Australian artists reveal how they maintain a living wage and a creative practice
This article appeared in the Australian Broadcasting Commission on Friday September 6 2019. It is an excellent discussion of how creative content makers are unable to make a living wage doing what they love and are often forced into taking two, three or even four gig economy jobs to support themselves. The twin adage of “do what you love and the money will follow” and “do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life” have fooled many people into thinking they can pursue their creative endeavors and that will finance their lifestyle.
Before Melissa Lucashenko took out the $60,000 Miles Franklin Literary Award this year, she was considering going back to her old gig: driving for Uber.
Lucashenko laughs as she recounts this period to ABC RN's The Book Show: "I was thinking of going and knocking over a few banks — but [then] the Copyright Agency came to my rescue and gave me a fellowship, so I didn't have to think about that".
Lucashenko is the acclaimed author of Too Much Lip (which, besides winning the Miles Franklin Award, was shortlisted for the Stella Prize, the Victorian Premier's Literary Awards, the NSW Premier's Literary Awards and the Australian Book Industry Awards) and Mullumbimby (longlisted for the Miles Franklin in 2014).
Nevertheless, she says that her experience shows that "most people who get published or heard in the Australian arts are coming from a position of privilege".
"It's only because we've got the Australia Council [for the Arts] and the Copyright Agency and people like that to balance things out a bit, that any other voices — other than the straight, white, middle class — get heard."
The Australia Council's 2017 report Making Art Work found that "in the financial year 2014-15, Australian practising professional artists earned average gross incomes of $48,400".
That income is made up of a mix of creative income, arts-related income, and non-arts-income.
The report also states that "artists' income from creative work in their chosen profession is far below that earned by similarly qualified practitioners in other professions".
While artists continue to be underpaid and exploited, the avenue of pursuing art stays closed to many.
So outside of winning the Miles Franklin, how do artists make it work?
'A sector in crisis'
Arts writer, curator and visual artist Andy Butler has had a good year, professionally. His work is featured on university syllabuses, he has traveled around the country for talks and panels, and has been published by The Saturday Paper and Art Guide Australia.
He has also been the recipient of grants, from Creative Victoria, the Australia Council and the University of Melbourne's Asialink.
"The projects that I do get a national platform. But the reality of how much I earn is actually so far removed from the output that I'm doing … the reality is that I earn $28,000 a year," Butler says.
That $28,000 doesn't include superannuation, and often involves working seven days a week.
"I don't come from money, my parents live in the Philippines and are a point where they need to be financially supported," Butler says.
"I'm 31 now. Is it conceivable for me to go throughout my entire 30s earning this amount of money? And obviously, it's really not."
Butler says that artists are unable to plan for the future.
"In the visual arts sector there is actually not the infrastructure to support artists … and I think more and more it feels like it's a sector in crisis," he says.
Butler is calling for increased funding in the arts sector, particularly in the crucial emerging artist stage.
"Funding is often used as a big statement, where you'll fund a new building or you'll fund a huge project from a really big artist — and while that's great … [there] needs to be a really critical understanding of building a professional pipeline for artists," Butler says.
'Artists are actually really good with money'
Visual artist Nina Ross, who works across video, performance and photography, told ABC RN's The Art Show: "I have a four-year-old, so I've been really questioning if I can sustain the practice of having multiple casual jobs and being essentially in the gig economy".
Those gigs include speaking arrangements, exhibitions and grants, but also stints teaching at a tertiary institution.
"Artists pay tax on those jobs and we pay tax on all grants we receive and any shows or income we get from our art. So when someone says 'get a job' — I often think 'as an artist, I've got three'."
She also points out that artist fees don't include superannuation and that many artists end up using wages on materials.
The National Association of Visual Arts has a code of practice that provides guidance on payment and conditions but Ross says that while it appears on many gallery and state institutions' website, she doesn't see the code being enforced — which is made clear from the testimonies on the website/artwork that she's made with Gabrielle de Vietri: ARTSLOG.
Listen to The Cost of Art
For more conversations with artists about how they make it work, listen back to the whole Arts on RN series.
On ARTSLOG artists anonymously log their experiences of working in the arts.
"It's often scary for an individual in a really precarious working space to speak up, and so offering anonymity got the stories out," Ross says.
The site includes more than 150 stories that recount experiences at arts institutions of all sizes, and Ross says the institutions are "welcome to contact us, [but] no one has".
Concerning stories on ARTSLOG include that of one artist who was asked to sign a blank contract and another who was told that the organisation "didn't have enough money to pay her because they had to pay for the port-a-loos".
"I think collectivising is a great way to try to work out ways forward," Ross says.
She recently undertook a residency at the Australian Tapestry Workshop with Stephen Palmer exploring the idea for a visual arts union.
