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Gavin Turk: Coronavirus risks closing the door on working class artists

Former Young British Artist Gavin Turk said he fears for the future of the arts in the UK

Gavin Turk – renowned artist and member of the Young British Artists movement – has told The Big Issue he fears that the coronavirus pandemic will further limit opportunities for artists from less privileged backgrounds.

Turk came to prominence in the British art scene in the 1990s alongside the likes of Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin. In his early years, he relied on unemployment benefits to make ends meet.

But in an interview with The Big Issue he has called on the government to support the arts at a time when performers, events organisers and artists are struggling as fewer people can attend exhibitions due to coronavirus restrictions.

“There was a couple of years where I was subsidised by the government,” he said. “I was on the dole. Being an artist is really difficult. It’s really difficult because on the one hand, you’re trying to work [and] on the other hand, you’re trying to look for work.”

Turk doesn’t believe his entry route is open to the new generation of artists starting out today. Changes to the benefits system – including the launch of Universal Credit – mean that support is no longer there, and often the only artists who can get by are supported by other means. 

During the pandemic, many artists have struggled to pay their bills. Most work on a freelance basis and a large proportion also supplement their income in the gig economy. Both areas of the economy have been hit hard.

As theatres, galleries and concert venues have been forced to close or to adapt to new limited capacities, so commissions have dried up. Freelancers were late to be addressed by Rishi Sunak’s furlough plan, and when they were offered support there were still significant loopholes.

Meanwhile the World Economic Forum has identified those reliant on the gig economy for work as among the hardest hit due to the global pandemic.

Recognising the challenges faced by creatives, the government released an ad campaign which suggested that ballerinas should retrain in ‘cyber’. It infuriated the arts community, was roundly mocked, and then withdrawn.

For its part, the art world has also been slow to take up the challenge of class diversity.

“I think it gets progressively more difficult for people who don’t have a privileged background to work as an artist,” he said. “Generally, I think the art world is taking on the challenge of equality, in terms of female artists and ethnic minorities being represented. But I also think that element of poverty is being less taken on.”

The arts are the way that society reflects upon itself, he added. Without a variety of voices coming through, we risk a barren environment that lacks the voices of working-class people.

“If people’s voices aren’t heard – if there isn’t a space for certain kinds of storytelling or certain kinds of narrative or if certain kinds of different people don’t appear – then they are not represented. What they stand for or where they’re coming from doesn’t have a voice,” he said.

As the impact of Covid-19 restrictions on galleries and performance spaces ripples through the arts scene, things are only set to get more challenging for everyone in the creative sector.

“Just on a simple level, it’s really hard for art, because if you can’t get the audience then you can’t keep doors open for the museum,” Turk explained.

“You’ve got your blockbuster exhibitions, which are really expensive. If you don’t get your queues of people then you don’t get your income, then you don’t get your numbers. Everything kind of cascades from there. It feels to me a bit like we’re treading water.”

'Bum' Gavin Turk's 1998 sculpture of himself as a homeless person Image: Livestockmarket

Turk called on the government to support the arts and their vital role for society: “I think that government definitely should do as much as it can to support arts and culture. It’s not only one of the great things this country has and can do, it is also something that on societal terms is the thing that lets people think differently and think laterally. Exercising the creative muscle is necessary to thriving and to moving forward.”

Turk was speaking ahead of The Big Art Auction, a unique event in which one-of-a-kind artwork will be sold off in aid of The Big Issue.

As a long-time supporter of The Big Issue – and former cover star – Turk said he was glad to donate to the auction. He has created a very special Fender Stratocaster, which – like Spinal Tap – will turn up to 11.

“I’ve always had amazing chats, banter, experience with Big Issue salespeople,” he said. “They’re like an amazing kind of army of really good raconteurs. It really is the best sales force I know. So I’ve always had an empathy for the project.”

For more information about The Big Art Auction click here. To register to bid, click here.