1 February 2016
Art Monthly (Issue 393 p.11)

Ellie Harrison (Profile AM346) has found herself engulfed in a media storm after the internet picked up on news of Creative Scotland’s £15,000 grant for her project The Glasgow Effect, in which the artist vowed not to travel outside the Strathclyde region during the 2016 calendar year. News of the project immediately prompted a vicious (naturally) and ill-informed (ditto) social-media backlash, with the project being misinterpreted as poverty tourism. The project’s title was obviously an ironic provocation, referring to a term used to describe the comparatively low life expectancy of the city’s residents, as was the artist’s choice of illustrating the project’s website with a photo of chips. But the internet doesn’t get irony and the ensuing storm caused one commenter to note: ‘She’s about as welcome in Glasgow as a shite in a swimming pool.’

Yet Harrison is already a resident of Glasgow, and has been since she began her studies at the city’s School of Art 2008 – a period which coincided with the global financial meltdown, an economic backdrop that has informed all of her work since. However, her recent relative success as an artist has led to greater pressure on her to travel. And as Harrison has published her own Environmental Policy (and breached it over the past three years due to travel commitments), she presented this project to Creative Scotland as a study on localism: ‘How would your career, social life, family ties, carbon footprint and mental health be affected if you could not leave the city where you live?’

So the issue of the environmental impact of being a successful artist, not to mention the impact of frequent travel on a socially connected practice like Harrison’s, are to be investigated through the work, if given the chance. Indeed, the question of how to fund art projects has long been of great interest to Harrison, as in her Artists’ Bond scheme (Artnotes AM350) and her Radical Renewable Art + Activism Fund (where the profits from a wind turbine fund radical art projects – Reviews AM391). And it is no surprise that the impetus behind this project was also to do with funding – in this case, university funding. In particular, Harrison has noted that her lecturing job at the Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design in Dundee required that during her 3.5 year probation period, she was required to submit at least one significant research grant application. Puzzled by an education system that requires its lecturers to fundraise in order to carry out research projects that take them away from teaching duties, Harrison’s plan was to give the £15,000 Creative Scotland funding back to DJCAD to cover the teaching that she would miss during 2016. The absurdity of the proposal is intended to reflect the absurdity of the situation.

Perhaps the haters were provoked by the sums involved and the idea that here was a privileged artist taking public money away from those more deserving. Undoubtedly £15,000 is a substantial sum of money, particularly – and despite media headlines – for a UK artist; most artists in the UK earn less than £10,000 a year from their practices. Indeed, as Julie McCalden of the Paying Artists campaign (Artnotes AM377) noted in a-n, in Scotland, two-thirds of artists claim working tax credit and three-quarters survive on less than £5,000 / year.

So perhaps the internet’s arguments over financial inequality could benefit from a sense of perspective and find more suitable objects of ire. But where? Well, in other recent public-finance news, Reuters has revealed that seven of the UK’s biggest banks paid only £20m in UK corporation tax between them in 2014 despite combined profits of £3.6bn – and five of those banks paid no tax whatsoever, having been allowed to write off previous losses against future earnings. Meanwhile, the UK’s City regulator, the FCA, has shelved plans for an inquiry into the culture, pay and behaviour of staff in banking – a sector that since the credit crunch in 2008 has seen 20 global banks pay a total of £152bn in fines. Oh, and Oxfam now reports that the poorest half of humanity (3.5bn people) have only the same combined wealth as the 62 richest. Still, damn those artists and the grants they donate!