Unfunded excellence: on the mid-career crisis for Australian artists

I feel ashamed, facing a roomful of artists on the first day of rehearsals for my new play Contest. ‘I’m sorry,’ I say. ‘I tried my hardest but we didn’t get the Creative Victoria funding.’ Everyone in the room has already signed on for the project, based on modest fees, thanks to other funding we have secured. The Creative Victoria money would have ensured paying all actors at Equity (performance industry union) minimum rates.

This arrangement of either a set fee or share of box office is far from ideal, but very standard in independent theatre. A complicating factor is that Creative Victoria will only accept budgets that pay actors Equity rates. But of course many projects, even those with CV funding, go ahead on a fee or profit-share basis. Budgets are constantly revised as funding outcomes become known.

I call and get my feedback from the arts officer at Creative Victoria. I take notes:

A well-developed project that is timely and relevant.

Stylistically innovative.

Artists have the capacity to deliver the work.

A diverse team.

Good scope for audience development.

Well-defined marketing strategies.

Well planned.


Excellent letters of support.

There is a pause. She says she is scouring the notes for anything negative. The one query the panel had was whether the actors are netballers (the play uses netball as a thematic framework). I am confused. I literally do not know what the question means: that they should be or they shouldn’t be? Would the same question be asked of a play about serial killers, or robots, or Amelia Earhart?

In short, there was nothing wrong with my application. It was highly regarded but unsuccessful. I am far from alone in this feeling of frustration. In this round, 288 of us, with 62 relieved their project gained support. We are living in a time replete with ‘unfunded excellence’. My hurt is no different from any other unfunded artist. I don’t deserve it more. But I don’t deserve it less.

This time stings more than others. It feels personal and wounding. I have twenty years practice under my belt. I have assembled a team of 16 women to work on this project – including the whole creative team (design teams are notoriously male-heavy). It has support from a presenter, from other funders, keen anticipation among my peers. I am lucky it has all that. So what’s the hurt about? It’s partly ego. Partly the stress on my team, all now working for an average wage of not nearly enough per hour. Partly fatigue (How much longer can I do this? How many more times?). And it’s partly political anger.

The very things praised about the project – the diverse group, including a disabled actor, five mothers on the team, three in the cast, one of whom is breastfeeding – are the things that this lack of funding puts the most pressure on.

It’s about a real question of access. The funding bodies seek this mix of people, they want to broaden the range of artists who apply for and receive funding, but it is an incomplete picture. For instance, my application did not factor in childcare – as it should for the parents in our cast who have dependent children. It did not factor in support for our disabled actor should she need it.

In conversation with my co-producer on the project we speak at length about these issues. How freelance artists are always bearing the costs of childcare and other life supports necessary to enable them to work. The structures – whether funding bodies, mainstage companies, arts institutions – are vertical and hierarchical and based on an ‘everyman’ who looks suspiciously like he might host a football show or a talkback radio program. An ‘everyman’ whose primary concern is his job. Who can and does leave things such as child rearing and domestic work to others. Who moves with ease through the world. Who doesn’t require assistance of any kind. Who speaks the dominant language.

There is not a single one of these ‘everymen’ on my team. I feed back to the Creative Victoria arts officer that an under-funded project for a cast of middle-aged and older women has significant political, financial and logistical ramifications.

In our team we have a brilliant choreographer. She has been on the project since its inception three years ago. She is an award-winning artist, highly regarded within the industry. She is currently studying a degree in environmental science. A mid-life career change spurred by many things, a primary one being the issue I am currently facing. Fatigue with having to fund projects, argue for work, gather teams, work for not enough money and ask other artists to work for not enough money.

A recent survey conducted by Theatre Network Australia (TNA) reveals a picture of a sector that is artistically vibrant but cash-strapped. 75% of writers, directors, performers and performance makers listed ‘producer’ as their secondary practice. This, as the report notes: ‘aligns with comments indicating that many independent artists see self-producing as their only option and an integral part of their artistic careers.’

Under-funded work is an understood reality. Between 14 and 44% of respondents ‘indicated that they would not charge to work with unfunded artists / collectives’.

