VAI Column: The Help-Desk


I deal with professional queries through VAI’s Help-Desk – a free and confidential service available to all artists, by phone, email, through the website and in clinics nationwide. If you have a question, an idea or a problem, I’ll usually be able to offer advice or at least point you in the right direction. Every artist faces their own challenges, but a few regular queries are touched on below. These themes are expanded upon in the ‘How To Manual: A Survival Guide for Visual Artists’, available on the VAI website.

Finding Opportunities
You can apply for opportunities and exhibitions by responding to open-calls that seem relevant to your practice. A good starting point is to sign up to VAI’s twice-weekly eBulletin service and consulting the opportunity listings on our website. These offer details on current and upcoming commissions, competitions, workshops and training, talks, seminars and so on, directed towards visual artists at all stages of their career. The majority of galleries and art organisations in the country – including studio groups, artist-led spaces, independent curators, local authorities, etc. – advertise their open-calls through us. When looking for arts organisations in your area or elsewhere, consult the Arts Directory on VAI’s website. You can search by location and by category including: Public Galleries, Commercial Galleries, Artist-Led Organisations, Artist Studios and Art Supplies.

Writing and Grant Applications
Developing proposals should be approached with the same high degree of professionalism as making your work. A proposal should say as much about you as the work you produce. Make sure that your proposal is concise, has been proof-read, spell-checked and is presented in a formal and appropriate way. The most common mistakes many artists make when developing a proposal are: poor research; a ‘one size fits all’ approach; and failure to consider the proposal from the reader’s perspective.

Contract Advice
In their professional lives, artists enter into many contracts: they sell their work; they are commissioned to produce work; they exhibit in galleries; they give permission to reproduce their work for various purposes. As an emerging artist, the sooner you start using contracts the better, because virtually all professional dealings involve entering into contracts. When something goes wrong and the artist seeks advice, the first question is: “Was there a valid contract?” A contract does not need to be complicated; we have easy-to-adapt templates that are available to download from our website.

Tax and Self-Employment

When you start generating more than €5,000 per year from your work as an artist, you will need to register to pay income tax, which will mean you are self-employed. You are eligible to apply for Artist Tax Exemption, which applies only to sales of work and some Arts Council funding. You can be self-employed and also have other PAYE income. Similarly, you can be self-employed and receive social welfare. You will need to declare all of these strands of income in your annual tax returns.

Social Welfare
As an artist on social welfare, you will be able to show any applications for exhibitions, funding or art-related jobs as proof that you are actively seeking work. There is a Jobseekers Allowance pilot scheme for professional visual artists. You need to be registered as self-employed to access this scheme, while a VAI professional membership card is accepted as proof of professional artist status. As with other self-employed people on Jobseekers Allowance, when short-term work opportunities arise, you will be able to take on that work and your payments will be adjusted for the duration, but not terminated. You will not be asked to retrain or attend workshops for at least 12 months.

Payment Guidelines
As a professional you are entitled to be paid for your work. In recent years, the Arts Council adopted the policy that all organisations in receipt of funding should pay artists a fee. We are increasingly seeing arts organisations moving towards artist payment systems and providing other terms of support. It is understandable that as an emerging artist you may need to take part in some opportunities that are unpaid, in order to gain experience. However, you should not accept this long-term. Many artists continue to go unpaid because they find asking for artist fees uncomfortable or fear they may miss out on an opportunity. As in any other profession, it is prudent to discuss the payment terms upfront. You have the choice to turn down an exhibition, if it does not offer equitable terms. To work out the fee you should be getting for exhibitions (and other types of work, including delivering artist talks, workshops and curating), you can refer to the VAI Payment Guideline Calculator.

These are just some of the topics that are regularly submitted to the Help-Desk. Others include pricing your work, artist’s insurance, commission advice, internships, copyright, exporting your work and conflict resolution. It’s worth noting that I don’t get many recent graduates contacting the Help-Desk. Perhaps this is because graduates aren’t aware that this service is free and open to them, or maybe it’s because artists at later stages of their career are more assertive in seeking out information. Whatever the reason, I hope that after reading this, you know the VAI Help-Desk is here, if and when you need advice.

Shelly McDonnell is Visual Artists Ireland’s Communications and Advocacy Officer.

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