What was the Artists Union?

Notes by Avis Saltsman -
Page Three

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There were connections with other unions and community artists campaigns and attendance at conferences where they could be afforded on topics such as Art Law, a protest being launched at the cost of one on ‘The Arts and the European Community’. A gradually more professional newsletter was produced by volunteers with membership subscriptions paying for printing and office rental with fund-raising events for single enterprises. The fund-raising events were certainly fun:-

An example is the February 1976 newsletter (cover right) which follows, as it discusses many of the issues:-


This newsletter is fulfilling a dual function in providing some basic information for potential members, who have written to us as a result of the publicity campaign, and in reacquainting the membership with some of these facts.
First, however, there is the perennial question of "Why should there be an Artists Union? The idea appears less strange when it is realised that most of the other cultural workers in this country are already unionised, e.g. actors, writers and musicians. There are very successful artists unions in the Netherlands and Finland and similar organisations in the U.S.A., France and several other countries. Recently, in January 1975, the Federation of Artists in Scotland was formed and already has 200 members. In this country there are an estimated 2,000 practising artists. The vast majority of them are not able to support themselves by their work and are employed in other areas which are partially complementary to their abilities, e.g. education, whilst others are totally misemployed.
The Artists Union aims to establish the artists right to work - art is labour. It is not only the artists work which has value but the artist himself. Only in acting together can artists achieve this, demanding the reform of the existing means of patronage and establishing new ones (in a sense creating their own employers).

Brief History of the Union (This covers some of the main events in its 3+ years)

May 1972 Union founded
June 1973 Special Conference (at Imperial College) on Art Education organised In conjunction with the ATTI and NUS; preceded by a march and demonstration. And earlier a campaign tour of many major colleges.
April 1974 Participated with the Dutch Artists union at the "Art theory, Politics and Practice” conference at the R.C.A.
June 1974 Recommendations for the reform of the Arts Council drawn up and sent in by the membership in response to the Arts Council’s survey. The recommendations were reprinted in the Arts Council’s subsequent report.
November 1974 "Culture in Crisis” - a delegate conference held at the l.C.A. to discuss patronage. Representatives from groups ranging between ‘the performance centre’, the ‘writers action group’ through to the ‘Independent Theatre Council’.
At this time Hugh Jenkins, the minister of the Arts, was met, and the shortcomings of the Arts Council were discussed with him.
1975 The AU moved from the ICA to new offices at 125/129 Shaftesbury Avenue, where AIR and SPACE also have their offices.
Also in this year we made contact with a sympathetic lawyer who was prepared to draw up a new artists contract for us. The old one we had was based on the contract drawn up by the Art Workers Coalition in the U.S.A. and proved too cumbersome to be practical. He also offered to give legal advice to members (free up to the first £25). The union cannot afford at the moment to take him up on his generous offer. It is for matters like this that the A.U. urgently needs the strength and resources a growing membership provides.
November 1975 Four members of the AU were among the delegation elected from the floor of a meeting of artists following the sacking of the staff of AIR and SPACE. This delegation carried out the first of the negotiations with the Council of Management, putting forward proposals for the democratisation of the whole organisation.

All through the union’s history contact with other unions had been maintained not only with other artists’ unions abroad but also with the labour movement in Great Britain. In fact the A.U. was initially formed as a potential branch of an existing union. Contact was made and information received from:

Equity (Actors)
Freelance branch of N.U.J. (National Union of Journalists)
ACTT (Association of Cinematograph and Television Technicians)
ASTMS Assoc. of Scientific, Technical and Managerial Staffs)
T&GWU (Transport and General Workers Union)
SOGAT (National Union of Printing, Bookbinding and Paper Workers)
TASS (Technical and Supervisory section of AUEW)
M.U. (Musicians Union)
SLADE (Society of Lithographic Artists, Designers and Engineers)


The Artists Union has gained a lot of experience in a short space of time in an uphill struggle. Many artists, as individuals, are trying to widen and change their audience and themselves - are looking at the relationships between their work and society. So it is only logical that they should begin to learn how to protect themselves by collective action.

The arbiters of artistic opinion in this country are not artists or society as a whole but at their worst are men like Frank Lloyd, director of Marlborough Fine Art: "When I saw it was going to be difficult to keep on selling ‘important’ art I had to go to living artists”.

Joining the Union

Anyone joining must realise that the union has not established a power base and that it is at a formative stage. As has been said by members of the Patronage Workshop, the diversity of our membership should be celebrated - but the way to protect our very right to BE artists is to act together. Artists must have a voice in all matters affecting them and their work. If and when this principle is accepted by a significant number of artists, whatever their medium - performance, paint or film - then the A.U. will be an effective union.


The union is run by the membership; decisions are reached at branch meetings held on the first Saturday of every month (except August). If you want any more information about particular areas of the Union’s work please write and specify these concerns.

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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/au3.html
Last revised 14/10/2002 Copyright: Avis Saltsman 1998 - 2002