While the Federal Government's latest budget injected money into the live music industry, they failed to heed industry calls from NAVA and others for extra funding for small-to-medium organisations as well as individual artists.
"There's the idea that artists are bad with money, so don't give it to the individual artists, give it to organisations," Ross says.
"But artists are actually really good with money; we have to be, we've got no choice."
Giving up writing for money
Margo Lanagan is an award-winning author of Young Adult fiction (YA) and short stories — best known for the novels Sea Hearts and Tender Morsels.
But she says "in Australia it's pretty rare for you to make a complete living out of just the writing".
Lanagan began writing in the 80s. In the 90s she became a freelance editor and had a child.
"I had childcare that was not that back-breakingly expensive and so I was managing to write a fair bit … but towards the end of the 90s, the sums just stopped adding up," Lanagan says.
That's when she "fell into" technical writing — penning publications such as reports and manuals for organisations.
Even after earning international acclaim for her 2004 short story collection Singing My Sister Down, her main income came from technical writing.
Still, she kept writing and publishing — and winning awards, including four World Fantasy Awards, two Premier's Literary Awards and two Children's Book Council of Australia Book of the Year awards.
"Sometimes there was a nice lump of money that would come with them [like] $10,000 or $20,000," says Lanagan.
She also received an Australia Council fellowship in 2005.
Still, she says, "there was never a year until this recent contract … where I was able to completely stop doing a day job and just write."
That contract was for the Zeroes series (with collaborators Scott Westerfeld and Deborah Biancotti) and gave Lanagan four years off technical writing.
Zeroes was a New York Times bestseller, but in June this year Lanagan returned to technical writing.
"I haven't ever thought I'd give up writing, but ... [what] I have done is give up writing for the money, give up the idea of it being the thing that pays the rent and pays the bills," she says.
"It's putting the writing under too much pressure of the wrong kind because it doesn't encourage you to take the time that things need to take to be of good quality."
She says Australian writers need to sell beyond Australian shores — and in the millions of copies — to make a living.
"I think that writing has got a terribly glamorous sort of reputation over the last little while — since JK Rowling really — and people on the outside of it don't quite realise that we're not all JK Rowling."
Relocating to regional Australia
Ballarat-based sculptor, painter, aerosol artist and muralist Stuart Walsh comes from many generations of "monumental masons" and gravediggers.
You can see that family history in his work, which he says sits at "the intersection between morbidity and politics".
Walsh still sometimes plies the family trade — gilding and restoring servicemen's graves — and also works 10 hours a week as a social worker. But he makes his main income from grants and commissions (including designing graphics for local bars and heavy metal bands).
"I don't generally go through galleries; I find going through galleries costs me a lot of money rather than making me any," he says.
Walsh says living in Ballarat, a town of just over 100,000 people an hour outside of Melbourne, is key to making his life as an artist viable: "the cost-of-living is insanely cheaper".
"I feel like there's a lot more opportunities for an artist [in Ballarat, and] proximity to Melbourne means you can still pick up those gigs as well," Walsh says.
Ballarat is also near several towns that are supportive of the arts including Geelong, Castlemaine and Daylesford.
While Walsh declined to take part in the Biennale of Australian Art that took place in Ballarat last year, he has observed the impact on local artists who say they are yet to receive payment for the event.
"They're not huge sums, they lost a $1,000 or a $1,500 but the margins for artists are just so small, so that's really harsh."
Walsh says that people don't see the amount of unpaid labour that goes into an artist's life.
"For every sort of decent paying job I've done, before I even get a look in I've done a couple of days sitting in front of a computer, pulling my hair out — and a lot of the time that amounts to nothing," he says.
"Then there's heaps of preparatory work, things that can go wrong ... There's lots of work in making something creative that's not fun work."
Considering the risks
Alena Lodkina made what many, including The Screen Show's Jason Di Rosso, consider the best Australian film of 2018: Strange Colours.
"I was working at a cafe in Melbourne when the film was coming out. I would tell my customers to go see the film because it was in the papers ... and I'd be like 'this is my film!' and I don't know if they believed me," Lodkina says.
Because Alena and her team didn't have any feature film credits, they weren't eligible to apply for Screen Australia funding for the film (Screen Australia has since changed its requirements around this) — but secured 150,000 euros ($250,000) from the Venice Biennale College Cinema fund to make it as a "micro-budget film".
After premiering at the 2017 Venice Film Festival, Strange Colours played (and was well received) at film festivals across Australia and (including Sydney Film Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival) and had a limited cinema release.
While Lodkina was recently in Paris on a funded residency to work on a new script, she usually lives in a Melbourne sharehouse and works casual jobs at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image and in hospitality.
