The Artists' Fair 2024

Writer, filmmaker and Somerset House Studios alumni Juliet Jacques reflects upon her visit to this year's Artists' Fair.

Making a living as an artist in London has never been easy. In the 16 years since the financial crash and especially the years since the UK formally left the European Union and the COVID-19 pandemic hit, it has become even harder. This has required artists, galleries and institutions to think creatively about how to make the industry sustainable: how to make studio spaces more accessible and affordable, and how to help artists, often reticent about the idea of ‘the market’, sell their works amidst an endless economic crisis, in which the arts have been badly hit.

Philomene Pirecki's stall at the Artists' Fair. Photograph by Anne Tetzlaff.

Somerset House Studios launched in 2016 to provide affordable spaces for artists (of various disciplines, from writers to fashion designers) in central London, offering some free residencies alongside a rates-based system from the beginning of members’ terms, which can last as long as seven years. The team has run a comprehensive events programme since its inception: in 2022, they held their first Artists’ Fair, inviting residents to sell their works without having to pay for a stall or having to give a cut to the organisers. This year, they added panels featuring a number of current and former residents – myself included – to discuss a range of issues that, as curator and writer Maggie Matić put it when chairing a conversation about inclusivity, were all about “different forms of access”.

Enorê's stall at the Artists' Fair. Photograph by Anne Tetzlaff.

As well as enticing more people through the doors, these panels made the ethos of the event clearer to artists and attendees. “This feels like a community activity, bringing people together in a non-hierarchical way,” said Studios resident Paul Purgas, who was selling work as well as doing a DJ set in the bar in the evening, alongside artist Marija Bozinovska Jones. “I’m here to sell music, but it’s also an informal way to engage with the public outside an exhibition setting.” Musician Anat Ben-David told me: “I have no desire to sell – I don’t even know how to take money. It’s all improvisation, but that’s me. Hopefully people will want to invest in that.” The stalls had a strong DIY ethos, with artists and booksellers (such as Montez Press and Tint Library, who specialise in Black art material) setting up themselves before opening at noon. The four panels were an hour long, with an hour between so people had time to browse.

I was told my career was over before it even started... if you have children, you’re not serious.
Larry Achiampong

There was also a creche for anyone with children, and the first panel, chaired by Studios director Marie McPartlin, was with three residents who discussed the challenge of combining their practice with parenthood – Larry Achiampong, who was the only parent when the Studios opened, and Imran Perretta and Hannah Perry, who had children after joining. This was a wide-ranging and emotionally moving conversation on an under-discussed topic, exploring not just the greater financial difficulties that come with having children as a London-based artist – as Perry said she had worked on a long-term project that effectively paid £6 per day and had to be supported by her partner – but the many ways in which the industry excludes parents.

Imran Perretta and Larry Achiampong talking at the Artists' Fair. Photograph by Anne Tetzlaff.

“I was told my career was over before it even started,” said Achiampong. “If you have children, you’re not serious [about being an artist]”. A lot of environments don’t cater for children – Perry and Perretta pointed out, residencies became impossible after becoming a parent. Perretta added that he had never taken his child to a gallery, finding them unwelcoming. Perretta said European institutions who offered work did not realise quite how much the British welfare state had been gutted, with consequent childcare costs; an audience member added further context about how primary schools no longer valued creativity, with arts and crafts being deprioritised in favour of literary and STEM subjects since the Conservatives returned to power in 2010.

Marie Mcpartlin, Hannah Perry, Imran Perretta and Larry Achiampong talking at the Artists' Fair. Photograph by Anne Tetzlaff.

The next panel, on Accessible and Inclusive Working, featured three people who had felt the need to create new art spaces as existing ones didn’t always serve them. Studios resident Alexandrina Hemsley – one half of Project O, a performance duo who explore, amongst other things, ‘the fallout from being born black, mixed and female in 21st century UK’ – talked about setting up Yewande 103, a Black, disabled and survivor-led organisation to challenge racial, ableist and gender-based violences and biases in the dance and wider cultural sectors. Artist, curator and d/Deaf activist Hannah Wallis discussed her experiences of working freelance and with teams at Nottingham Contemporary and Grand Union in Birmingham, while Kate Adams talked about co-founding Project Art Works in 1997, making films with her son Paul Colley, who has complex support needs. Talking about how small groups often push for changes with larger institutions following, sometimes reluctantly, Adams asked the key, double-edged question of the art world: “Who does care?” The pandemic highlighted this: institutions adopted more inclusive online practices out of necessity, and then dropped them, despite COVID-19 still being present.

Kate Adams, Hannah Wallis, Alexandrina Hemsley and Maggie Matić talking at the Artists' Fair. Photograph by Anne Tetzlaff.

I chaired the next panel, entitled ‘Side Hustling for a Sustainable Practice’, with Philomene Pirecki, who was one of the Studios artists (along with Purgas) who first proposed the Artists’ Fair, and Industria, authors of a recent report called ‘Structurally Fucked’ about the financial state of the arts (to which I contributed). We opened by listing the jobs and gigs we’d done around our creative work, but also questioned the distinction between ‘sustainable practice’ and ‘side hustle’, given that so much of an artist’s work consists of hustling: pitching ideas, applying for funding, promoting oneself, and so on. (This way of living was explored in Kuba Szreder’s ABC of the Projectariat, a mini-dictionary of the precarity of the contemporary art world.) We also looked at how the term diminishes any artists who don’t make a living solely from their practice – which, in reality, is most artists, as Industria proved in their report. This situation has led many artists, including myself, into doing practice-based PhDs and then going into academia, another industry destroyed by cuts and the introduction of market logic over the last few decades. Once again, the lack of pay for artists and the destruction of the welfare state were the most salient issues: Artists’ Union England has been pushing for fairer salaries, but ultimately, the restoration of more stable working conditions generally would benefit artists, especially those who combine their practice with another job.

Audience during the talks at the Artists' Fair. Photograph by Anne Tetzlaff.

The final panel dealt with navigating censorship – featuring Somerset House Studios resident Tai Shani, artist and director of Queer Direct Gaby Sahhar, and director, producer, and performer Taghrid Choucair-Vizoso. The panel aimed to speak collectively, asking not to be quoted individually, and invited the audience to interject with their experiences and questions throughout, rather than separating the main discussion from the Q&A. The situation in Gaza has brought various issues around censorship to a head: the way bad faith actors have appropriated the concept of freedom of speech to advance extremely right-wing agendas and shut down people who disagree with them, and the difficulties in challenging censorship when it is not being imposed by governments but encouraged by special interest groups that organise behind the scenes and seek to infiltrate the management layers of art institutions. Despite the pessimism about this state of affairs, the three cited several positive examples of successful boycotts, and instances where organisations had been pressured to reinstate cancelled events or had been encouraged to be more transparent about their political positions. “Artists can write their own contexts, but can’t rely on institutions to come to their senses,” said a panellist – we have to work with, and sometimes against, big organisations to persuade them to act ethically.

Visitors enjoying the bar at the Artists' Fair. Photograph by Anne Tetzlaff.

This provided an upbeat ending to the day’s activities, before artists and attendees mixed in the bar, with Purgas, Bozinovska Jones and Lord Tusk's DJ sets. Building panels into a day-long social event, to which people could come and go as they wished, proved an effective way to bring people to the stalls. It also offered a different take on the low-cost, low-budget fair: all the selling artists needed were fold-away tables and chairs, with the panels not requiring much besides a sound system and microphones, as well as reasonable pay for their speakers and organisers. Somerset House Studios’ model could easily be replicated elsewhere, and the criticisms and suggestions made on the panels will hopefully be acted upon, at Somerset House and more widely – at the very least, it should provoke further thinking about how to make the arts more accessible, more inclusive, and more remunerative for the artists at their core.

Written by

    Juliet Jacques