This survey went out to TNA members and networks. It’s hard to get an accurate picture of the figures around mid-career drop-off as it would mean somehow reaching a survey group that has moved away from the sector. I know of plenty anecdotally, peers who re-train as teachers, enter the academy or start entirely new careers. But where to find hard statistics? How to capture stories from those already gone not just those, like this respondent, on the brink:

I have lived under the poverty line all my life as an artist – as a former refugee and single child of a migrant parent – I have no support. The current state of lack of arts funding is the hardest period to date. I feel that my choice of being a full-time artist directly impacts negatively on my family as I am the sole income earner.

The situation is compounded for culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) artists and disabled artists, with significant drop-off in participation evident: ‘34% of “Emerging” respondents identified as Culturally & Linguistically Diverse, more than twice the 15% of “Established” respondents. 8.51% identified as an “Emerging” Person with a Disability; while no “Established” respondents did, and only 3.3% of “Mid-Career” respondents.’

This is structural and cultural. It also comes down to a hard fact about resourcing. The sector needs more money. The arts need more public funding. I am sick to death of arguments around arts funding themselves. If that’s the case let’s demand that the defence industry ($36.4 billion budget for 2018) fund itself. The arts budget isn’t so easily revealed via a Google search. It doesn’t rate a single mention on the 2018–19 Budget Overview page. You’d almost think the Federal Government was disinterested. And while we’re at, let’s demand that politicians, whose salaries are paid for by the public purse, argue for their jobs every year, articulate what they are contributing to the community and why they deserve their salaries. Not to mention their pensions (which, according to this SMH article from 2016 was then a minimum of $118,000 per annum, well in excess of the budget for my show).

Theatre maker Mish Grigor wrote recently in The Guardian about how the arts shuts out the working class. As it does many individuals and groups whose lives don’t sit within the ‘everyman’ paradigm. This feels especially true in terms of accessibility between artists and those who hold power in arts organisations.

Contest was originally commissioned by Malthouse theatre. Once they decided not to program it, the Malthouse resident dramaturg sent the script, with glowing endorsement, to theatre companies all over Australia, followed up by a personal email from me. I didn’t hear back from a single one. In the absence of funded companies banging on my door, it’s safe to say I identify with the TNA survey respondents who see producing as my necessary second practice.

If a person like me, with a Masters in Writing for Performance and all the concomitant privileges of my white, middle-class identity, can feel shut out of theatre, then the problem for those with any compounding access issues is monumental.

Access and sustainability go hand in hand. The harder it gets to sustain a career in the arts, the more we will only see work made by the young and privileged, and a narrow band of established artists who slot easily into funded or commercial success.

In other professions, assuming one has stuck at them diligently, there is a sense by mid career of having some level of assured status. Whereas in the arts, as this TNA survey respondent points out, there is no comparable sense of career progression:

There is a need [within the industry] to recognise the difference in life costs as each artist ages and their life responsibilities grow. Another ignored gauge is in terms of years of practice. Very often I am offered the same fee on a project as a young emerging artist or early career artist – this is a primary reason why we have so few artists continuing in practice when there is no maturation in fees and regard for life changes.

It becomes exhausting, demoralising and the question as to whether the huge effort is worth the scant rewards harder to answer in the positive.

While the drop-off mid-career of a number of (mostly women) artists is not a social crisis of the scale of homelessness, our treatment of asylum seekers, the lack of treaties with our First Nations people, or many other dire issues, it is part of a broader set of social and structural problems. In that it speaks to who gets to participate in public life.

Public life in Australia is still dominated by the ‘everyman’. Any area of life in which there are more impediments than incentives for people other than This Guy to stay engaged and have influence is an area of our society that is not evolving and is not representative of who we are.

I nurse my wounded ego. At 2AM I am awake wondering if I should run a crowdfunding campaign for that urgent design element we just can’t afford. Or email friends and family. Or donate my (modest) fee. None of the options are appealing. I get up, go to the toilet, fret a bit more, go back to bed.

In the rehearsal room I am beside myself with gratitude at this group of people who have come together to make art, based on an idea I had, a script I wrote. There is something so potent about theatre for this reason. It’s about collaborating. We work with others and juggle multiple needs and priorities. We dig deep into cultural, social, political, linguistic, artistic and existential questions and share this with an audience, thereby feeding society’s life force.

On the flip side, it is resource heavy and very hard to make. I regularly consider opting out to focus on prose and poetry, where the only person let down by an unsuccessful application is myself. But something about the form sparks me.

