Fundamental change needed to improve artists’ working conditions

Presented to the Fair Work Commission as part of the Modern Awards Review 2023-24.

Last week, Penelope Benton, Executive Director of the National Association for the Visual Arts (NAVA), reached out to invite me to participate in the consultation process for the Modern Awards Review for the Arts and Culture Sector. I was proud to contribute testimony alongside a range of tenacious artists and arts workers, who converged on the Fair Work Commission in Narrm/Melbourne, in January 2024, on unceded Wurundjeri land. What follows here is a revised version of my notes from the day. This text cannot adequately capture the strong feelings in the room as I listened to artist-organisers Beatrice Rubio-Gabriel and Emily Hubbard speak about their fierce work securing an Enterprise Bargaining Agreement (EBA) for front-of-house workers at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA).

I attended in my multifarious role of artist, artsworker, and PhD researcher at RMIT University. Although I’ve participated in forms of labour organising in the arts before, this consultation process has been conducted following the launch of Revive, National Cultural Policy which specifically champions “the artist as worker.” This provided me with a unique opportunity to emphasise to the commissioner that individual working artists are the engine for a highly prosperous sector and are desperately in need of an effective mechanism to improve their working and living conditions.

My contribution stems from my own lived experiences and observations of the Australian visual art sector over the last 20 years. As an artist from a working-class background, this experience has been one of ever-present economic precarity and interdependency. My personal experience is backed up by the most authoritative recent data on the incomes of working visual artists in Australia, which shows that the majority of artists are faced with low and declining incomes in contrast with what is a highly profitable and popular industry. As the artist and researcher David Pledger observed in 2014: ‘Artists are the lowest-paid members of the arts industry (and the Australian workforce) … What kind of an industry has the majority of its primary producers living below the poverty line?’(1)

After graduating in 2006 from QUT in Meanjin/Brisbane, I worked in a range of micro, mid-sized, and large arts organisations. I collaborated with my fellow QUT graduates to establish a gallery called Boxcopy while I was working paid jobs at the Queensland Art Gallery and Metro Arts. After moving to Narrm/Melbourne in 2012, I worked at the artist-run initiative, Bus Projects, while maintaining other paid work and doing freelance videography for a range of arts organisations. After achieving multiyear funding, I was able to be employed more regularly at Bus Projects alongside two other part-time artist staff members. 

As an extension of my advocacy for the value of artist-run organisations, during this period at Bus Projects I worked with members of other small-scale and artist-run organisations from around the country to establish All Conference. All Conference is a solidarity network comprised of 15 organisations that allow members to support each other in material and immaterial ways and amplify their often hyper-local work. In 2019, we published our first research report on the working conditions of artists and artist-run organisations in Australia, titled Permanent Recession.(2) Academic and cultural critic, Ben Eltham, wrote in Permanent Recession that ‘while audiences and collectors are flocking to see and buy Australian art, working visual artists in this country suffer significant levels of poverty and disadvantage which points to an endemic market failure in the visual arts sector’, and that while art markets can return spectacular growth for lucky investors, they are much less successful at delivering a decent income for artists.’(3) 

So as not to bury the lede, it is my view that we do in fact need change to markedly improve how visual artists are able to earn a living in this country. The status quo is not working for the sector's primary producers, nor has it ever really worked except for possibly the top 1 per cent. The catch-as-catch-can approach to the payment of fees and wages that I’ve encountered in my working life in the arts is the result of a sloppy patchwork of recommended pay rates and reference to existing unspecific awards, which leads to what NAVA rightly describes as ‘systemic non-compliance, underpayments, wage theft, and a lack of acknowledgement of the proper value of artists work.’

It is therefore important to note when considering changes to Modern Awards coverage, that the majority of Australia’s highly productive workforce of visual artists face a unique set of pressures and also (because of a need to earn income from employment in other sectors) experience the added negative impacts affecting the wider workforce including casualisation, erosion of welfare services, student debt, rising rental costs, and the growth of the on-demand or gig economy. In these circumstances, Australian visual artists are left with no choice but to speculate heavily on their own careers with little-to-no possibility of economic reward. Bundjalung poet and researcher, Evelyn Araluen described this dire situation for artists, in her award speech for the 2022 Stella Prize, stating: 

The arts are only sustained, barely sustained, by unpaid labour. By the struggle and sacrifice of artists and arts workers who accept punishing and finally untenable working conditions for love and passion … This is not sustainable, and it never has been. This structure produces mass inequality of representation and will continue to restrict access for creatives from working-class and marginalised contexts.(4)

Frustrations in taking decisive action to remedy this state of affairs are likely due to a confluence of presumptions about and the realities of the nature of artistic labour:

  • Firstly, artists’ work is considered a luxury commodity or hobbyist pastime, done for pleasure. 
  • Secondly, the enjoyment that artists themselves gain from their work puts them in a bind where they feel guilty for enjoying work and find it hard to bargain for improved and regulated pay rates. 
  • Thirdly, the individualistic and meritocratic culture developed from art school, and reinforced within the art world, makes collective bargaining difficult. 

