Art and money are not supposed to go together. Money muddies art, creative moguls will tell you, because penniless artists make purer work. And yet here is one performance that is forcefully breaking down that distinction. The opening image of Paula Varjack’s multimedia performance, Show Me The Money, plays on the typically romantic image of a scatty artist – a woman in a lurid jumpsuit sits in front of her laptop (complete with a Banksy sticker) surrounded by torn up pieces of paper and a recyclable coffee cup – before launching a shrewd enquiry into how artists make money in an age of austerity. Art is by no means only an abstract and cerebral pastime. We already know that art is political, and now Varjack is insisting that it is also rooted in cold hard cash.
Show Me The Money covers a plethora of issues to do with the arts and finance – why do we pay artists so much less than programmers? At what age do we stop being “emerging”? Can we be real artists if we have to support our work with second jobs? – which might feel ambitious for an hour, except that they are neatly drawn together by Varjack’s own personal narrative. She has the advantage (or disadvantage, really) that her story is like so many others, as evidenced by the documentary-style videos that accompany her monologue in which she interviews fellow artists about their work. The financial instability of the freelance creative is made relatable and real on the stage – the starving artist is not a comical stereotype but a real problem that warrants discussion.
One issue that faces the arts in the UK, Varjack notes at the start of the piece, is the very British etiquette around talking about money. We want industry standard fees and recognition of the time that goes into making art, but are limited in how much we can discuss with each other. Through her interviews, Varjack asks the difficult questions that the rest of us are usually less able to, and the result is a surprisingly candid collection of testimonies about working in the arts. It is touching, and reassuring, to hear about the struggles and insecurities that other creatives face.
There is no simple answer to the problem that Varjack calls a “crumbling arts economy”, but Show Me The Money’s series of confessions, including Varjack’s own, go some way towards what might strengthen the industry. This piece is not just ordinary entertainment – it is a rallying cry for creatives to come together, discuss their working conditions, and demand fair pay.