How to Support Starving Artists

In their 2003 report for the Australia Council “Don’t Give Up Your Job”, David Throsby and Virginia Hollister examined the income and work patterns of independent artists in Australia.

The picture was bleak, as their title suggested. Their report found that the mean creative income for an independent artist working in Australia was only $17,000 per annum (the average annual wage in Australia in 2003 was about $52,300, and is climbing).

Throughout history, great works of art have been made by lone artists and small collectives of brilliant minds.

But the current funding paradigm largely ignores the contributions of individuals and small groups to Australia’s creative life, allocating only a token amount of opportunity to the independent artist.

In 2003-4 (the year of the most recently published Australia Council figures), the Australia Council distributed just 6.3% of its grant funding to independent artists. 93% went to organizations. This figure actually overestimates the proportion of government cultural funding available to independent artists, as the biggest items of Australian funding — the ABC and SBS — sit outside the Australia Council’s ambit.

As folk wisdom suggests, choosing the arts as a career can still mean a short road to relative impoverishment. Most artists and creative workers take a huge pay cut just to work in their chosen field of employment, and as Throsby and Hollister found, nearly all of them need an extra part-time job or two just to survive.

Of course there is not necessarily anything wrong with this: people like nurses and teachers choose professions that reward them in non-financial ways all the time. But the deteriorating economic situation for Australian artists and creative workers may have damaging consequences for the future of the Australian creative economy.

Firstly, the lack of direct public sector support for artists distorts the creative labour market, pushing artists out of primarily creative work and into administrative positions at funded organizations. It also encourages the brain drain of gifted artists to interstate and international destinations.

The risk for Australia is that the rest of our arts and culture ends up looking like our film industry, where our chief export is our talent and where the finest Australian actors, directors and crew work full-time overseas, occasionally returning home for one-off projects and promotional opportunities.

Continued lack of investment in individual artists’ careers here has opened a wide income gap between artists and the administrators at the publicly-funded organizations that present and promote them. Jane Rankin-Reid, writing in Online Opinion in 2002, had this to say about the situation as it applied to visual arts: “It is time Australian visual arts bureaucrats faced the fact that although they are professionally dependent on artists for their raison d’etre, the guy in the paint-splattered suit may never enjoy quite as high a standard of living as an arts management desk jockey. Ideally, artists are here to promote these and other truths, but the politesse of the Australian arts funding system often muffles these dangerous voices in our society.”

Artists are the lifeblood of Australian creativity. At a time when most Australian arts organizations are shying away from risky work for fear of commercial failure (perhaps they shouldn’t — as I observed in my previous the Centre for Policy Development article, “Dog Days for Artists in Australia,” going broke can be a successful funding strategy for high-profile arts organizations, as the Sydney Dance Company has once again proved this year), the bulk of the innovative new work in the Australian cultural industries emerges from independent artists and the small-to-medium sector.

Individual artists’ contributions to Australia’s cultural life are justly celebrated, from Cate Blanchett to Peter Carey to Barry Kosky – all prominent artists who now work overseas. More broadly, the “success stories” of individual artistic achievement continue to be advanced to the public by the Australia Council and state governments as a key justification for funding the arts at all.

There is an imbalance here. When we think about cultural achievement, we typically think of the achievements of solo artists and small groups. But we mainly fund large organizations.

In Queensland, the festival for which I work – Straight Out of Brisbane – is launching a campaign to double the amount of state government grant funding available to independent artists, from its current desultory $2 million to $4 million. The increased figure would represent little more than 2% of the Queensland Government’s annual cultural expenditure.

It’s a step in the right direction — but only a small one. Other industries that rely on creative research are going much further. By way of comparison, the National Health and Medical Research Council has set a target of spending 20% of its annual research funds on “people support activities.” This initiative includes detailed reporting criteria for the number of researchers directly supported by NH&MRC funding, for example in fellowship grants.

The NH&MRC is actively seeking to fund new researchers and to bring back high-profile researchers to Australia from overseas (the Howard Florey fellowships). Australian artists working overseas can only dream of this kind of support. No wonder they continue to leave home shores for greener pastures — and rarely come back.

It’s a phenomenon that in other industries has been called the “Adelaide syndrome” — the hollowing-out of a mature economy as talented youngsters leave town. Indeed, maybe the future of the arts in Australia will end up looking like Adelaide in the down-time between its big festivals — a place where the only time we get to see our home-grown talent is on the big screens of international productions, or in whistle-stop promotional tours that contribute little to our sense of community or place.

It’s time Australia re-balanced its cultural investment away from buildings and big organizations, and towards the creative human capital of our sector. At stake is not the future of artistic achievement in Australia — for artists will always create, no matter their economic circumstances — but something much more important: the future ability of Australians to tell their own stories, and to create their own culture.

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