Is it too hard to have a career in the arts?



It was 2015. I was sitting at a table with my mum at an awards presentation night. A documentary I'd directed had made the shortlist for an important media honour. I put the cost of travelling interstate to attend on my credit card — tickets weren't cheap, even for nominees. Mum wanted to come with me for moral support and to enjoy a night of glamour, so she did too.

Cartoon by Chris Johnston portrays artists striving and struggling to rise above the packIt was a big deal. Parents have a way of hyping these things up — subtle comments about the Oscars being next and so on. I was glad Mum was there — I was really nervous and felt alone in a sea of somebodies.

But then they announced our project — we had won the category. Waleed Aly won the category after me for a segment on The Project, and as I watched the cluster of people clamouring for photos with him I thought, this is the start of something big.

Finally my resume would have some clout — the endless, vague offers of work and opportunities that had sustained hope for years but led nowhere might start to come good. No more being expected to work for free to get anything done. No more being let go with a day's notice. No more waiting three months to get paid for work that was long completed.

The slow, heartbreaking realisation that unfolded over a year or more was that none of this — the heavy glass trophy, breathing the same air as popular TV hosts, sitting at those fancy tables — would change anything. It was an elaborate farce, and I was still a nobody in a struggling ecosystem.

If I didn't have the mettle to keep traipsing through the mountain of unpaid work — to push start a project that would profit someone else — then there were countless others lining up to take my place. Budgets are shrinking, but the talent pool is exploding. How much more of this could I take?

As National Young Writers' Festival co-director Jini Maxwell so deftly pointed out in the Saturday Paper, many accomplished arts workers feel the sting of being underpaid and overworked, but most are terrified to openly discuss how unsustainable the industry is for fear of being blacklisted as troublemakers.


"That pride is short lived when the cost of subsidising an industry with your free labour begins to take its toll on your mental health and hopes for the future."


Creating artistic works is an outlet for many that brings an unparalleled sense of satisfaction and pride. But that pride is short lived when the cost of subsidising an industry with your free labour begins to take its toll on your mental health and hopes for the future. Grand hopes such as fixing your car or taking a short holiday.

It's a peculiar kind of limbo. Hundreds of possibilities arise, but only a handful materialise. Small tasks absorb the entire day, but never quite fill the bank account. Offers that seemed like a sure thing collapse at the last second, while we clear our schedules for jobs, grants and workshops that crop up unexpectedly. Our resumes are a tangled mess of overlapping dates, very specific skills, and no clear ambitions. All while we maintain a sense of cool-headed availability.

Mentors are few and far between; many of them are competing for the same grants, sales and opportunities as you. When you work in a freelance context, you don't have a network of colleagues you can bounce ideas off. Or you might, but usually just for a short time. The people who have the time and money to help you don't have enough time and money to prop you up through your entire career.

This is the point where I've started to ask myself: maybe it isn't worth it. Maybe it's too hard.

The stats are dire. According to a 2015 study by Macquarie University by cultural economist Professor Throsby, authors make an average of $12,900 a year from their writing. In 2017, a further study by Professor Throsby and Katya Petetskaya revealed that artists' average incomes from creative work has declined in real terms since 1988, and the gender pay gap is especially wide in the arts. First Nations women and women of colour face a particular tough battle.

But those stats don't convey the hurt, frustration and disappointment of watching your dreams fall to pieces. Last year, celebrated novelist Frank Moorhouse revealed in a Meanjin essay 'I am going broke again.' What hope is there for the rest of us?



Amelia PaxmanAmelia Paxman is a Brisbane-based writer, filmmaker and winner of a UNAA Media Peace award.

Topic tags: Amelia Paxman, creative arts



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Existing comments

Yes, Amelia. It probably is too hard! Artists are really practising a hobby that they love. Not all are, however, very good at their hobbies and only a very small proportion of society at large appreciates the talents of a great writer, artist, musician, poet or composer. The paying market is tiny. It is a wise idea for an artist these days to have a second source of income. Sadly, talent or desire alone is not great currency.
john frawley | 15 June 2018

Spending by individuals of median to average income on art being very discretionary, art is an industry the nature of which is not to be supported by customers unlike, say, the restricted floor-space and therefore lighter rent-paying tobacco kiosk industry spread out over the many shopping centres catering to middle Australia, but sponsored by institutional benefactors as a means of advertising themselves or sustained by high net-worth individuals more or less as an act of charity. This, of course, means that art-spending is trickle down from a rising private enterprise economy that lifts all boats, especially those of the philanthropic patrons necessary to subsidise the art industry. Sequestering public funds in the form of government grants is only meant to be a prime-the-pump survival-of-industry necessity because, in principle, aesthetic tastes being highly personal, why should a government’s tastes mean anything? That artists will benefit directly from government policies that favour a private enterprise economy is suggested by the newish commercial phenomenon of social media such as Facebook, where the business flourishes only because of presumably tax-deductible advertising sponsorship, the customers themselves, all millions of them, paying zilch for the high-quality service they consume every day.
Roy Chen Yee | 17 June 2018

