Treasurer)
10 have shown interest in one way or another,
5 have indicated intentions of coming to meetings, etc., but have never actually shown up.
28 total potential membership

The consensus amongst people I have talked to about the branch is that it needs either a real policy and practical possibility of exhibiting work, or a social function - arranging meetings such as the one held at Cotes Mill, October ’79. There is, frankly, no interest in the Trade Union function, unless a local issue (at present there are none) turns up that a Union could solve. However there is no chance of an AU presence being taken seriously in this region at the moment.

Roland Miller (Chair, acting Secretary) 21.09.80

BRANCH REPORT: LONDON Peter Dunn Sept 1980

London Branch activities have been somewhat patchy this year due to the fact that our most energetic newcomers have a habit of being poached by the NEC - a veritable vampire of our new blood. Despite these setbacks however we have been active in such matters as the Battersea Mural and the threats to Flaxman’s house and Camden Studios. We also ran a successful season of ‘open evenings’ where we invited members to discuss their work and also take up such themes as Censorship, Art Criticism, Funding, Art and the Media which featured such speakers as Andrew Brighton, Richard Cork, Peter Fuller and many others. These served the dual purpose of introducing outsiders to the union, the kinds of issues and debates we are involved in etc., and also allowed the membership to examine such issues in a great deal more depth than can possibly be achieved during the ‘business’ of a branch meeting. They proved to be a source of stimulation and of new members at the same time. The summer has proved to be rather an inactive time for the branch partly due to holidays and a lack of organisation due to the factors mentioned above, but we seem to have found our feet again now and are in the process of lining up a new season of open evenings for the autumn as well as planning new strategies for publicity and a reorganisation of Branch meetings to include at least one hours’ open debate upon fundamental questions which are of concern to us, both as artists and as union members.


The branch has operated with mixed success during the year. The main event was an exhibition of members work at the Reading Municipal Art Gallery which later travelled to the Towner Art Gallery Eastbourne. This kind of activity is the main interest of members.

Membership and attendance at events has fluctuated considerably, with several principal members leaving the area. A number of new members have recently joined.


In the summer of 1979 the branch was invited to mount an exhibition in the city docks area as part of Bristols’ Wine Festival. We obtained new members as a result. The work was seen by thousands of people in a non-gallery environment. There was no selection and this led to complaints about standards afterwards. For this exhibition a small payment was made by the council which we considered a good precedent. (Note, complaints were by members.)

With some of the money received a Slide box was built and installed in the foyer of Bristol arts centre. This holds about 100 slides. This was in response to members’ wishes. The branch is supposed to be responsible for what is displayed. The branch meets on the first Monday of every month at the art centre. Next year it is to close and a very swish new one built opposite the Arnolfini Gallery. Art and commerce will walk hand in hand into the sunset. As things go up market more than a few people in Bristol are feeling uneasy.

In an effort to raise funds, the branch is hoping to publish a series of post cards .We are presently considering two designs. Please send designs to the South West. (Black & white.)

This year the branch mounted a summer exhibition of a different kind. We approached the directors of the Arts Centre and Arnolfini Galleries who agreed to show work by members. A joint show was thus mounted in which art work was not preselected by administrators, but chosen by the artists themselves. In the end, slight adjustments were made but every artist submitting work was shown. This was considered a useful exercise. (The trouble with ‘Artists Union’ exhibitions - you can set yourself up for criticism.) We wish to thank those members living around the country who sent work and to Roland Miller and Shirley Cameron who gave performances at both galleries. Many people saw the show and artists union literature sold and displayed.

The Art Centre, 583 Fishponds Rd, has agreed to give a ten percent discount on all materials purchased by union members, on production of a membership card. This is considered to be a good benefit for members and an incentive to join the union.

The branch has become an affiliated member of the Avon Resource Centre. AU members can now make use of its facilities (printing at cost of materials only, advice, etc).

Present membership is around 35. (Gulbenkian says there are 300 professional artists living in Bristol.. Many have other jobs eg teachers.) Joining A.U. is only the first step. There are doubts and problems to be overcome. "How can we be a union - who is our employer?” "Are we not Self-employed?” Art reaches so many other occupations...affiliation may require an act of imagination on the part of both artists and the TUC. We are still misrepresented as self-indulgent, self-glorifyingly offering genius for investment purposes.

(Come to think of it how many millions of people receive money directly from the govt. in salary or benefit. Don’t we need artists as well as traffic wardens?).

On top of all this, we in the South West have the problems afflicting artists in the regions. In Bristol, one of the most heavily subsidised art cities in Britain the local artist is made to feel that his work is unimportant. He is a million miles from the swinging International Art-scene. Arts Council galleries are strictly for high-flyers so get hip.

As the 1980’s proceeded, the political and social climate ran against even those unions with much larger memberships, more influence and more resources. A fundamental weakness was that the members lacked leverage. While striking performers can affect the economics of capital-intensive performance space, no one would notice if creative artists went on strike

The current Chair and Vice Chair stepped down and an attempt to fund a paid officer (David Logan) failed. It became increasingly difficult to run the union and produce regular journals with voluntary effort. As an original member of the Union and its Librarian from January 1978, I am donating the extensive records which I preserved to the new archive at the Tate. By doing so, I hope to revive interest in the numerous areas of concern of the original members, make the material generally available for study and perhaps renew contact with those members.


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Contact: Avis Saltsman (or Saltzmann), 17 Gerrard Road, Islington, London N1 8AY +44(0)20 7359 6294 or e-mail her
URL: http://www.art-science.com/Avis/au/au10.html
Last revised 14/10/2002 Copyright: Avis Saltsman 1998 - 2002