Recognise Artists as Workers petition gains over 5800 signatures

Artists Tony Albert, Abdul Abdullah and Joan Ross join 5,800 signatures on NAVA's petition to Recognise Artists as Workers.

Later this year, the Federal Government is launching a new National Cultural Policy. A founding principle of the new policy framework is recognising artists as workers. Yet without an Award for visual arts, craft and design, the struggle for many artists to make a living continues.

The longitudinal studies by Professor David Throsby on the economic circumstances of arts practitioners over the last three decades indicate that the level of visual artists’ and craft practitioners’ incomes continues to drop significantly, and that a substantial proportion of practitioners are earning below the poverty line.

A significant number of visual artists and arts workers are underpaid, with little opportunity to negotiate their fees and wages. The lack of regulation, continuity and clarity through a legal framework for the visual arts means many employers, employees and artists themselves, find it difficult to determine and negotiate appropriate rates of pay for their work.

The National Association for the Visual Arts (NAVA) continues to have primary responsibility for setting payment standards through NAVA’s Code of Practice for Visual Arts, Craft and Design. Yet, the recommended fees and wages outlined in the Code continue to be voluntary, not mandatory. Governments and their funding bodies do not mandate these fees and therefore NAVA is unable to enforce the payment of adequate fees for artists and freelance arts workers.

This leaves the door open for exploitation in many forms: from the underpayment of artists by government-funded arts organisations, to the use of digital content without appropriate remuneration. Without an award, most artists and arts workers will also miss out on any increases to fees and wages gained through enterprise bargaining and award processes decided by the Commission.

With more than 100 industry or occupation awards that cover the majority of people who work in Australia – including live performance artists and arts workers under the Live Performance Award – why is legislating minimum fees and wages for visual artists and arts workers not a priority?

Melbourne-based installation artist Mikala Dwyer said: ‘As generous as artists are, we can’t live on nothing. Societies need the tools of imagination now more than ever. Artists are essential workers. We need recognition and a basic living wage.’

Dwyer is just one voice in an open letter calling on the Federal Government to include a legislated Award for the visual arts, craft and design sector in the new National Cultural Policy. More than 5800 Australian artists and arts workers, including internationally renowned artists Tony Albert, Abdul Abdullah, Ali Baker, Joan Ross, Louise Zhang, Vipoo Srivalasa, Sally Smart, Tom Mùller and Nici Cumpston, have signed the petition.

Read: National Cultural Policy: Peak bodies urge PM to support ‘full investment’

The #RecogniseArtistsAsWorkers campaign on was launched by NAVA last week ahead of the much-anticipated launch of the Federal Government’s new National Cultural Policy later this year.

Perth-based artist, curator and writer Gemma Weston believes an Award will benefit artists, audiences and the sector as a whole. ‘An award rate for artists will enshrine best practice standards for arts institutions nationally, and will ensure artistic programs developed by institutions are both ambitious and realistic.’

However visual artists and arts workers face uncertain odds. Rather than establishing a legal framework in the new National Cultural Policy, NAVA has heard of discussions to include an ombudsman-type structure within the Australia Council for artists and arts workers to report payment complaints against federally-funded organisations.

Simply, this is both unjust and unsustainable. NAVA fears this proposal will not only draw arts funding away from artists to duplicate the function of the Fair Work Commission, but will contribute to division within a precariously underfunded sector. Besides, it will do nothing to legislate the adequate payment of artists and arts workers for their work across the entire sector.

When visual artists and arts workers ask to be paid for their work, and paid decently, it is because the people behind the artworks and experiences that audiences across Australia love, deserve to be compensated for their time and labour.

Now is the time for Arts Minister Tony Burke to honour his commitment to support artists as workers and celebrate their role as the creators of culture.

Leya Reid is the Communications & Advocacy Manager at the National Association for the Visual Arts (NAVA).