Have to agree, to a point, with John Frawley. Is 'the Arts' really an industry? is there a product that enough people desire, so that there's a large market?Is the main aim financial profit via increased market share? No? It's not an industry (thank god). You can't make a reliable living this way, any more than can an assembly line worker superseded by drones. What you'redoing is something else, necessary to everyone but not recognized as being so. don't stop making art - please - but do something else to feed yourself and your family as well. /
Joan Seymour | 17 June 2018

I have three children all directly involved in the arts, and they're good, but if ever that old adage "it's not what you know but who you know" was true, it is for artists. You definitely have to be patient but as I keep saying to them, you have to make it happen.
Stephen de Weger | 18 June 2018

Dear Amelia, take heart. Persevere with your passion. The world needs artists to tell their stories, our stories, in word, song, dance, art, sculpture, across every medium, into every layer of society. Even more so now in these sometime bleak and cruel days of neoliberalism, war, unreality, poverty, cruelty. As I watch the news each evening, and brace for the 10 minute gloss on sports, I wonder what a different society we would be if those ten minutes were given over to the daily achievements of artists. If the launch of a novel, the screening of a documentary, the opening night of a new play, the creation of a series of paintings, were given even one tenth of the time allotted to sports. The world needs the passion of artists. But perhaps we’ll only realise this when the last artist dies. I wish you well, and success, and perseverance, and funding, and much creative energy.
Susan Bassett | 18 June 2018

I am reminded of some wise words from Abraham Maslow: 'A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately at peace with himself... It isn't normal to know what we want. It is a rare and difficult psychological achievement.'
Barry G | 18 June 2018

Amelia, thanks for raising the lid on the world of arts-privatisation and public ignorance. The writing appeared on the arts wall when Can-Do-Campbell won the Queensland elections for the LNP and his state became the first to cancel a major literary award. Slash-and-burn attitudes to the arts were then adopted by Abbot, who appointed Brandis to the arts portfolio. A staunch believer in the claims of high classical culture, Brandis's assault on the industry was akin to investing all public monies in the Tamworth Festival. Numerous and worthy arts enterprises, especially in the creative arts, have subsequently gone down the drain. It also appalls that, in the main, most of the comments published here so far, except that of Susan Bassett, lack arts policy literacy or justify putting you back in your box. As the parent of an arts producer/ director, my heart goes out to you. Side with those politicians and parties who are prepared to put their money where their mouth is, influence audiences to do the same, expose the troglodytes who endorse the 'rising tide will raise all boats' fantasy that features here in explanation for why you are being shut down, and above all, keep writing!
Dr Michael Furtado | 18 June 2018

There was a time, when the Australia Council was properly funded with its supportive programs that life in the arts was merely difficult. There is a reason why so many people in the creative arts come from affluent family backgrounds. It is incredibly hard to make even a basic living from any art form and now, without enough avenues for public patronage parental backing it can best be described as impossible. Whose stories will be told, when only the rich can afford to have a voice?
Joanna Mendelssohn | 18 June 2018

My sister in law is a sculptor. For 30 years she has worked at her art. She has learned her art from teachers, mentors, life experience,the natural world. She is a remarkable woman. She has supported herself by teaching and living frugally. She is just beginning to get serious commissions and will be able to buy a reliable car. She cannot imagine living any other way. If art of any medium is in you it must come out and the world will accept or not. Perhaps not much comfort but one story.
Jorie Ryan | 18 June 2018

Hear , Hear, Jorie Ryan. "If art of any medium is in you it must come out and the world will accept or not." While Susan Bassett and Dr Furtado have espoused the romanticism of the arts they seem to have forgotten than even a creative artist of any genre has to eat! The fact is that the world might well not "accept" the product of their various visions. In real terms, the true artist will always carry on but in our world will forever be at the mercy of the dollar. It amazes how alleged experts, publishers for instance, are often such troglodytes, knocking back manuscripts which they judge will not make them their baseline costs and some profit. Rejections of Peter Carey's Booker Prize winner by a host of publishers and Rowling's Harry Potter by five major publishers are good examples! Paradoxically, if a writer can't put two words together but played a main line sport, spent time in prison for a major offence, engaged in a public sexual scandal or failed as a politician, it can be guaranteed that if they write it down or engage a ghost writer they will succeed as an author. I recall one Australian cricketer asked after his ghost-written book appeared in the shops whether he was happy with it or not. He replied, "I haven't read it yet. So, yeah".
john frawley | 18 June 2018

Well said Amelia but try writing music. I've had 28 semi finals in the UK song contest and 1 finalist but never had a serious artist pick up one of my songs. I have twin 20 year old daughters, one a singer and actor, another a trapeze artist and diver and they struggle to make a living. My wife has worked at QPAT for 18 years. Its the big shows that make it. The arts is a fickle world. But I feel for your sense of disillusionment and your bewilderment at being overlooked. So near and yet so far. Van Gogh when he committed suicide in 1890, had battled a lifetime of poverty, psychotic episodes and rejection and they dont come much greater. Amelia, Australia is too small. You need to go to USA or UK (for example) to make it. And persist. Dont ever give up. And John you are right. Most publishers are troglodytes and cant see the wood for the trees.
Frank Armstrong | 18 June 2018

