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Paying to work: surviving in the arts.

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Wednesday 12 November 2003

Harriet Parsons, visual artist, Vic

Paying to work: surviving in the arts

Yesterday the Australia Council released David Throsby's economic study of the Arts Industry, Don't Give Up Your Day Job. The news that more than half Australia’s creative artists earn less than $7,300 a year from their profession, and in the case of visual artists - my own field - less than $3,100 a year, came as no surprise.  


When I entered art college in 1994, I never expected, and I’m sure neither did any of my peers, to earn a living by selling art. What I did expect was that I would be able to support myself in part-time work. As a trained editor with two university degrees and 10 years experience in Arts administration, I assumed finding work would not be too difficult.  


Nine years on, a reasonably successful artist, I fit the profile of Professor Throsby’s study perfectly: 40 years old, working as a part-time dishwasher with a combined annual income of around $24,000.  


For visual artists, living below the poverty line has little to do with the sale of work or the level of subsidies we receive. Far more damaging has been the gradual erosion under successive governments, both Labor and Liberal, of the award wage and conditions and the infrastructures which used to support and protect all low income earners - including artists - but which now have left us vulnerable, not only to the hardships of poverty but also to the unscrupulous behaviour of anyone willing to take advantage.  


In some ways artists are better off than others because, generally, we could escape by giving up our art practice and taking on full-time work.  


On the other hand, as a profession we are regarded with suspicion by the community and government alike. When Jennifer Bott, CEO of the Australia Council writes in her commentary that the average artist’s income, from all sources, is about the same as for a casual factory worker, I would say that most Australians would expect - and hope - for no less.  


In the last 12 months both the National Party’s Peter Ryan, and Labor's Mark Latham, took a swipe at the Arts as an easy, popular target. Peter Ryan made a heartfelt demand during the last State election to cut funding for public art, because, he asked, how can we justify it during a drought? Likewise, Mark Latham made a throwaway comment to the ABC’s Sandy McCutcheon about Labor's new savings plan for low income earners, saying that it would be better than spending the money on ‘more art galleries’.  


Offering twin responses of resentment on one hand and derision on the other, obviously neither Ryan nor Latham have made the connection that artists are low income earners - that when you take away a funded project from an artist, that means months of casual work in a job that often pays below the award wage and rarely adheres to award conditions.  


In my first job as a kitchen hand, after two years working for nine dollars an hour, I approached my employer - someone I must add I still regard with great affection - for improved pay and conditions. Among the many arguments he raised against me, was my Australia Council grant for which, he told me, he would have been well within his rights to have sacked me, because its purpose was to allow me to take regular time off to study with two senior artists.  


Last week the government was proclaiming the wonderful news that unemployment is at record lows. But I have to ask, what kind of employment? Casual employment in some industries has all but replaced permanent part-time and even full-time jobs. In my current workplace the entire staff will be laid off at Christmas for three weeks without pay.  


Casualisation of the work force, legal and clandestine, has given employers an ideal workforce: one which is educated, motivated and completely defenceless. Many businesses are thriving but at what expense? They may have the workers they want, but are they really the employers we want? And when did such aggressive attitudes towards employees start in our society?  


For artists, the opportunities for flexible work which allow you to take off a day, a week or a month to pursue your art career, are so limited, demanding rights such as superannuation, are battles just not worth fighting. In better paid casual work the stakes can be even higher. I know of one case in which an opportunistic employer asked an employee for sex in exchange for much-needed extra hours teaching  


Artists don’t defend their rights and generally, unfortunately, we are not our own best advocates. But the fact is that subsidy is far from unique to the Arts.  


This year the automotive industry received an additional subsidy package of $4.5 billion. I can’t work this one out but divided per capita, by anyone's standard, this is an extraordinary amount of subsidy. How do they justify it during a drought? Because it’s saving jobs. Well, working as an artist is my job and the art gallery is my workplace. I would like to meet a car designer willing to forego his professional income to pay to work in his industry.  


Guests on this program:

Harriet Parsons  

Visual Artist