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Don’t give up your day job … little has changed for individual artists

Individual artists continue to experience the brunt of arts funding cuts. Shutterstock

Don’t give up your day job … little has changed for individual artists

One of the casualties of the ill-starred reorganisation of arts funding proposed last year by the then Minister for the Arts, Senator George Brandis, was support for individual artists. If his plan had gone ahead, it would have resulted in a further consolidation of funding for the major performing companies at the expense of the lone creative practitioner.

But in its replacement – the Catalyst fund put in place by the new Minister Senator Mitch Fifield – the support prospects for individual artists have not improved much. Catalyst does not fund individuals directly.

Policy conflicts between the funding demands of large performing companies and the needs of the individual creative artist are by no means new. In Australia, they can be traced back as far as the years immediately following the establishment of the Australia Council.

An early vision of the Council’s inaugural chair, Nugget Coombs, was the setting up of well-funded performing companies of international standard in theatre, music and ballet. A consequence of this policy was that during the late 1970s, support for these organisations was absorbing what was seen as a disproportionate share of the available money.

Minister for Communications and the Arts, Senator Mitch Fifield. AAP Image/Joel Carrett

To counteract this trend, a proposal was put to the Council in 1980 by the Literature Board, supported by the Visual Arts and Crafts Boards, for a study into the circumstances of the individual creative artist, in the expectation that such a study would highlight the disadvantage suffered by these boards’ clientele, and would propose remedies. The proposal led to the establishment in 1981 of the Individual Artists Inquiry.

I was invited to chair the Inquiry. Its committee comprised senior artists and arts industry personnel with a wide range of experience and expertise representing writers, visual artists, craftspeople, actors, dancers, musicians, composers, directors and community artists.

Given the lack of data about artists’ economic circumstances, we began by designing and commissioning the first ever national survey of Australian artists to gather the essential information to guide our deliberations. The Inquiry completed its work in August 1983 and its report, entitled The Artist in Australia Today, was published later that year.

What can we learn looking back on the findings and recommendations of this Inquiry from a vantage point 33 years later? The first observation is how little has changed.

The survey documented the relatively low incomes earned from creative work, the extent to which artists were obliged by economic necessity to seek other jobs to support their creative practice, and the difficulties artists faced in establishing their right to recognition in a world where being an artist was not looked upon as a professional occupation. All remain serious issues affecting art practice today.

The Inquiry’s wide-ranging recommendations dealt with the status of the artist, issues relating to artists’ employment and working conditions, and the various means for providing assistance to support their work. Not surprisingly the 1983 Committee recommended an increase in funding for “initial creative artists”, an outcome argued as being achievable without disadvantaging the big performing companies.

Performers protesting against former Federal Minister for the Arts George Brandis’s cuts to the Australia Council for the Arts in 2015. AAP Image/Paul Miller

Many of the Inquiry’s observations have some continuing resonance: the importance of supporting emerging artists; the need for more effective copyright protection; the role of artists’ residencies; dealing with obstacles in the way of a full recognition of artists’ rights; and so on.

To its credit, the Australia Council acted on many of the Inquiry’s recommendations, elevating a concern for the professional welfare of the individual artist in its policy priorities, a position the Council still holds to today, even when government intentions point in another direction.

All committees of inquiry end with proposals for further research and this one was no exception. In particular the report stressed the need to keep the data about practising professional artists up to date.

Accordingly, successive Australia Councils have commissioned new surveys every few years since the 1980s, all of which have been undertaken by me and my colleagues at Macquarie University, and all of which have continued to paint a bleak picture of artists’ circumstances.

Their incomes have remained relatively low; full-time work as a creative artist continues to be out of reach for most practitioners; economic factors are still the major impediment to artists’ opportunities to expand their work profile; and ongoing shortcomings persist in the public and administrative recognition of artists’ professional status.

The last-mentioned problem is reflected in the ironic titles of the survey reports we have published over the years: When are you going to get a real job? (1989); But what do you do for a living? (1994); Don’t give up your day job! (2003); Do you really expect to get paid? (2010).

At present we are in the midst of conducting a new edition of the survey, again funded by a grant from the Australia Council. The hunt is on for a title for the report from the survey, to be published early next year. Suggestions please!

This is the second article in our Making Art Pay series. You can read the first one here. Tomorrow’s article will look at the state of arts philanthropy in Australia.

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