Episode 54: Artsworkers Union x Australian Arts Workers Alliance

Justine Youssef in conversation with Helen Grace, on the historical Artsworkers Union, and Dylan Batty, co-founder of the Australian Arts Workers Alliance.

Black and white photo of group in 1979

Artworkers Union organising committee members, December 1979. Top Row L-R: Gregor Cullen, Charles Merewether, Tim Burns, Yanni Stumbles, Sally Wade, Ian Burn, Merilyn Fairskye Middle Row L-R: Viv Binns, Jackie Laws (?), Elizabeth Campbell(?), Rosemary Johnson, Barry Collins, Michiel Dolk, Ross Wolfe Front Row L-R: Mary Kinney, Michelle Fitzgibbon, Ian Milliss, Pam Debenham, Nigel Lendon, Bob Gill. Photo by Lori Sherman.

This episode bridges the cross-generational experiences of Helen Grace, on the historical Artsworkers Union, and Dylan Batty, a co-founder of the Australian Arts Workers Alliance. NAVA’s Professional Practice Coordinator, Justine Youssef, speaks with the pair about the cyclical issues and widespread instability facing arts workers, the amount of free labour still subsidised by artists, how unfairness and illegality can be challenged, and the rights that the Artsworkers Union were able to fight for and achieve.


Edit by Rebecca Stegh

Music by Marcus Whale

Logo by Laura Pike


Dylan Batty (speaking about AAWA) is a founding member of Australian Arts Workers Alliance and Gallery manager of KNULP in Camperdown. He completed his Bachelor of Fine Art at Sydney College of the Arts, and his Master of Fine Arts research on the post internet theory and hierarchical structures of authorship at UNSWAD in 2019. Dylan's practice is heavily based on concepts of labour, value and Post Internet discourse and has shown work in various spaces since 2014 including PARI, Tributary Projects, Firstdraft, Visual Bulk, Goya Curtain (JPN), Fuzzy Vibes (NZ), and Temper. Dylan works primarily as a freelance art gallery technician, installer, and consultant. 

Helen Grace (speaking about Artsworkers Union) is an artist, writer and teacher, based in Sydney and Hong Kong. She taught for many years at University of Western Sydney, before moving to Hong Kong, where she was the Founding Director of the MA Programme in Visual Culture Studies, Chinese University of Hong Kong (2006-11) and Taiwan, where in 2012-13 she was Visiting Professor in the Department of English, National Central University, Taiwan on a National Science Council Fellowship. Helen is an award winning filmmaker and new media producer. Her photo media work is in the collections of Artbank, National Gallery of Australia, Art Gallery of NSW and Art Gallery of South Australia as well as private collections nationally and internationally. 

Helen is one of the artists in the current Friendship as a Way of Life at UNSWAD Galleries.  Her recent projects include The Housing Question (with Narelle Jubelin), Penrith Regional Galleries, Home of the Lewers Bequest, 2019, Thought Log, SCA Galleries, Sydney (2016) and Map of Spirits, Gallery 4A, Sydney (2015). Her recent books include Culture, Aesthetics and Affect in Ubiquitous Media: The Prosaic Image (Routledge, 2014) and Technovisuality: Cultural Re-enchantment and the Experience of Technology. (Co editors, Amy Chan, Kit Sze and Wong Kin Yuen) IB Tauris, 2016).

AAWA & Artworkers Union

The Australian Arts Workers Alliance (AAWA) is a collective informal organisation that seeks to better the working rights of Arts Workers, with a contextual focus on Art Technicians. The group was founded in late 2018 and has been in hibernation since May 2019.

The Artworkers Union as a movement began in 1979 because of dissatisfaction with lack of Australian artists in the Biennale that year. It formed itself into a cultural movement really – one of the main games in town in those early years; though it started in Sydney, there were concurrent groups in all states. It held boisterous, passionate meetings, dances and fundraisers and actions which were public performances/manifestations. Between 1979 & 1994 when it officially amalgamated with the MEAA (Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance) it set the agenda for discussion around affirmative action for women in the arts, health and safety issues for artists, contracts for exhibitions and projects, copyright etc (It joined the Copyright Council in 1981.) 

It played the major role in making public and in shaping the publicity around the needs of artists. In the early years it hosted major discussions, it hosted international forums, important and ground-breaking forums on multiculturalism and the arts. It made submissions to Parliamentary committees. Its legacy remains in documents held in public and private archives - and in the existence of NAVA, since union members were a key part of its establishment. We might also say in Artspace, too, since Artworkers Union members campaigned for this and helped find the initial building, sharing office space with it in Randle St, Surry Hills from 1983 (until they were evicted by Artspace in 1988). 

It wasn't able to negotiate a contract for the 1982 Biennale but in 1984 the Biennale Committee approved a Loans and Participation Agreement for artists in the 1984 Biennale. Its Health and Safety committee raised awareness in the art world on the hazards of art materials (and that consciousness remains). Its Affirmative Action Committee for Women in the Visual Arts was one of the most active committees in advocating for women artists - and its work continues in the ongoing research that former members are still carrying out.

In 1984 two part-time organisers were appointed – Jo Holder and Ewen McDonald. They oversaw the key, agenda-setting publications between 1985 and 1989 – the 'Affirmative Action for Women in the Visual Arts Policy booklet (1985), 'Copyright for Visual Artists' (1986) (with Virginia Hollister) and A Code of Ethics for Visual Artists, Writers and Curators (1989).

The Union (with NAVA) also carried out research on part-time teaching (Part-time Teachers in Tertiary Visual Arts Education, June 1987 (Helen Grace, Anna Ward, Research Assistance, Karen Cummings).

The Artworkers Union was formally registered as a Union in December 1989. It amalgamated with Media Entertainment & Arts Alliance, in Feb 1994. It got the discussion going right through the 1980s and while it may remain as a legal shelf structure within MEAA, it is not currently activated. 

NAVA and MEAA continue to collaborate on industrial issues and public advocacy, especially at this critical time.

Episode 54: Artsworkers Union x Australian Arts Workers Alliance