Will I do this again? The irony is that each time it gets both easier (as my skills develop) and harder (as years of rejections and unfunded excellence accumulate). At this point I don’t have an alternative career I want to pursue so I guess I’ll hang in there. But my next show might be a one-person and a suitcase situation just to ensure a better chance of everyone getting properly paid.

Contest runs 25 July–4 August at Northcote Town Hall.


Image: publicity still for Contest.

Emilie Collyer

Emilie Collyer writes plays, poetry and prose. Her newest play Contest – a sweaty play about the petty and the profound set on a suburban netball court – has its world premiere as part of Darebin Arts’ Speakeasy from 25 July–4 August at Northcote Town Hall: www.darebinarts.com.au/contest  The project has been assisted by the Australian government through the Australia Council for the Arts, its arts funding and advisory body, and the Besen Family Foundation.

More by Emilie Collyer ›

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  1. Oh I could write an essay about how strongly I agree with you and have experienced the disheartening and soul destroying process of writing funding applications, waiting, waiting some more than knocked back. There has to be another way. So well said. I decided to ‘go it alone’ with my play and still pay my cast. Even though I am not paying myself a cent, there is a glorious sense of freedom about this independent process that I’m loving.

  2. The author’s “nurs[ing] my wounded ego” does not sound like a winning strategy. Something akin to what is described here obtains in theater in the USA, and I am convinced that the answer lies not with better funding for arts and artists (or less “accountability”) but rather healthcare—let me even say childcare—for all, and, which looks more and more feasible despite the arguments increasingly arrayed against it, some form of guaranteed basic income.

    “The harder it gets to sustain a career in the arts, the more we will only see work made by the young and privileged” to be sure, but while “many independent artists see self-producing as their only option and an integral part of their artistic careers” this does not emphasize strongly enough that even an ability to shoulder that burden of self-production already presupposes a significant amount of privilege.

    “[W]orking for an average wage of not nearly enough per hour” holds for industries outside of the artistic, and may need to be addressed, as a problem, globally—as do the attendant fatigue and frustration. I myself only managed by absconding from theater altogether, and abandoning wholesale ego’s aspirations of making it in that world. “Unfunded excellence” leads not to the diminishment but the cessation of art. But it’s less a question of loss to the artist than loss to society.

    A just society should have living wages, and should have art. The two are not contradictory, and the demand for each must go in tandem with the other.

  3. Have you thought of using the Australian Cultural Fund ? It was set up by government to help artists to ‘achieve their goals’ . It’s a form of crowdfunding, but you get all of the donations plus a bit . Donations are tax deductible, so it’s more attractive to large donors . I’ve used this process for someone and it was very succesful. Check out their website .

  4. Daydreaming here about the Turnbull govt buying only five drones from Mother America instead of six and chucking the 1 billion saved into a UBI fund for artistic peeps.

    I know it won’t happen but dreamkng of sanity is free 🙂

    There would be no better porn fantasy. Imagine the GDP rising like some rich millionaire’s Viagra dick as Australians bask in a flowing art river instead of the usual 1% “war” bullshit.

  5. Great article Emilie and hats off to you for bothering to take the time to write it at all; more evidence of the weight of your commitment and deservedness to professionally succeed – AND to be funded. I’ve nothing to add as you encapsulated it so articulately, except to say,
    I have already booked my tiks to PAY to see this show and I urge everyone who reads this to do the same! I hope the season is a sell out success.

  6. I agree with everything you have written bar one – it IS an important social issue that the arts aren’t funded. Society and the way it views itself, the way it arranges itself and the way it prioritises those arrangements are contingent on the stories we tell ourselves. Art of all forms is not an adjunct – it is the source. This is actually an enormous part of the problem – we tell ourselves as a society that art is a luxury, an add on, an entertainment. If this was the case, why is it the first thing attacked by dictators? Why is it the thing that people cling to when life is really, really bad? It’s our origin and as necessary as blood, as water, as air and earth and food and a place to sleep. Australia is in crisis on so many levels because we do not value the arts as the well-spring of our humanity.

  7. I am in heartfelt agreement with this entire article. It is the emotional labour around women artists that drives my research. We MUST continue to make these tacit experiences more visible. We MUST all be Goal Attacks.

