Over the past decade, arts policy has been dominated by an increasingly incoherent ‘creative industries’ mindset that places artistic labour in an entrepreneurial framework, ultimately a private-sector concern. The Australia Council has reflected this turn, slowly drifting from the language of public funding and towards ‘investment’.

Meanwhile, scarce, project-oriented funding has been hiding the real costs of making art. As is the case in most precarious or gig-based employment, many costs are passed on to the worker. Unpaid and underpaid work prop up the sector, artists increasingly engaged in the hustle of work-for-labour while writing, dancing, playing music and making art are framed as elitist or recreational pursuits. The notion that art is something only the wealthy can afford to do becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So it was a relief to hear the Prime Minister of Australia say that ‘the arts cannot be left simply to those who can afford to do it’ and to insist, while launching Labor’s new National Cultural Policy, Revive, that ‘arts jobs are real jobs.’ ‘You are essential workers,’ Arts Minister Tony Burke followed up moments later. We appear to be witnessing something of a paradigm shift in the economic position of the artist. But how convincing is it?

Almost a century ago, Roosevelt’s New Deal employed thousands of artists on work-relief through the Public Works of Art Project and the Works Progress Administration. Forty years ago, the Australia Council recruited artists to work with unions for its ‘Art and Working Life’ project. These days, the notion of the artist as worker is at something of an historical ebb. Freelance artists, writers and performers are no longer exceptional in working gig-to-gig; we are part of a wave of precarisation, with the growth of insecure work across the economy. In Australia, the introduction of the ABN system in 2000 forced us to identify as sole traders and hence as small businesses, breaking down our sense of ourselves as workers and pushing the individualist, entrepreneurial model forward.

The increasing precarity of artists’ working lives has reached a crisis point. A decade of cuts and the uneven impacts felt by working artists during the pandemic have led to widespread stories of attrition and burnout. Many artists have raised these issues in their work.

It is no surprise that submissions to the policy consultation process, including those from the National Association for the Visual Arts (NAVA) and the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA), emphasised the role of the artist as worker. MEAA’s submission called for minimum standards for musicians and the establishment of ‘a Code of Conduct (or statutory mechanism) that binds organisations using cultural labour to observe relevant employment and work safety standards.’ NAVA’s submission also called for industrial reform, urging the government to establish an Award that covers the visual arts, craft and design sector, mandating fair pay for artists, and to empower the Fair Work Commission to regulate standards for the industry.

Revive does promise regulation, including the adoption of NAVA’s code of practice, minimums for musicians, and importantly, the introduction of conditional funding ‘that requires government-funded artistic and cultural ventures to adopt and adhere to minimum workplace safety standards, and meet legislated minimum employment standards.’ Because those standards do not formally exist, Labor plans to develop them: to ‘include Award coverage of the arts sector and minimum standards as part of the upcoming Review of Modern Awards.’

To implement these changes, Revive has announced the creation of a Centre for Arts and Entertainment Workplaces. This body could be a game-changer for artists, as well as for advocacy organisations such as MEAA, NAVA and the Australian Society of Authors (ASA) that have been setting rates and calling for better regulation in the arts for decades.

The Centre for Arts and Entertainment Workplaces will be established on 1 July this year, but there are still questions about its make-up and its powers. Because this body will form part of Creative Australia (the soon-to-be-former Australia Council for the Arts), its independence will need to be secured. Will it be possible for an artist to report allegations of mistreatment to the Centre when it is part of the body that might withhold their funding? How will it define a ‘workplace’ in the blurry art-life continuum (email, social media, comments fields)? How will it address the often insidious exploitation of ‘emerging’ artists?

On closer scrutiny, it appears that the Centre will have no power to enforce fair rates or arbitrate disputes, but will ‘provide advice’ and ‘refer matters to the relevant authorities,’ such as Fair Work or the Human Rights Commission. Rates are likely to remain opt-in, at least until artists are included in an Award.

Burke appears determined to seize the opportunity of his combined portfolios—it’s the first time we’ve had a Minister for the Arts who is also the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations. But policy-led approaches to workplace change will always be severely limited. The real downward pressure on our incomes and conditions isn’t just a lack of regulation but a lack of power; it can only be offset by collective action. The arts remains a deeply under-unionised workforce, distributed across multiple trade and professional bodies. Chronic multi-tasking in euphemistically named ‘portfolio careers’ means that many of us bounce between such organisations without ever feeling adequately represented. As sole traders, freelancers are excluded from current forms of collective bargaining (something the Freelance Charter seeks to address). Fair Work is out of touch with the precariat.

If artists are workers, it follows that we should be organising for fair pay, safety, and other rights at work. The next, equally obvious deduction is that artists should be eligible for support when we are out of work, too.

Skim read the 116-page Revive document and you might easily miss this: ‘Develop information about the flexibility available for artists to be looking for work or working in the creative arts sector, and to have this recognised as part of their mutual obligation requirements for unemployment payments.’

