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Individual artists

Page history last edited by Alison Croggon 16 years, 1 month ago

Nobody becomes an artist to get rich. As a 2004 Australia Council survey of artists' incomes showed, the vast majority of artists live below the poverty line, with an overall median income of around $17,000 a year.  The major subsidisers of culture are artists, and the arts would not exist without their unpaid work. The arts are a highly skilled and labour-intensive profession, and the artist's investment includes training and development of skills, which is an on-going commitment. To attain any level of achievement requires years of development, which are mostly undertaken at the artist's own expenditure of time and labour.


Some artists (such as musicians, actors and other itinerant workers) seek employment by arts organisations, and clearly the health of arts organisations is an important factor in the emplyment of artists. However, permanent or full-time employment usually involves some kind of administrative work, such as becoming an artistic director, rather than a chance to devote onself to one's art. Writers, composers, visual artists and so on work mostly as individual artists. All artists face the same dilemmas in their daily lives: finding a way to balance (a) the need to live, raise, house, feed, educate and clothe themselves and their families, (b) the demands their vocation makes on them in terms of time and work and (c) their uncertain and unpredictable incomes. 


The present suggested solution is that artists become more effective business managers, marketing and promoting their work as sole traders. However, this doesn't recognise that the major drive behind an artist's work is not economic. Nor are artists necessarily very good at being small businesses, a problem that is exacerbated by the extreme volatility and unpredictability of an artist's income - my personal annual income, for example, has varied from $700 to $60,000 per annum.  And the trajectory is not necessarily upwards: even the most successful artist can make a lot of money one year and almost nothing the next. This fact can make it very difficult for a full-time artist to exist in a society which is structured around the idea of employees earning steady incomes. Nor does artistic success (as measured by critical response, international notice or successful public performance or publication) necessarily equate with a liveable income. This is particularly clear, for example, in the case of poets.


A temporary source of steady income for individual full-time artists is winning a grant from the Australia Council, which will support them to some degree (the standard fellowship is worth around $25,000 pa) for one or two years. Yet even the most successful grant winner will only get one every few years. In between lucky years, artists have to find a way to live, just as everyone else does. Only the toughest, luckiest and most determined artists can survive the stresses of this so-called lifestyle for any length of time, especially when they begin to be responsible for children.


The following suggestions are intended to mitigate the daily struggles faced by committed individual artists.


1. Tax exemption for creative income


This is the model in Ireland, where the creative income of artists is not taxed. This is often misunderstood as artists paying no tax: this is not the case. If an artist works at a non-creative job, he or she is taxed like everyone else; and things like merchandising are taxed. However, in Ireland this exemption does not apply to performing artists. I think it should apply to all artists who create work of cultural or artistic significance.


As a review by Visual Artists Ireland says, this scheme, which has been in place for more than three decades, is effective, cheap, actually assists artists and has been extremely successful in stimulating artistic activity in Ireland. It is democratic and it rewards most those artists who most engage an audience. "The artists' exemption," says the report, "helps realise the ambition not to make profit but to make art." Moreover, it is not a drain on resources:


Despite the hype in the tabloid press the Artists Exemption does not represent a significant drain on the countries resources. Particularly in the context of the wider review of all the various tax relief/incentive schemes. In 2002 the amount of tax theoretically forgone to the state because of the exemption was €24million. This represents just 0.15% of all the tax forgone to the state as a result of all the various tax incentive/relief schemes.


As a general rule, arts grants should not be taxed, as is the case in Britain.


2. Official recognition of the itinerant and unstable nature of artists' work


If institutions like the Tax Office or Centrelink recognised the work of those in the "creative industries", if there was a box they could tick that was labelled "artist", and which recognised and took into account the itinerant and unstable nature of an artist's income, it would make life significantly easier for artists. When artists fill in forms, they are always ticking "other" under employment, since there is no category into which they fit. Explaining the nature of that employment to bureaucrats who simply do not understand the nature of artists' work can be traumatic and confusing. For example, artists cannot predict their incomes: they often do not know from year to year, or even from month to month, what their income will be. When they are working hard on their art attempting to generate an income, they find that work is not recognised as "proper" work. For this reason, artists often do not apply for or receive social benefits that their income might otherwise entitle them to, because of the nightmare of negotiating the social bureacracy as artists who cannot estimate their income or employment prospects.


The more dedicated artists are to their work, the harder they work on their chosen vocation, the more they find themselves disadvantaged in the current system. For example, a tax system which asks an artist to predict the following year's work on the basis of the current year, and to pay that tax in advance, can be particularly punitive if an artist has a good year followed by a poor year, given that artists are often living a hand-to-mouth existence. If there were some way of recognising and valuing the unpaid work of artists in official government organisations outside the arts, it would make artist's lives less difficult.


It would be a simple matter to determine a qualification for the artist category which calls for a level of professional accomplishment - in the case of itinerant workers like actors, it could be the amount of hours worked per year; in the case of writers or visual artists or composers, a certain number of professionally produced or published works.


A more radical proposal - suggested below by Carolyn Connors - would be the creation of a living wage for artists, similar to the Intermittent Workers Allowance in France. In France, this functions as a form of unemployment benefits, in which itinerant workers who work for a certain number of hours a year qualify for a higher rate of benefit. This scheme has in fact underlaid an enormous amount of theatre and film production in France and has been the focus of bitter industrial dispute by arts workers when the Chirac government cut it back.


3. The payment of government stipends to eminent older artists


Because of the nature of their working lives, which often do not permit them to generate savings or property, many artists of significant achievement who have devoted their lives to their work end up in old age still struggling, or even in poverty. The Australia Council recognises this with the Emeritus Awards for writers, one-off grants of $50,000. I suggest a scheme in which artists over 65 from all artforms who have achieved artistic eminence are awarded a government stipend (say, a tax-free payment of $20,000, which also shouldn't affect pension payments), to be paid until the end of their lives. The selection criteria ought to be similar to the Australia Council's: demonstrated artistic eminence and a demonstrated income of less than $40,000 pa, averaged over three years. Such stipends ought to be a recognition and an honour, a gesture of thanks for what these artists have offered to the community during their lives.


4. Ensure that artists are paid properly by venue managers and other employers


Graeme Leak says that artists are often paid badly or not at all by venue managers, compared with 20 years ago, and very often participate in events at their own expense. He suggests that there ought to be a comparative study of how artists are paid in other countries, and that it ought to be illegal to pay poverty line fees.


          See Graeme Leak's proposal.


See also:


Carolyn Connors' proposal for a living wage for artists

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