The AUE Union was started in 2014. It now has over 500 members and is aiming to be affiliated to the TUC – Trades Union Congress, whose headquarters are in London. It’s therefore a very new and so far a very small trade union. I recently attended the online AGM (Annual General Meeting), participating in a discussion – there were only 27 people at the meeting. It costs £42 a year to join. So what’s the point?
Living in Cornwall it seems unfortunate that it’s specifically English, as many of us consider Cornwall a separate country. Scotland has had its own Artists’ Union for longer. The AUE is eager to explain that it isn’t interested in being preoccupied exclusively with the marketing of art as expensive wall decoration for the wealthy. It has a wider view. It gives advice on being employed and on rates of pay, and during the covid crisis it has had a scheme to give small grants to artists suffering hardship.
Personally, I have benefitted from belonging to this union. When a university returned some of my paintings that had been exhibited in a show, one of them was damaged. Somehow the stretcher had been pushed into the canvas, making an impression of the wooden structure that was quite obvious from the front. When I complained and asked for compensation, the university and carrier blamed one another and denied responsibility or recompense. I contacted the AUE, which has a legal department. They sent the university gallery a letter and I was quickly given the whole price of the picture.
A couple of years ago I was thrown out of my studio share and asked the union for help in understanding my rights. The telephone advice I was given was very helpful. I could have fought my corner, but in the end decided to leave, which saved me paying rent just as Covid-19 happened and the studios closed. So help with your personal work problems is one reason to join.
I think it’s a great idea for more reasons – it means being an artist is recognised as a professional occupation. It recognises art as an essential part of our culture and artists as benefitting from democratic organisation. To join you have to satisfy a few criteria designed to keep out artists who are hobbyists with no serious commitment. It’s not based on monetary success or having an art degree. I want to encourage more artists to join. I believe the Musicians’ Union is far better known and numerous in membership and I am pleased to find AUE is combining with the MU in some campaigns. There are badges, but so far I have never seen anyone wearing one and I think AUE should help recruit members by giving out badges free. Maybe other artists’ unions could report on what happens in their countries?