There is so much more that could be said on this after Simon Birmingham's comments that the Arts are a 'life-style choice'. I'd be very interested to know how government funding changes in Arts education, Arts projects have impacted on our film, theatre, visual arts, music, opera, dance.
Vineta O'Malley | 19 June 2018

Dr Michael Furtado: “expose the troglodytes who endorse the 'rising tide will raise all boats' fantasy that features here in explanation for why you are being shut down.” If you’re in a business of selling wares, the wares need to have a market if you are to make a living out of it. The market are the ordinary folks who feel like burning a hole in their pocket on luxuries, which is what art is. A rising tide contributes towards a psychology amenable to burning a hole in your pocket on a luxury or two. The original troglodytes (or cave dwellers) practised art for its own sake.
Roy Chen Yee | 19 June 2018

Much as I enjoy jousting with Dr Frawley, he has once again misread Amelia's text as well as my post. Perhaps the best interjection here on behalf of poor Amelia is from Professor Joanna Mendelssohn of The University of Melbourne who is an art historian specialising in Australian art. A graduate of the University of Sydney, she began her career as curatorial assistant at the Art Gallery of New South Wales before becoming a writer and later an academic at the College of Fine Arts (now UNSW: Art & Design). I knew her well at Newcastle University. Joanna writes prolifically for The Conversation, and knows only too well, as her post reveals, the mean-spirited and blinkered prejudices of born-to-rule conservatives with a view of art that begins with Michelangelo and ends with da Vinci. In musical terms, their repertoire runs the full gamut of performance from Winifred Atwell to Mantovani, and for them André Rieu is a maestro extraordinaire. Indeed, the Arts portfolio under the Coalition is run as if the lunatics are in charge of the asylum. Of course, I accept from his literary references that Dr Frawley recognises this, but why call a scathing critic a romantic? Hah!
Dr Michael Furtado | 19 June 2018

Dear Dr Furtado. Perhaps I did misread Amelia's article. I could have sworn she was talking about the difficulty artists of all genres have in making a living from their creations. I agree with your criticism of government failure to promote artistic enterprise and the removal of existing funding. However, I suspect the cream will always rise to the top of a gallon of perfectly good milk. Any government funding is in fact generous and a great improvement compared with the reliance exclusively on wealthy patrons of society, the system that gave the world such greats as Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo and continues to fund and support artists to this day. Most people in our society are not interested in the creative arts and that makes it very difficult for any artist such as Amelia and your artistic offspring. From my view point, I have earned bugger all in royalties from my four published books and a smidgeon of published poetry but keep going because I have another job!! I have never tried to sell my paintings and confine myself to giving them away. My payment is the satisfaction of doing what I love - but that wouldn't feed us or the keep the rain out.
john frawley | 20 June 2018

Dear John, you are simply mistaken in observing that the only great art that has ever emerged is through philanthropic benefaction. There is an abundance of public art around the world that has been commissioned by the state. I myself have recently visited Mexico City, which has a plethora of great public works of art that are recognised universally as second only to Paris in their inspirational quality. While the danger here lies in artists having to toe the ideological line set in Soviet Russia and the Republic of China, there are enough safeguards within the democratic polity to prevent that. Art, like healthcare, is NOT a private prerogative, as you yourself in your capacity as a medic would surely acknowledge. It is essential to nurturing the 'aesthetic polity' and especially those within it with the kind of creative gifts that make the difference between bland uniformity and a common good that sings! This doesn't mean that Amelia wouldn't understand what it takes to keep the wolf from the door, but she shouldn't have to rely on middle-class parents to give her the leg-up that creative persons with no such support base don't have. Hence Joanna's point. Kind Regards, Michael
Dr Michael Furtado | 21 June 2018

The fact that one isn't necessarily paid for creative work of a professional standard does not make it merely a hobby. Imagine, for argument's sake, that there was a total moratorium for, let's say, a week, on concerts, cinema, television series, theatre of all kinds, radio programmes with arts content, gallery exhibitions, home consumption of creative products such as books, dvds, cds, reviews of the arts and, in fact, any recreational arts-related activity. Then imagine this being extended to a month, or indefinitely. It takes years to cultivate skills and talent to performance or publication standard, and then to work at two jobs - the artform you have chosen and the other job that enables you to survive in order to practise it. You have earned the right to practise it, by virtue of the years you've spent acquiring the skills to do so. (Not that you need anyone's permission.) The attitude to arts practitioners in this country often smacks of Schadenfreude. Don't give up, you'll only be miserable and unfulfilled if you relinquish your vision of how you want to live and what you hope to create. You need to be realistic, but don't be pessimistic. And you need to be strong, in order to have the energy and motivation to keep working at two trades, the one you are paid for and the one you are probably not. Apart from which, why disparage hobbies? It's just that beyond a certain point, the given pathway and product exceeds the limitations we associate with hobbies, although when Carrie Tiffany won the Stella Award for her novel, "Mateship with Birds", she was heard to say at a writers' festival, "I'm only a hobbyist...", partly because she works as a journalist to support herself.
Jena Woodhouse | 25 June 2018


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