Artists at the Forefront
In July at Subiaco Arts Centre in Perth I heard representatives from ten local performing arts organisations speak about the impact of Covid-19 on their activities. Some spoke about using JobKeeper to retain staff. Others spoke about employing digital and other strategies in response to venue closures, loss of income and restrictions imposed by physical distancing. One artistic director proclaimed that fundamentally their organisation hadn’t changed. Most were looking forward to things returning to normal.
· 63% of all performers earn less than the National Minimum Wage of $34,000
· 75% of actors earn an annual industry income of less than $30,000 a year (the situation is even worse for dancers and musicians)
A reminder: this was four years before the pandemic closed down theatres and put most performers out of work.
The issue is not just lack of income, but security of employment. Most artists are employed on short-term contracts for a couple of months at a time, sometimes once or twice a year, sometimes less. There’s no continuity of work, and no discernible career-path.
The next level up in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs are love and belonging needs. Artists may receive love and a sense of belonging from their friends and families – and even up to a point from their colleagues, audiences and communities. However, their sense of belonging or being valued is precarious when it comes to their work, because of the inconstant, atomised and competitive way in which they’re currently employed. Again, this leads to a constant state of anxiety, as well as regular bouts of depression.
4. All major performing arts companies should have a paid apprenticeship program. Professional training should be an integral part of the industry, and not just part of the tertiary education sector, so it doesn’t merely add to the reserve army of the unemployed.
7. The majority – or at least 50% – of the boards of management of all performing arts organisations – including companies, festivals, venues, and other presenting, producing, support and service organisations – should be practising artists. These should be paid positions.
This leads me to the question of funding. At the moment, funding for individual artists is limited to short-term project funding, residencies and fellowships (usually for one or two years at most and available only once in an artist’s career). Project-based funding, residencies and fellowships alone are not sustainable in the long term for independent or freelance artists. Therefore:
Yes, it will require more funding, and more importantly a reallocation of priorities. Some will say that now is not the time, because of the pandemic, or lack of funding. I say: on the contrary, now is precisely the time.