Social Benefits Schemes

Though artists are usually highly educated, extremely enterprising and entrepreneurial, because of the precarious nature of their profession, sometimes they have the need to seek social security support.

Artists should be understood as skilled professionals and assisted by the social security system to find appropriate career development and income earning opportunities.

The National Association for the Visual Arts (NAVA) has over the years undertaken research into a number of problems and issues faced by artists under the social security system and advocated policy solutions. 

Over many years NAVA has been lobbying for a number of changes to the way artists are treated under the social security system. The main social security problems faced by artists that NAVA has uncovered in its research: 

  • Centrelink tends not to see art work as legitimate work, and pressures artists into seeking and taking other work. 
  • Centrelink has a low appreciation for the unpredictable nature of artistic work. 

NAVA advocates for the following major policy responses: 

  • A better understanding within Centrelink of what the real world of work is for artists, and to facilitate that rather than stand in the way of it. 
  • A welfare support program specifically set up for artists that seeks to legitimise creative work and help artists deal with unemployment and the vicissitudes of their profession. This includes:
    • A living wage for artists;
    • Recognition of the professional work of visual artists and arts workers as employment-seeking activities as part of mutual obligation requirements;
    • An averaging process for income from artists’ fees and awards similar to how this type of income is handled by the ATO under the Tax Ruling: carrying on business as a professional artist;
    • Specialised small business training for the visual arts, craft and design sector to assist practitioners to establish or consolidate their practice.

NAVA continues to advocate for these initiatives to be implemented.


The Visual Arts Industry Guidelines Research Project (VAIGRP) ran from 1998 to 2001. It was a ‘strategic partnerships’ project funded by the Australian Research Council and the Australia Council. Two research reports in particular – Rice (2001) and Hollister (2001) – were focused on social security systems and artists. The findings of the Visual Arts Industry Guidelines Research Project highlighted two main problems of government income support and employment schemes: 

  • The schemes fail to recognise the skills, training and prior experience of artists when being placed in employment or work experience. 
  • The schemes fail to recognise and accommodate the differences between arts businesses and other businesses.

Prior to the election in 2007, NAVA developed a set of proposals under which artists on welfare would receive the assistance of the social security regime to help them progress their professional careers. In response, in its election arts policy Labor promised a number of initiatives. Subsequently it implemented its own ‘ArtStart’ scheme which provides start-up assistance for graduates through an Australia Council managed grant program.

Labor also promised to develop a ‘Social Security and the Arts’ policy that harmonised Australia Council, Centrelink and Australian Tax Office rules and determined the most equitable way to treat earnings and royalty payments for artists receiving welfare.

Labor also said it would consider adding ‘participation in arts projects’ to the criteria for employment and community participation in work for the dole programs where it is likely that such participation will improve a person’s prospects of gaining employment or private income.

Though none of this eventuated, the Australia Council’s ‘ArtStart’ grant scheme was established and was much valued by emerging artists. It went some way towards what was proposed by offering support of up to $10,000 for services, resources, skills development and equipment to help emerging artists to develop a sustainable arts career, though it did not assist more mature artists who may have experienced a downturn in their market prospects. However, sadly this scheme was one of the victims of the Federal Government's funding cuts in 2015 and is no longer offered.

In 2017, NAVA launched its Fair Pay for Artists campaign to gain recognition of a group of rights for artists and other art professionals.

The campaign highlighted that artists find it almost impossible to get their professional status as an artist recognised by Centrelink when they require assistance.

If they do receive benefits, they risk losing those when they receive an artist fee, materials or production fee, a grant or scholarship, or when they win an art prize. However, these types of payments are likely to be a ‘one-off’ for the creation or presentation of artwork, rather than a contribution to living expenses.

NAVA called for Centrelink to adopt an annual averaging process for income from artists’ fees and awards similar to ways this type of income is handled by the ATO under the Tax Ruling: carrying on business as a professional artist.

In 2020, NAVA met with Minister for the Arts, Paul Fletcher MP to recommend three impactful reforms including harmonising income averaging arrangements between the ATO and Centrelink.

Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, NAVA continued to advocate the impacts of welfare regulations and the failure of Centrelink to recognise artists as workers, leaving many practitioners either ineligible for or unable to access support.

In mid-2022, NAVA wrote to Minister for the Arts, Tony Burke MP raising concern that visual artists and arts workers would be at risk of losing their income support payments under the new points-based system for jobseekers that will start on 1 July 2022.

In late-2022, NAVA's submission to the Federal Government's National Cultural Policy consultation called for the following:

  • Introduce or trial a basic income scheme for artists and arts workers to address the financial instability caused by intermittent, periodic and project-based nature of working in the arts.
  • Work with Centrelink to introduce income averaging processes for artists, similar to the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) Tax Ruling: carrying on business as a professional artist (TR 2005/1). This will ensure that fees or grants received will not be treated by Centrelink as income that contributes to living expenses (thus jeopardising JobSeeker payments).
  • Ensure Centrelink recognises the professional work of artists and arts workers as employment-seeking activities.

In 2023, Prime Minister Hon Anthony Albanese MP and the Hon Tony Burke MP, Minister for the Arts, launched the National Cultural Policy 'Revive: a place for every story, a story for every place’, marking a significant turning point for Australia’s arts and culture. The policy makes a commitment to develop information about the flexibility available for artists to be looking for work or working in the creative arts sector, and to have this recognised as part of their mutual obligation requirements for unemployment payments.

NAVA made a submission to the Inquiry into Workforce Australia Employment Services in February 2023 which asserts that the points system excludes the majority of work in the visual arts, craft and design sector and makes two recommendations:

  1. Recognise the professional work of visual artists and arts workers as employment-seeking activities; 
  2. Adopt an averaging process for income from artists’ fees and awards similar to ways this type of income is handled by the ATO.

In April 2023, Workforce Australia expanded the recognition of professional arts activities undertaken by Australian freelance and part-time workers to meet mutual obligation requirements.

Part-time workers and freelancers in the creative sector who receive Australian Government income support payments may now log work undertaken as an artist or arts worker to meet their obligations. This includes applying for a grant, submitting an application for an exhibition, meeting a curator about commissioned artwork, or volunteering at a gallery.

Workforce Australia developed a fact sheet with practical guidance to help artists and creative workers meet these requirements. The guide covers various aspects of irregular and freelance work, including visual arts, photography, design, writing, and tutoring. Self-Employment Assistance is also available for artists and arts workers to set up and maintain a business, undertake business training, or seek advice. 

This shift in policy acknowledges that professional visual artists and craft and design practitioners actively seek employment-like opportunities in various forms and from a wide variety of sources. It not only validates the contributions of artists but also streamlines the process of meeting their mutual obligations without diverting them into doing work that has little to no relevance to their career intentions.