What was the Artists Union?

Notes by Avis Saltsman -
Page Four

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The print above appeared on the North-West group newsletter.

In 1973 there was a national membership campaign and subsequently branches formed in the North-West, South-West, Reading and Wessex, Yorkshire and the East Midlands. National conferences took place in Manchester (UMIST) in 1977, London 1978, Bristol 1979, London (Whitechapel Gallery) in 1980 and Nottingham in 1981.

The national committee consisted of members from all over the country and five publications were produced and distributed widely by the Librarian on request from colleges and universities, arts organisations including the English, Scottish and Welsh Arts Councils and International Arts Association, Tate Gallery, Arts Council Shop, the BBC, the Rainbow Arts Group, the Libraries and Arts services of borough councils and the T.U.C., the Artists Union branches as well as writers and individual members.

The publications were :-

1. ‘Wages for Artists ? and other suggestions for improving the artist’s situation’, a discussion paper prepared for the first conference in Manchester.

2. ‘The Patient and the Creative Arts’, a report by Will Adams of A.U. N.E.C. on a conference organised by SHAPE in conjunction with King Edward’s Hospital fund for London (the King’s Fund Centre).

3. ‘Why do Artists need a Union?’ an account of a meeting of Artists held in Manchester on 9th May 1977 with a view to setting up an organisation in the North West. (Cover on the next page).

4. ‘The Artists Union Response to the Labour Party Discussion Document on the Arts.’

5. ‘The Donaldson Correspondence’ which was the entire correspondence relating to the AU’s request to the Minister of Arts, Lord Donaldson, to consider the very real problems of working artists with a view towards the urgent need for a code of practice in the visual arts.

Various posters were produced and a membership form with aims and objectives. A working party spent many months putting together the Artists Union Rules and Constitution which would be needed for application for TUC membership. It was felt that practitioners in the other arts had unions to represent them, such as Equity, the Musician’s Union, the Theatre Writers’ Union and the Writer’s Guild and that other countries, such as France, Holland and Canada had much better arrangements concerning the livelihood and welfare of visual artists. The AU fought to establish the artist’s right to exist as a worker with the production of art as their primary activity and without the necessity always to take other work unrelated or only vaguely related to their years of training.

The Artists Union National Executive committee met monthly from 1977 to 1981 and most of the minutes and agendas are now held in the archive.

One of the dangers facing the Union was high-lighted by the Secretary at the 4th Annual Conference...


The final issue is that of the lack of similarity between the AU and other trade unions not least in relation to our aim to affiliate to the TUC. There is no doubting the fact that we already fulfil a function for artists which no other form of artists organisation might equal. Until we succeed in affiliating to the TUC however we will remain powerless and unable to provide adequate protection and representation of our membership. The last year has seen us tackle a vast amount of work, but it has been work done with tied hands and with inevitable compromises. The basis for membership is at present that of individuals not only lacking a shared employer, shared work place, common rates of pay or conditions of work but any other form of association other than their membership. The position of artists and artworkers is unique in relation to other working people in this country but despite this unless a situation evolves in which membership is through association of members apart from their union membership the function and nature of the AU is outside the definitions laid down by act of parliament for Trade union and the existance of the AU is reduced to that of an artists association or club.

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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/au4.html
Last revised 14/10/2002 Copyright: Avis Saltsman 1998 - 2002