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As part of a new exhibition, State of the Union, which explores partnerships between trade unions and arts workers, a group of Melbourne artists has launched a project to expose exploitation in the arts in Australia.

Artslog will allow artists to clock on either at the exhibition or online and anonymously complain about poor payment for their work, naming the institutions if they wish. 

For their time in logging their story, artists will be paid pro-rata calculated according to the National Association for the Visual Arts (NAVA) casual hourly rate, which is $28.73 for trainees, $51.51 for mid-career artists and $69.54 for senior practitioners – at least, until the project’s funding from the Ian Potter Museum of Art and an anonymous donor runs out. Then, ironically, their story will at least get exposure through the artslog.com website.

“We thought it would be a really good thing, rather than just complain among ourselves, to make this an industry-wide opportunity,” says Artslog co-creator Gabrielle de Vietri. “We wanted to normalise complaining about it, rather than just being disgruntled, mid-career artists who want to have a whinge. We give shape to that and make it an industrial rather than personal issue.”

Artslog’s results will “put pressure on galleries to do better,” says De Vietri. “We know this has already happened, even at the Ian Potter – because of the content of the exhibition this is being shown in, they have really examined what they’re paying artists for speaking engagements and how they’ve paid artists in the show and what is a reasonable price to put on a commission.”

Among the stories collected so far: an early career artist who was given a gift voucher rather than payment for speaking at Monash University; a private gallery that sent an artist an incomplete contract expecting the artist’s signature without specifying the name, payment amounts and dates; and a refusal by the Australia Council to fund a grant application because, according to a grants officer, the artist had specified too big a budget (the NAVA rates for a full-time studio artist minus a large artist self-contribution).

“This project is coming at a time when there’s a lot of discussion on how to enforce NAVA’s code of practice,” says De Vietri. “There’s a conference coming up in August, Future /Forward, which is about getting people to update and talk about how to mandate and legislate fees for artists.”

The Ian Potter’s curatorial manager, Jacqueline Doughty says State of the Union considers labour issues across a broad spectrum of industries and professions, including textiles, call centres, abattoirs, coal mines and manufacturing white goods. 

Artists, however, have never had the same protections that traditionally industries such as manufacturing had.

The exhibition highlights two periods when interactions between artists and the labour movement: in the wake of the Depression, when art assumed a power to provoke change; and the 1970s and 1980s, when community arts funding filtered through to cultural activity in trade unions.

“Artists are kind of like the original sole operators,” says Doughty. “They’re single person business people, they find it hard to band together to ask for sufficient wages or proper working conditions because they’re going from one job to another.”

But is art in the service of trade unionism still art? Does it become agitprop?

“That’s a really good question, and the exhibition includes quite a diverse range of creative practice and art making. There are absolutely items in there that are agitprop, that the artists would quite proudly admit is propaganda. But there is also work made for a gallery context, that fits into a tradition of conceptual, experimental artwork, and everything in between.”

State of the Union
Ian Potter Museum of Art
24 July – 28 October

Steve Dow