The Canadian academic, Greig de Peuter, argues that the precarity so often referred to in discussions about the state of play for creative workers is by-design. He describes our current advanced capitalist economy as ‘putting a premium on risk-taking, flexible employment, valorisation of immaterial labour, entrepreneurial forms of subjectivity’, not to mention ‘a mode of governmentality expecting individuals to shoulder responsibilities otherwise borne by an employer or the state’.(5) As Lise Soskolne, Core Organiser of the US Visual Art advocacy group W.A.G.E, puts it: ‘it turns out that an industry organised around profiting from unpaid labour requires more than a voluntary certification program to keep it in line — it requires artists to mobilise together as a workforce’.(6) 

These ad-nauseam statements about “all work and no pay” for artists and arts workers are heard all over the world. The data reported from other parts of the globe bear the same trend of artists’ low incomes. In a new UK report, stridently titled Structurally F–cked (2023), the authors highlight a continuing culture of low fees, unpaid labour, and systematic exploitation, stating that the findings: ‘demonstrates clearly that artists are propping up the public ‘art world’ with low and unpaid labour.’(7) In Switzerland, the Wages For Wages Against project campaigns for alternative economies for the arts, including fair remuneration for artists and improvements in their working conditions:

Most art organizations – private, public, for profit or non-profit – in Switzerland do not systematically or sufficiently remunerate artists who take part in their programs, and do not make contracts to clarify labour relations … Our goal is to minimize precarity, financial inequalities and asymmetries within the arts. We wish to open the field to individuals who cannot afford to work for free, and to allow non-commercial practices to flourish.(8)

What this means in the Australian context is that artists are left to their own devices in this dog-eat-dog meritocracy. They invest heavily in their own careers, engaging in a booming speculative economy where they attempt to turn precarity into opportunity. It’s simply not sustainable.

I stopped making conventional artwork quite soon after graduating from art school in Meanjin/Brisbane, a scene in which the opportunity for a sustainable career as an artist was almost comical. One only needs to think of Stephen Vagg’s famous stage play, All My Friends are Leaving Brisbane (2007), to realise how much this perception was ingrained. Instead of making art objects, I went to work founding artist-run organisations with the aim to gain funding and power, redistribute these resources to pay artists, and establish proper waged roles for the artists that administered these organisations.

I have spent the last 16 years volunteering much of my time, trying to create stable employment within equitable arts organisations. This year, I am having my first child and it’s a stark realisation that I can no longer participate in the arts in the same way. I will have caring responsibilities and have to confront the fact that I have practically no savings and very little superannuation on which to eventually retire. While any change this commission recommends may have a limited impact on me, I hope that reform to the current awards will benefit the new generations of artists emerging into the scene and that it will allow them to achieve a living wage while making art. 

To conclude, the key message is straightforward. The current system is not economically sustainable for artists. Artists continue to be some of the lowest-paid participants in the Australian workforce, yet are seen as complicit in the circulation of extreme wealth. Fundamental change is needed in order to improve artists’ working conditions and a bespoke award or changes to award coverage could be a highly effective mechanism in achieving this ambition.

  1. Fairley G, ‘The arts need to reboot for salary equity’, Arts Hub news, 2021.
  2. Goodwin C (ed),‘The All Conference Artist-run Initiatives Sub-sector,’ in Permanent Recession: a Handbook on Art, Labour and Circumstance, Onomatopee, Netherlands (2019).
  3. Eltham B and Ryan C, ‘The All Conference Artist-run Initiatives Sub-sector,’ in Permanent Recession: a Handbook on Art, Labour and Circumstance, Onomatopee, Netherlands (2019). 
  4. Araluen E, ‘‘Evelyn Araluen’s 2022 Stella Prize Acceptance Speech’, Stella organisation website, (2022).
  5. De Peuter G,‘Organizing Dark Matter: W.A.G.E. as Alternative Worker Organization,’ in Compton J, Dyer-Witheford N, Grzyb A and Hearn A (eds) Organizing Equality: Global Struggles in an Age of Right-Wing Ascendancy. McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal and Kingston (2020).
  6. Curtis J, ‘Paying Artists, Equitably,’ Art New England, (2021).
  7. Warne Thomas C (ed), Structurally F-cked: An inquiry into artists’ pay and conditions in the public sector in response to the Artist Leaks data, Industria, England (2023).
  8. Wages for wages against, ‘Manifesto’, 2016. https://wagesforwagesagainst.o...

Image credit

L-R: Artist and arts worker Channon Goodwin, artists and FOH staff at ACCA Beatrice Rubio-Gabriel and Emily Hubbard and NAVA Executive Director Penelope Benton in front of the Fair Work Commission building in Naarm.

ID: A group of four people standing in front of a building and under a sign that says 'Fair Work Commission'

Fundamental change needed to improve artists’ working conditions