What was the Artists Union?

Notes by Avis Saltsman -
Page Six

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The Report of the 4th Annual Conference is worth extracting at length,
as this showed the strengths of the Union over the previous three years...


This year, again, the need for a strong AU to protect and promote the needs of artists has been clearly demonstrated. The Government have instituted cuts which have not been favourable to artists. This shows that even with a Minister for the Arts in the Cabinet, it is of little use without progressive policies. This was evidenced on several occasions when I and others were present to put the AU’s case.

Artists stated publicly at the Artlaw Conference (Jan), that in order to make a living they were forced to live outside the law, especially concerning taxation. Tax experts, and officials, from the USA, Canada, and the UK, at the British American Arts Association seminar (April), on "Tax policy & private support for the arts”, stated that governments control the arts through taxation; Neil MacFarlane, the Junior Arts Minister, opening the seminar, reaffirmed the Governments preference for business sponsorship. In the Vaizey unstarred question, in the House of Lords (June), "To draw HMG’s attention to the difficulties facing young people training for a career in the arts”, the Government’s answer showed that contrary to the AU, NAFE & NUS points of view which I put, they would prefer to cling to their cuts policy which will affect art college courses, grants to art students, and the vital part time teaching by working artists and designers. Putting the case to the European Commission (June), Roland Miller, representing the AU, and myself representing the Visual Artists Rights Steering Committee (VARSC), learned that the UK is holding up harmonisation on Artists Resale Rights.

Nor can artists expect much from the Arts Council or Regional Arts Associations. The Arts Council finance department tell me that whereas in the mid ‘7Os they could cover their costs , the current year their grant increase is about 2% which they feel is nowhere near inflation level. The Greater London Arts Association was rapped over the knuckles (Nov 1979) by the Arts Council for daring to promote a cuts campaign. And in a campaign led by the North West Branch (AU), the only non-commercial gallery in the Manchester area, the Peterloo, was closed, and a plea to Kenneth Robinson (Chair AC), went over like a lead balloon. The Arts Council, not only lacking in imagination and vision to save the Peterloo, at the time of writing I have been asked to write to the Chairman of the Visual Arts Panel of the AC, enquiring how such a provocative situation - 2 women on the panel out of 19, who chose an awards panel consisting of men only, who have short listed 40 artists, all of whom are men, for the current awards scheme, out of 675 applicants (of both sexes) could have arisen.

Nor do I think it insignificant, that after being interviewed for the BBC TV’s two part programme on the Arts Council, the Director came up to me and said - "Good that is what I hoped you’d say”. This AU contribution was axed from the final print.

An arts policy based on a few grants & prizes, from the Arts Council and private industry, is demeaning for artists. So we must look to ourselves, build a strong voice, and work with our friends in the labour movement. But although the Union has taken part in the cuts campaigns, and was invited to the TUC Bread & Roses rally/concert, we are still the only cultural body not represented in the TUC. To this end, as the NEC feel we cannot keep waiting for a Certificate of Independence, I have recently written to the TUC requesting a meeting to establish closer links. (The points raised in this letter should be discussed in the ‘open” session of our Conference.)

However, in these bleak times, much has been done by the AU towards gaining a better future for artists, notably in two areas- 1. our liaison with the Association of Artists & Designers in Wales & 2. the decision to take the bull by the horns over the collecting society, (VARSC)- Also, Richard Mann has been in touch with the House of Commons Education, Science & Arts Committee, following the Vaizey debate & with recommendations from Paddy Goff (AU) the NEC initiated plans to form an Education Sub-Committee; we have met with the newly formed Australian Artworkers Union to whom Phil Rooke gave some tips from the early days of the AU, we held discussions with the International Association of Art; Conrad Atkinson arranged an interview with a Canadian journalist, where he related the first years of the AU’s history & filled in the last few years - at this point I would specially like to thank Conrad, both from me personally in initiating me into the AU, and also for his contribution to the AU over the years; & we found strange bedfellows at a Society of Art Dealers meeting, where their Chairman suggested that an AU membership card, as Equity’s is for an actor, could be proof of an artist as regards the Dept. of Employment.

One more outside situation I should mention before a quick word on internal mechanics of the Union. In the London Branch’s fight to save some Camden studios for artists, & also in our campaign (thanks to Ghisha Koenig AU) to save Flaxman’s studio for a sculpture centre & workshops in central London, it would be all too easy for AU to be caught in a hassle between the need for artists to live and work in studio space & a local community’s need for housing. This should also be discussed in the ‘open’ debate at Conference.

Unfortunately two events this year have militated against the Union being as effective as it might have been - 1. with all these significant issues needing debate, it is a disaster that the AU JOURNAL was not printed, thus keeping our outlying members in the dark. For in the circumstances much work has been done by the AU, as is evidenced by the reports to Conference; 2. the failure of the AU to get a grant to pay for an administrative General Secretary to take over the day to day running of the AU, leaving officers & conveners, locally & nationally, to concentrate on policy, negotiations, & publicity. Events have shown that some centralisation would be advantageous to the Branches, for example, although the East Midlands Branch has collapsed through lack of personnel willing to take up local officers jobs, enquiries concerning membership in that area have increased. And here I must pay a special tribute to Ric Mann for his tireless work this year. His Secretaryship has been the pivot to holding the Union together. And a special thanks to Rosie Christmas (from North-West Branch), whose Vice-Chairwomanship has been a stable ear, not only to me personally, but also to the NEC, in times of stress.

Just to add a personal note as retiring Chair. On entering the AU in 1974, I knew little art politics. Working for the AU has helped discipline my erratic thoughts into more formal methods of being effective. My experience outside the Union during the same period, has shown me what is possible. I want to express thanks not only to those who have helped educate me, but to the Union itself which has schooled my thoughts from general frustration, to how I, as an individual artist, can start to work together with others to produce arguments to win our case.

CHARLES GOSFORD September 1980.

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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/au6.html
Last revised 14/10/2002 Copyright: Avis Saltsman 1998 - 2002