Labor has been here before. Making art count for the dole was occasionally mentioned by Peter Garrett when he was Arts Minister back in 2007-2010, but it disappeared in 2013’s short-lived Creative Australia policy. A policy to ‘develop information’ about a policy is a weak gesture, but it’s something that would be transformative for artists at every stage of our careers. It should be cause for optimism.

The policy continues: ‘This will assist artists and other creative workers to work with job providers so that they can continue their creative practice while connecting to paid work.’ Held against the backdrop of the robodebt hearings, a litany of punitive welfare’s harms and a demonstration of the many shades of grey between bureaucratic failure and bureaucratic malice, this is deflating. Enclosing creative practice within the existing system seems unlikely to have benign outcomes.

There is a chink here that could be widened, but it will require the kind of solidarity between artists and the unemployed that has been glaringly absent from both Raise the Rate and arts funding campaigns. As with fair pay, there is only so much that we can expect from a top-down approach.

Revive acknowledges that many submissions (including my own) suggested that a Basic Income pilot in the arts, similar to the one now underway in Ireland, might offer an antidote to the chronic insecurity of working artists. Support between gigs would separate creative practice from the hustle and offer stability——the kind of stability that those with inherited wealth can take for granted, without having to meet with their job network providers.

But the policy skims past Basic Income with the barest acknowledgement of receipt: ‘many submissions to the National Cultural Policy consultation process raised remuneration, including a basic income for artists. The Government recognises that artistic and cultural work is a professional activity and that fair pay and conditions for arts and cultural workers are essential.’ The deflection to fair pay and conditions is understandable, but fair pay and Basic Income shouldn’t be mutually exclusive.

I often return to economist Alison Pennington’s comparison of artistic work to nursing. Bringing nursing into the realm of formal labour and insisting it be paid—an achievement of the hard work of nurses’ unions over generations—has had significant positive impacts, both for nurses and for access to care. Like nursing, plenty of art happens at home for no money. We can assign it value and fight to have it included in the economy, if we so choose.

But by itself, this labourist approach has limitations. When labour is framed as ‘making a contribution,’ it constructs the moral scaffolding required to build workfare/mutual obligation. Fair pay and other conditions such as portable leave entitlements are essential demands, but some might be suspicious of attempts to tie artists to ‘secure jobs’ when work has already undergone a transformation that is, in significant ways, desirable. Many artists continue to practice in spite of the terrible conditions because we crave personal autonomy, or have other ways of measuring success. An attachment to paid work as the main source of meaning and value in our lives might be experienced as loss.

It’s moving to hear, after a decade of cuts and three pandemic years, that we are essential workers. We want to know our work is meaningful, that we are valued not just by ‘the economy’ but by society as a whole. But it’s worth remembering that others who were deemed essential at the height of the pandemic—supermarket workers, transport workers, health care workers, teachers, and so on—are also experiencing burnout, and haven’t seen much in the way of material change. As David Graeber illustrated in Bullshit Jobs, it’s often the least essential work that attracts the highest rewards.

The neoliberal model hasn’t disappeared from the new policy. True to form, Labour retains a foot in each camp, expanding public-private partnerships within Creative Australia and looking at strategic investment in the commercial sector. ‘We are workers but we are also small businesspeople and entrepreneurs,’ write Christos Tsiolkas and Clare Wright in their introduction to Revive. ‘Many of us are working on the faultline.’

Art has been caught between labour and entrepreneurialism for so long because it destabilises both models. In its very nature it insists on non-monetisable forms of value: on connection and interrogation, on risk, beauty and delight. We might agree that risk, beauty and delight are good for society; we can even define their impacts with various wellbeing metrics. But in campaigning for the public value of arts and culture and asserting its similarities to other kinds of work, we should be careful not to absorb it completely into a troubled economy. We should not lose sight of what makes art different from ordinary labour.

Making art belongs to an older, even more essential, reciprocal economy, and to a future of work that has not yet arrived. The work of making art—the lifelong work of learning and honing and sharing a craft, following your curiosities, committing to belonging to a community of practitioners—the collective gift of it, and its radical autonomy—contains the possibility of liberation from alienated labour.

I am cautiously optimistic about the return of the artist as worker. Legislated fair pay, workplace safety, collective bargaining, public value, and yes, access to unemployment benefits offer a steady way forward for a troubled sector. It’s no surprise that more radical plans for a post-work utopia are not in Labor’s sights: it remains our (essential) work to imagine them.


This article is supported by the Arts Industry Council of South Australia (AICSA)

Image: Marc Chagall, Introduction to the Jewish Theatre, 1920 (detail)

Jennifer Mills

Jennifer Mills was Overland fiction editor between 2012 and 2018. Her latest novel, The Airways, is out through Picador.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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