Artists united will never be defeated

Opinion

For several years in my 20s, I played in a small indie band with some friends, playing gigs in local pubs around Collingwood and Fitzroy. The typical deal was about $100 a band plus a rider of beer, or if you were lucky (and could draw a crowd), a cut of the door. Once, we made the mistake of entering one of those ‘Battle of the Bands’ competitions at a venue on Chapel Street. We were encouraged to sell tickets to our friends at $30 a head. There was no rider, and no pay. Out of roughly ten bands playing that day, nine got through to the next round. As one of the organisers grabbed $300 out of my hand and shoved it in the till, I felt the sting of realisation: we’d been had. Exploitation like this is common in the music industry, where conditions are generally accepted as precarious and poorly paid. And yet, it could be argued, in the visual arts they’re even worse.

The visual arts is an industry built on gratitude. Gratitude for exposure, gratitude for cultural capital. Artists ‘pay to show’ all the time—in fact for many galleries, it’s their business model. Not-for-profit and government-run institutions routinely pay their artists nominal fees rather than a living wage, if they pay at all. As a result, artists are often trained to consider their art as being separate from life, a trick that benefits those extracting profit from artists’ labour: if art isn’t ‘work’, then it doesn’t have to be remunerated.

But why is this happening? Could it be—at least in part—because visual artists, unlike other industries, lack union representation? Some arts professionals such as performers, actors, writers, film-makers and musicians are covered by the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA). Arts workers employed in state or council institutions may find coverage in the Community and Public Sector Union or the Australian Services Union; printmakers and textile practitioners in commercial employment can join the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union. And yet freelance visual artists, independent curators, installation technicians and other arts workers fall through the cracks when it comes to union coverage.

The solitary nature of art-making proves a challenge to artist collectivisation—but there have been various attempts at incorporating artists into Australian trade unions. In the 1980s, the Victorian branch of the Operative Painters and Decorators Union established an Artworkers Section for visual artists, which later merged with the CFMEU. A great achievement was the introduction of the Percent for Art scheme, requiring building projects to allocate one per cent of their budgets towards commissioning new artworks.

In Sydney, artists Ian Burn, Nigel Lendon, Charles Merewether, Ian Milliss and Ann Stephen formed The Artworkers Union in 1979. Formally registered as a union in 1989, The Artworkers Union called for fair contracts, realistic fees for artists exhibiting in publicly funded exhibitions, affirmative action for women in the visual arts, improved conditions in art schools and rights to copyright. The Artworkers Union merged with the MEAA in the 1990s, and representation for the visual arts was eventually phased out.

During the 1980s, associations sprang up across Australia to advocate for artworkers’ rights. These included the now-defunct Artworkers Alliance in Brisbane, as well as Artsource in Western Australia, Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Co-operative in Sydney, and the National Association for the Visual Arts (NAVA); the latter operates today as the peak body for the visual arts. However, there are crucial differences between advocacy bodies and registered trade unions. NAVA lobbies for change in arts policy and sets recommended rates of pay and conditions, but as these standards are not legally binding, many institutions fail to meet them. And conflict of interest is common—art and craft associations frequently represent employers and galleries alongside artists and artworkers.

How have artists overseas collectivised? In New York, W.A.G.E. (Working Artists in the Greater Economy) is a collective that has launched platforms such as the ‘W.A.G.E. Certification Program’, publicly recognising non-profit organisations that demonstrate a commitment to paying artist fees. Artists are then able to self-organise to negotiate fair compensation with not-for-profit institutions. WAGES FOR WAGES AGAINST is a Swiss campaign for the payment of artists by for-profit, not-for-profit and public galleries. This campaign demands full disclosure of gallery budgets, denounces ‘exposure payments’ and fights to reduce financial inequality and discrimination within the art sector.

In France, there exists a social security payment for artists and creative professionals called the intermittents du spectacle. Performers, theatre technicians and other artworkers who work a certain number of hours can receive a welfare payment to cover them in between intermittent contracts. This means, in theory, that arts professionals in France do not have to juggle unrelated jobs between major work engagements and are financially covered for down periods, contributing to greater job security and wellbeing. This initiative also improves societal attitudes towards the arts: culture is regarded as a public necessity, like health or education. In Australia during Covid-19, many artists benefited from JobKeeper or higher JobSeeker rates, and had the financial security to focus on their practices—a system operating almost like a temporary universal basic income. These case studies provide an exciting model for what could be done in Australia to pay artists who enrich the cultural lives of their communities.

Artists are often taught that the arts scene is more battleground than community: failings are considered individual rather than structural. In the neoliberal world, artists are brands, and if they fail, the market has decided. Artists need to call for recognition, for better funding, for fair pay, for community. The grant system perpetuates a competitive environment where some artists win the ‘prize’ of getting paid by a patron. In the alienating era of Covid- 19, with funding drying up, a solidarity model that puts the collective good above the individual is the only way forward.

This article was originally published in the May/June 2021 print edition of Art Guide Australia.

Madeleine Thornton-Smith