Finding a new equilibrium in an increasingly precarious world

Image: Kay Abude, WORK WORTH DOING, Castlemaine State Festival 2019, hand silkscreen on linen, dimensions variable. Project supported by a 2018 Arts Vic Grant from Creative Victoria, LaTrobe Art Institute, Shedshaker Brewery and Taproom and The Mill Castlemaine. Photo by Kay Abude. 

A strange set of divisions mar the way Australians relate to what we value most – and the more we look into it, the less sense those divisions make. 

Artists, craftspeople and designers create work that generates billions of dollars of value across a massive industry, each one creating jobs for six or seven people, and yet their average incomes are among Australia’s lowest, these haven't changed in thirty years, and their non-arts income tends to be sourced from precarious employment in universities and hospitality.

Collectors are willing to spend hundreds or thousands or even millions on a work of art, and yet few are willing to speak publicly on arts issues, or even to speak directly to political decision-makers on what’s needed to sustain artists’ work.

Our industry is one of the most impactful and employment-intensive, we’ve had greater media cut-through than any other industry on COVID-19 matters (Google it!), plus all leading economists have supported our arguments, and yet the Australian Government has not chosen to include us all in support and recovery.

Just about everyone in Australia makes or experiences art, craft and design, and a majority want to see arts and culture supported fairly through COVID-19 recovery, and yet our Prime Minister prefers “Quiet Australians” who aren’t “complaining about their rights”.

As Alison Croggon and others have pointed out, the Australian Government’s exclusion of the arts and cultural industry from income support and recovery plans is a sign that “everything is going according to plan.”

This is, perhaps, the most baffling division of all. Because what makes Australians Australian has nothing to do with quietness and everything to do with passion, courage and a strong sense of social justice.

The precarious working conditions of artists and arts workers concern all of us – not just those of us working in the arts. They concern us all because that precarity is now taken for granted as the normal state of affairs for this $111.7bn industry. They concern us all because the Australia to which we’re all expected to “snapback” is not a fair and equitable place. 

Artists and arts workers have long been investigating these inequities and achieving important wins. That’s why NAVA was founded and, as we work through this crisis and beyond, that’s why our hard work continues. Speaking of: here’s what we’ve achieved so far on COVID19 action. With plenty more to be done.

This month’s NAVA news offers some very timely insights from artists seeking that renewed equilibrium. Aseel Tayah talks about the challenges associated with balancing being an artist, activist and mother, while textile artist, Paula do Prado, discusses the choice she made to be an independent artist full-time.

Some more useful reading and action:

  • Our newest podcast: Helen Grace, on behalf of the historical Artsworkers Union, and Dylan Batty, co-founder of the Australian Arts Workers Alliance,  in conversation with our Professional Practice Justine Youssef;
  • A group of Perth- and non-Perth-based independent artists created the closed Facebook group Australian Arts Amidst COVID-19 that's become the beating heart of the online arts. They are Alex Desebrock, who initiated the group and is also a NAVA Member, Thom Smyth (originally in own time, but now as partly in-kind from Performing Lines), Dan Goronszy, Bron Batten, Jennifer Jamieson, kelli mccluskey, Sally Richardson, Katerina Kokkinos-Kennedy, Janet Carter, Sarah Lockwood, Lauren Resnick, Luanne Schneier, Sue-Lyn Moyle, David Haidon, Sophia Brous, Miranda O’Connell-Lever, Michelle Forte, Katherine Quigley, Paul Terrel, Gareth Hart, Fionn Mulholland, Kit Aliano and Isobel Marmion (via in kind support from Vitalstatistix), many of whom are also NAVA Members. Massive thanks to you all. At the time of writing the group has 17,727 members and has just prepared a joint letter to the Minister;
  • Welfare, by 1856 and West Space, was to be held in Melbourne in March, asking important questions about what it means to live and work as an artist in Australia today, and those investigations continue;
  • Artists’ Union, also from Melbourne, is a group looking at ways to improve working conditions through collective action, continuing the work of projects such as the Artists’ Committee and Artslog;
  • A compelling collection of essays and interviews, Permanent Recession: a Handbook on Art, Labour and Circumstance (2019), edited by Bus Projects and All Conference’s Channon Goodwin, describes itself as “Part research, part advocacy document, part literature review, part reader, part position paper”;
  • Co-edited by Jade Lillie, Kate Larsen, Cara Kirkwood and Jax Jacki Brown, The Relationship is the Project (2020) puts these questions into an action framework, looking at the ethics and logistics of working in community, and has already been included on school and university curricula.

NAVA’s work continues with:

  • Reviewing the Code of Practice – here’s our collaborative plan towards strengthening best practice, and how you can get involved;
  • COVID19 response: here’s all of our work to date, including resources, advice and industry unity;
  • Artists’ Benevolent Fund: To get much-needed funds to artists, we’ve revived the Artists’ Benevolent Fund and have already made some grants – with thanks to the leadership of NAVA Member Alex Seton, Art Month Sydney for our fundraising collaboration, and philanthropist Brett Kelly for initiating ClubB50. And with thanks to Creative Partnerships Australia, donations are being dollar-matched from now until the end of June. If you’re considering applying to the Artists’ Benevolent Fund, please note this is a benevolent fund, not a project fund! All you need to do is show the panel how this crisis, or summer’s fires and floods, has perilously derailed your practice. If this is you, please apply right now;
  • Sector development: Our weekly National Visual Arts Roundtable examines policy, risk and business continuity issues for organisations and sector bodies, serving now as a recovery taskforce as well as a reference point for collegiate exchange;
  • Professional programs: here’s what’s coming up;
  • Ongoing political and public engagement: here’s that growing list of all of our meetings and interviews;
  • Draft submission to the Senate Inquiry into the Australian Government’s COVID19 response: please feel free to use this to draft your own – submissions close this Thursday 28 May;
  • Advocacy Program: join us each week for this free program with a stellar line-up of speakers as we build skills and make plans ahead of Arts Day on the Hill;
  • More and more guides, factsheets and resources for Members, including the NAVA Advocacy program Handbook, which is updated monthly as the program continues.

Finding that new equilibrium is our greatest challenge as we begin to emerge. Especially when we consider the mental health impacts of re-socialisation. We’ve all been living very differently for the past few months, and re-emergence isn’t a snapback either; it’s a different experience for each one of us, and likely, a challenging one. Here’s some help on that, right when we need it most:

Among all those confusion divisions, plenty is certain. Your work is wanted and valued. Your work matters. To pretty much everyone in Australia. We cannot allow Australia to snap back to old inequities – or indeed, to snap in any way. Let’s look after ourselves and one another – and let’s keep working together towards an Australian arts sector that’s ambitious and fair.

PS: Put that powerful voice of yours to immediate use this week! Contribute to the Senate Inquiry into the Australian Government’s COVID19 response. We’ve drafted something to get you going  – submissions close this Thursday 28 May.