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

  • 15 June 2018


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.

It 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