"For someone like me, it's constantly a process of figuring out how to get by, [and] of course I can complain that it's a bit of a scramble, especially if you're working waitressing and you get a bit tired and you beat yourself up because you haven't worked on your script," Lodkina says.
"But at the same time, I think we are kind of lucky in Australia, or in Melbourne specifically, because even if you're working two or three casual jobs a week you can get by, even if it's modest."
However, while this arrangement has worked for her in her 20s, Lodkina is now in her 30s and, like Andy Butler, she is unsure of how long this can last.
"I do get a little bit stressed now because I come from a migrant family, and no one in my family owns any property — and I'm the only child," says Lodkina.
"But I've considered the risks and decided that I should persevere for now, and then if things get a bit harder in the next 10 years I'll regroup and make a new plan."
What Lodkina makes isn't commercial, it's experimental and it's art.
"I think that we have a model [of screen funding in Australia] that is very focussed on the box office, which is understandable, but I feel like there is space for discussion around some funding being allocated to small projects and low budget films," she says.
"It would be great to have initiatives that felt like there was respect and excitement around film as culture and as art."
'A constant uphill battle'
"I am constantly juggling a lot of different things at once, that's the life of a freelancer," dancer and choreographer Anna Seymour told ABC RN's The Stage Show.
Seymour is currently working part-time as an assistant producer for Melbourne Fringe Festival while also doing other casual work including teaching at the Victorian College of the Deaf.
"It can be a struggle and a wild balance but I always make time for my creative practice, otherwise I will just shrivel up and die," Seymour says.
Over the eight years that she's been an independent visual artist, Seymour has also worked as an independent living skills worker, Auslan tutor and consultant, as well as done a range of hospitality jobs.
"It has been an up and down journey; sometimes I have juggled five different projects at the same time and sometimes I haven't had any dance work for a few months," Seymour says.
Because she is deaf, Anna also has to secure funding to pay Auslan interpreters.
"That is a constant uphill battle. When I first started going to professional dance classes at Chunky Move and Lucy Guerin, there was no money for interpreters," Seymour recounts.
"So I went to classes without interpreters. I was terrified. But I really, really wanted the professional training and to be around professional dancers, so I just swallowed my fear and went to classes."
But Seymour says that increased funding opportunities in recent years for accessibility support has meant she has been able to apply for (and secure) money from Arts Access Victoria and the Australia Council to pay for interpreters.
"That changed everything for me; I was able to book interpreters for classes, workshops, residencies, and it opened up so many doors for me. It allowed me to access full information and to contribute to conversations, and to network."
Arts Access Australia says artists without a disability earn an average of $21,100 more a year than artists with disabilities.
"Sometimes I feel I don't get as many opportunities because organisations and collectives often don't have an access budget [and] therefore can't pay interpreters, which means they can't employ me," Seymour says.
Even so, things are looking promising for Seymour: The Delta Project, the dance company that she is the artistic director of, has just received financial support from Creative Victoria and the Australia Council to develop a new work.
'We get paid peanuts'
"I've always worked on the side," she says.
"I've been part of a band that was 10 people, so even if we did earn enough money it's never been enough to support 10 people," Anele says.
Anele's income from her music has always been irregular and unpredictable (an experience shared by all the artists in this story) and over the decade that she was part of Saskwatch, she worked in bars, call centres and libraries.
"I've been paid $50 per show for the majority of my music career, and then you're left to work at a bar and have people say to you as you're serving them: 'What are you doing here? I just saw you play at this festival'."
Anele says that getting Saskwatch on tour meant crowdfunding the $20,000 needed just for flights and that often, after investing money and time into gigs and tours, things would fall through.
"People see the hour ... that you're on stage having a really great experience — but they don't see the hours and hours and hours that it took to get you there," Anele says.
There have been times when Saskwatch was on high rotation and playing major festivals here and overseas, including Glastonbury.
"Our figures came back and we were earning over $200,000. But the bills and the payment [to band-members and other services] meant that we probably only received one per cent of that, as an individual," she says.
Still, Anele recognises the perks of a career that has taken her around the world: "I think for a lot of us that's the counterweight to being financially unstable for the majority of your life."
"[But] If the music industry was the same as an office job, we would be high-tiered by now because we're super independent, can work in groups super efficiently, [and] can reach outcomes of really highly-driven people. Yet we get paid peanuts for being such high achievers," Anele says.
Post-Saskwatch, Anele is able to say yes to more opportunities that are better paid. When we talked, she was in rehearsals for a production of Caroline, Or Change which opened at Sydney's Hayes Theatre in August.
"Last year I was ready to walk away from the music industry, but this year I'm finding my love of singing again."