  8. “The Contest was originally commissioned by Malthouse theatre. Once they decided not to program it”

    I’m not sure I understand this part. Did you mean that they had no space, or funding or rejected it for other reasons?

  9. Here’s a thought. Instead of expecting people who actually work for a living and pay taxes to fund your career choice (where they have no say where their money goes), why don’t you write a play that people will be voluntarily happy to pay money to go and see and let that money fund you. If you can’t make a living out of writing, then maybe you have chosen the wrong career. We all need to make our own way in this world and most of us would rather be doing something other than what we do every day but we do it because we need to support ourselves and our choices in life. We don’t expect the taxpayer to support us. I find your whingeing about not getting my money to fund your career choice disgusting. Frankly I would rather my tax dollars go to something useful like health care.

    1. ‘Your’ tax dollars? Artists pay taxes too – from the range of income they generate through a range of employment, whether this includes their practice or not. Taxes form a communal fund that everyone contributes to, relative to their income – and taxes are meant to support a huge range of services and infrastructure that benefits the society as a whole. (‘Meant to’ being the operative phrase here.) God help us if any particular individual should decide what is and isn’t ‘useful’ for everyone else in society. (Such an individual would be a fascist dictator, right?) A society that doesn’t support and value cultural production will soon become a sick society – literally, and otherwise. If your particular concern is health care, you might want to think about exactly what it’s going to take to get a complacent Australian population to actually stand up to endless governments (full of politicians being excessively paid ‘your’ tax dollars) corroding one of the best health care systems in the world: I bet it will take, in large part, those ‘useless’ creative types who, through multiple means, provoke people to notice, understand, think about – and therefore act upon – the world around them. I find it ‘disgusting’ how little successive Australian governments, and Australian culture in general, values its ‘creative capital.’

    2. hmm …

      So not a thought you came up with on your own, eh ? Let me take a wild stab.

      * Watches SUNRISE / TODAY …

      * listens religiously to Alan Jones, Ray Hadley or other state equivalent …

      * reads HERALD SUN, DAILY TELEGRAPH, or COURIER MAIL or other state equivalent

      * thinks commentators on SKY NEWS CHANNEL / FOXNEWS are oracles of genius

      * clearly believes tax dollars should only got toward projects they personally find appealing because fuck diversity !

  10. The same could be said for the independent screen industry. Imagine if all the unpaid hours of production and funding application and energy and commitment equated to fully funded projects and ongoing work for a larger pool of talented creatives. I fear Australian arts is going backwards. Non-stop competing for ever-shrinking pieces of pie in an ultra-conservative environment. Our indie screen project has had more acknowledgement and success from overseas festivals and platforms. There isn’t a lot of incentive to create and present on our home turf. I fear the Australian science brain drain will now move into the arts.

  11. That’s a very thorough piece. But the notion of “mid-career” seems a tad optimistic, as it assumes a “late-career” … very rare in this country, particularly for an independent self-initiating performing arts practitioner who hasn’t “graduated” to a paid administrative position. Once you hit 50 it’s pointless grumbling about funding. I’m now well into my 60’s and have attracted no direct funding for 11 years (despite many many applications). I’ve made 4 modest works in that time (a total of 14 nights performing onstage). Generally unpaid, but I’ve enjoyed doing it. I was a very busy man for 35 years (my “early” and “mid” career years), but have learned to graciously accept that I’m now way past my “use-by-date” and no longer interesting. Sadly, the presently hot new emerging artists will eventually have their trajectories similarly tripped. Such is life in Australia.

  12. “And while we’re at, let’s demand that politicians, whose salaries are paid for by the public purse, argue for their jobs every year, articulate what they are contributing to the community and why they deserve their salaries.”
    — Nice idea. I have another one. At the major theatre companies there are all sorts of admin people who enjoy the luxury of full time employment and the perks that go with that. But actors come in for – at the most – 12 weeks at a stretch including rehearsals and the season. And then they’re out on the bones of their arses scrapping for work again while plowing through their savings in no time at all. How about once in awhile the major companies employ their admin in a freelance style? Say, twelve weeks of work followed by a bout of four months unemployment. Then, back in again for another show working in admin for 12 weeks. Meanwhile, give a bunch of actors a nice fat year of work. Form a true “company” (actors, director, etc), and get rid of the false “company” (admin, etc).

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