Are artists on the brink of extinction as their incomes dwindle?

Artists need to be properly paid for their work but right now they are being short changed and that is threatening an entire generation of creatives, writes Bec Mac.

Jul 03, 2024, updated Jul 05, 2024
Bec Mac with First Nations artists Libby Harward and Dominique Chen of Blak Laundry who are building a unique creative enterprise - a laundry service that generates income for them and other artists. They are crowd sourcing for the initial investment. Photo by Alex MacDonald

Bec Mac with First Nations artists Libby Harward and Dominique Chen of Blak Laundry who are building a unique creative enterprise - a laundry service that generates income for them and other artists. They are crowd sourcing for the initial investment. Photo by Alex MacDonald

How much do artists earn a year from their craft? How often are they asked to do work for free? According to the latest research supported by Creative Australia and reported on by The Conversation, Australian artists only earn $23,200 a year from their core practice.

This excludes sick leave, holiday pay and super and, on top of this, every meeting we have, every quote we put in, every grant we write we are doing it on our own time, without any remuneration.

We work in an industry with a culture and expectation of low and unpaid labour and it’s not uncommon for this to be viewed as systemic or institutionalised exploitation. Ultimately this means we are key financial investors in keeping the industry afloat, yet unlike investors in other entities we have no agency in saying how we would like our investment used. Is the solution a basic living wage for artists in this country?

Now let’s dive into the numbers from an ongoing economic study supported by Creative Australia. The mean income of an artist from their core creative practice in 1986/7 was $26,000.

In 2022, 36 years later the latest survey indicates a mean income of just $23,000. It’s actually gone down by $3000. By my calculations (and I’m no economist) if our average income tracked inflation over that time period, we should have been earning $77,380 per year from our core practice in 2022.

So, does that mean that the average working artist is subsidising the national economy to the tune of $54,380 per year through in-kind labour?

What does that look like in the average artist’s life?

I’ll use my own lived experience as an example. In 1987 I was just out of school studying for free for the first two years of my degree, then in 1989 the Hawke Government introduced HECS. Initially, all degrees cost the same, $1,800 a year. We protested at the time as we all knew that once that door was opened it was a slippery slope, and we were right.

My first share house was in 1989 at $33 per week which when calculated against the average wage of an artist was 10% of that $26,000. Fast track to 2022 the average rent in a share house in Brisbane was $250 at the very lowest end, so that’s a whopping 57% of the $23,000 that an artist will make.

Sydney, how are you surviving? In places like Erskineville where many creatives have made a home the average room to rent costs closer to $400 per week or $20,000 per annum. You literally cannot afford to be an artist there.

On top of this artists are often the first to be asked to offer up their work for free for a cause or charity – a painting, a performance or, in my case, to emcee an event or produce an interview.

The music industry is in equally catastrophic trouble. As Taylor Swift’s Eras tour topped $1bn in revenue, musicians playing in small venues are facing pitiful fees and frequent losses.

Artist manager Dan Potts recently quoted in The Guardian said “artists are the biggest employers in the industry. They pay for the tour manager, session musicians, agent, manager, crew, insurance, travel, accommodation, equipment, rehearsal space, production. Everything. I don’t think people know this …”

On top of this venues are closing, recently less than two weeks after the shock closure of Fortitude Valley’s The Zoo in Brisbane another owner of two inner-city live venues has warned the end is near.

Theatre is not faring any better. In Alison Croggon’s recent article Stage plight in The Monthly she noted: “A generation of small independent theatre makers has been betrayed by government neglect and bad policy, creating a cultural crisis.” I think that can be said for the arts across the board.

Croggon goes onto describe what it looks like when a sector has a “flourishing renaissance” which she noted was Melbourne between 2004 and 2012 and I want to refer to this so we have a benchmark of what it can look like when there is a convergence of funding, opportunities and hope.

I was living in Melbourne at the time, my partner ran a small indie venue above a pub in Fitzroy, funding was available to pay people a minimum wage, there were lots of collaborations and co-ops being trialled which allowed experimentation and risk-taking including in my own work LOVE TV.

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Things felt bold and exciting.  Croggon recalls that back then “Major theatres began to support small companies with studio programs, such as the residency program at the Malthouse Theatre, which produced Hayloft Project’s breakout hit Thyestes, the NEON Festival of Independent Theatre at the Melbourne Theatre Company, the independent program at Belvoir’s Downstairs Theatre in Sydney, the Bille Brown Theatre at Queensland Theatre ...”

The problem has been a slow progression of a confluence of forces since then. I do think a practical policy supporting a universal basic income for artists such as that in France and the Basic Income for the Arts (BIA) pilot scheme recently trialled in Ireland should be considered – initial reviews by the Irish Government revealed that those artists in the scheme invested more time in their practice, improved their mental health and worked fewer hours in other sectors.

A basic income guarantee may go some way to making up for the $54,300 in free labour we typically do each year.

David Pledger, an artist, writer and curator also supported this solution in a statement on LinkedIn: “A basic income for the arts (BIA) is the only solution to the devastating financial precarity Australian artists contend with in their daily lives,” he wrote.

“The direct subsidy artists provide to government and industry through the provision of their unpaid and underpaid work is what is keeping the system from collapse … I have never seen the material conditions of artists worse than they are now. Ironic that two Australian artists and a company have been lionised at Venice while the vast majority of artists here live below the poverty line.”

In the meantime, artists are finding multiple ways to support their work financially. First Nations artists Libby Harward and Dominique Chen of The Blak Laundry are crowd-sourcing to build a unique creative enterprise, a laundry service that will generate income for themselves and other first nations artists who want to create, innovative work. Artist Nicole Voevodin-Cash has developed an app based on her art practice that allows people to make artworks from their daily walks.

Chrysalis Projects, of which I am co-founder, raised funds from the community via The Australian Cultural Fund for our ambitious Vernon Ah Kee mural encouraging the community to become mini-investors in their “PLACE”.

One political leader trying to tackle problem is Lord Mayor of the City of Sydney, Clover Moore. She has unveiled a cultural strategy aimed at nurturing and expanding the city’s cultural life and workforce over the next decade. At the heart of this initiative is the establishment of a Creative Land Trust, designed to acquire and develop affordable workspace for Sydney’s artists, makers, musicians and performers.

Artists more than ever need to join forces and demand a better deal. We need a seat at the table where the decisions are made and have the value of our contribution recognised. An entire generation of young artists are now choosing other pathways and, to be honest, I don’t blame them.

Unfortunately for our culture and society you don’t realise what you have until its gone and we have never needed the critical thinking, creative problem solving and social connectivity that the arts bring more than we do right now.

Bec Mac is a Brisbane journalist and artist. She is the founder of POPSART, an arts journalism platform and also co-founder of Chrysalis Projects which produces public art projects.

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