Wage fright

By Anwen Crawford
COVID-19 isolation rules have seen artists’ livelihoods disappear

"Sarah Aiken (tools for personal expansion)” © Gregory Lorenzutti

Sarah Aiken is a dancer and choreographer living in Melbourne. For Aiken, the beginning of 2020 was a busy period, during which she worked with her collaborative partner Rebecca Jensen to stage their participatory dance event Deep Soulful Sweats at venues including Gasworks Arts Park and the Immigration Museum. With those commissions finished she had intended, throughout March and April, to work “pretty solidly” at Arts Centre Melbourne, where she was employed casually as a front-of-house staff member, while also earning some income teaching public classes for the dance company Chunky Move. In June, she was set to begin a three-month residency in Helsinki, funded by a grant from the Australia Council. All of Aiken’s work has now been ended by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Everything we already knew was a problem has become crystal clear,” Aiken says, of the destruction being wrought these last few weeks upon the Australian arts sector. Working conditions for independent, self-employed artists and arts workers have long been deeply insecure; like Aiken, many of these workers have to patch together a living from a combination of casual employment, short-term contracts and artistic commissions, and the occasional grant. No line of income is ever guaranteed, and little if any of this work comes with the paid entitlements – superannuation, annual leave, sick leave – that waged employees receive. Aiken adds that when it closed its doors on March 15, the Arts Centre “really generously” paid out the rostered shifts of its employees for the fortnight through until the beginning of April. This has given her a modest financial cushion, which is fortunate, because when we spoke on March 24 she had already spent several hours trying and failing to access the MyGov website, in order to begin a claim for JobSeeker Payment.

On Monday, March 23, Government Services Minister Stuart Robert announced that the MyGov site had crashed because of a coordinated cyberattack; later that day he had to admit that the hackers were imaginary. The site failed because it was only designed to cope with 55,000 simultaneous users. “I didn’t think I’d have to prepare for 100,000 concurrent users,” Robert told radio shock-jock Alan Jones. He could have saved himself some breath – and the rest of us the bother – by ending that sentence after the third word. As of March 26, no fewer than 280,000 “intents to claim” had been lodged with Centrelink by newly unemployed Australians. How many of these, I wonder, were made by artists and arts workers.

One artist I spoke to managed to lodge a JobSeeker claim the week before queues began to form hundreds deep at Centrelink offices around the country. Nick Martyn, a drummer, says, “I think I’m one of the lucky ones”.

Like Aiken, Martyn lives in Melbourne, but as a touring musician he does most of his work away from home. Until two weeks ago, Martyn’s main source of income was as a musical director for the Adelaide-based contemporary circus company Gravity & Other Myths. Martyn estimates that he has spent eight of the past 12 months on tour with the company, mostly overseas, though the circus was set to begin an Australian tour late in March. He also had upcoming festival shows booked for his solo musical project, Las Mar, including at Wide Open Space in Alice Springs, in May, and Dark Mofo in Hobart, in June. Both festivals have been cancelled. The possibility of his booking any local gigs in Melbourne has also vanished, and he can’t teach his drumming students either, except perhaps by videoconference. His employment status at Gravity & Other Myths, along with the company’s 30 or so other performers, was as a sole contractor. Now that the circus can’t operate and he can’t pick up any other gigs, he has no income.

“Anyone who works for the company know they’ve got our best interests at heart,” he says, of the circus. “But because of the way it’s set up, we don’t receive any payment at all when we’re not performing.” All of the performers were advised to make a Centrelink claim as soon as possible. Now the circus directors, who are also performers, are trying figure out a way for the company “not to go under”.

When we speak, Martyn seems philosophical. He intends to spend the next few months hunkered down in his sharehouse, as much as is practicable, and he thinks he’ll be able to subsist on JobSeeker payments. “I can live pretty cheaply”, he says. But when he lodged his unemployment claim, Centrelink couldn’t give him an exact date for when he might receive his first payment. “About two weeks” was the estimate he was given, and that was before the huge surge in demand on March 23.

It’s also worth reiterating that the increased JobSeeker Payment, temporarily doubled by the addition of a coronavirus supplement worth $550 a fortnight, does not kick in until April 27. Before then, any claimants paid by Centrelink will only receive the existing unemployment rate, which, for a single person with no dependent children, is a maximum of $565.70 per fortnight.

And yet, as of March 30, with the federal government’s announcement of a wage subsidy, a whole other payment option has become available – pending legislation – to self-employed artists who now find themselves without income. So long as those workers are already operating with an Australian Business Number, and can demonstrate that their turnover “will be reduced by more than 30 per cent relative to a comparable period a year ago”, they should be eligible to apply via the ATO for a capped “JobKeeper” payment of $1500 a fortnight. This is nearly $500 a fortnight more than the increased JobSeeker allowance paid by Centrelink. (One might pause for a second here to note the groan-worthy rhyme between the titles of these two payments; an extraneous bit of marketing spin in the midst of global emergency.)

As with many of the federal government’s recent actions, this one feels like a retrospective attempt to deal with a pandemic-related problem that could have been tackled more urgently, and much more comprehensively, two weeks ago. Had a wage subsidy been announced before restrictions on gatherings and non-essential services instantly threw people out of employment, at least some of the hundreds of thousands of workers forced to contact Centrelink last week might have been spared a great deal of pain. But reactive rather than proactive policy, and an ideological obsession with shoring up business over workers, have shaped the federal response to this crisis for the past month.

Either way, whether they turn to Centrelink or the ATO, a great many artists and arts workers are now facing an indefinite period on low or very low income. The announced wage subsidy – so far flagged to be available for six months from early May – is equivalent to the minimum wage. The increased JobSeeker Payment will only just see a recipient above the poverty line (defined as 50 per cent of the median wage), and if the coronavirus supplement is taken away, we are back to a situation in which the jobless are made to subsist in penury.

If only financial insecurity weren’t so deeply familiar to artists and arts workers already. As Aiken comments, “It’s one thing to survive this crisis, but we already weren’t surviving”. Artists’ poverty is deeply romanticised: everyone loves to hear about the jobbing actor who slept in their car before their big Hollywood break, or the novelist suddenly enriched by a literary prize. But for most artists the big break never comes, and their lives are spent working long and irregular hours, across multiple types of insecure employment, with little prospect of accumulating savings or the kind of superannuation balance that the federal government is now encouraging workers to draw upon. Part of the romance of artists’ poverty is the notion that it’s voluntary, an aspect of the vocation, but I’m hard-pressed to think of a single artist or arts worker who would choose permanent financial insecurity over long-term stability. Apart from anything else, it’s difficult to concentrate one’s time and effort on making art if you don’t know, from month to month, whether there’ll be money to pay the bills or the rent.

The culture-war myth of “elite” artists lording it over ordinary Australians has only ever been that: a myth. The Australia Council’s “Making Art Work” report, published in 2017, showed that the mean gross income for an artist in Australia during the 2014–15 financial year was $48,400, which is actually right in line with the median wage. That was the figure for all of an artist’s paid employment, not just their income from art-making. Income earned directly from art-making ranged from a pitiful $4800 per year for writers through to the princely sum of $25,200 per year for composers. The medium- to long-term effect of the COVID-19 epidemic on artists’ incomes means these figures are unlikely to improve. “After coronavirus gets controlled,” Martyn asks, “how are people who survive on touring and arts going to be able to come back?” