Artists Make Places: Michaela Wetherell

Could artists be paid to be artists? The fourth in our Artists Make Places series, curator Michaela Wetherell’s response proposes a blind selection of practitioners for the big prize of a five-year salary — accommodated in a new space for Sunderland.

With the budget available to me, I would like to make a real difference in creating paid artist posts, with real PAYE wages, sick pay, holidays, and pensions… all the things as a freelancer I dream of. The artists I’d employ would have access to a workspace for three to five years. They would have to be open and honest about whether at some point they have the resources to move on and make room for someone else — but there will be no pressure to create a body of work or tick funding boxes. It’s just about providing space, equipment and the appropriate support for them to make their work. 

My job would be to promote, exhibit and or sell for all to see. All I would want from them is to pay it forward to their local art community. 

I know most art organisations want to help in any way possible, and that there isn’t much money to go around to all the amazing creatives in the North East. Small pots of money are available, but they can only offer one-off support. This is something I feel in my career, as my main focus is supporting and developing artists, giving them as many tools and opportunities as I can, but it’s on a tight budget. A survey by We Industria found that artists in the UK are working for an hourly rate of £2.60 per hour, due to the fact that they are usually paid set fees and there is always hidden work that is not discussed.

A-N’s artist pay guidelines are a great resource. Funders say they want fair pay, but who do you know getting paid properly for their work? I would use A-N’s model of paying artists according to experience, so if you’ve been a practising artist for two years, you’d have a salary of £30,766, and with seven years’ experience you’d get £39,058.

It’s not possible to help everyone, and I would focus on helping a small number to make a bigger difference — so I’d want to ensure that at any time there are five artists in the space for five years. At the end of that period, I would want artists to know about how to sell their work, to connect with galleries locally, nationally and internationally, to know their skillset well enough to be able to work in more than one area of the arts — even to build their own gallery space, to know how to apply for commissions… the really big ones!  

My criteria would be, firstly, that artists must live in the North East, come from a working-class background, (which would entail another essay on how to define the term) and secondly that they must be dedicated to their practice. Beyond that, I think there is too much bias in the art world – and I include myself in that – so I would have a completely blind application and pick the winners out of a tombola; leave it to faith and see what happens. 

It would be not only about young people: alongside these permanent residencies, I would have resources and tools for all to come through and learn how to develop their careers in the art world. Some older artists never had the chance to develop their careers and some creatives have just never caught a break, always grinding but it just hasn’t worked out for them. 

It should be about people helping other people, not taking the ladder up with them. Pay people to help in your practice. Make yourself available for struggling and budding creatives to talk to you. Share your knowledge with art classes. You can’t just lock yourself away and make art: the reclusive genius won’t work in my fantasy space. 

I would definitely have a space in Sunderland. I live here and think we have the most beautiful coastline, so I would like my own space as close to the beach as possible. I would like to pay homage to brutalist architecture which has been pretty much stripped in Sunderland and glass (they love building glass squares devoid of any soul). Think of a sexy concrete glass box, which the public would either love or hate.

The space will be free for all to see the artwork, learn about North East history and the artists living and working here — and for them to come and make work. I think it’s very sad that community spaces are closing. More communities are being isolated and we need warm spaces. 

When the money runs out we would have the resources to be self-funded by sales of artwork, developing creative workshops for other organisations to pay for, hiring out the funky building for weddings and get some donors to help the cause. If you are not thinking of making money in some way to be self-sufficient after £5 million you should never have £5 million to start with.

As a 35 year old woman I should be climbing the ladder of a career I have been carving out since graduating from university in 2011. I feel I arrive at a certain position and then get pushed down a peg or two. It took me ten years to just get my little toe off the starting line. I would love for that to change, and for people not to have to go to university to get into loads of debt only to possibly never build a career in the arts. 

Main image: Souter lighthouse, Whitburn

About the Author

Michaela Wetherell is a Sunderland-based curator and the director of Pink-collar Gallery. Her practice focuses on the promotion of under-represented groups, using art to promote equality. Her particular passions are female (under)representation within the arts and the relevance of working-class identity.

Pink-collar Gallery started online to support artists in the pandemic and to develop an exhibition programme. Since 2020 the gallery has worked with over 155 artists, commissioned 20 new pieces of work and focused on issues such as mental health, working-class identity and femicide. Pink-collar is developing a physical space in Sunderland.

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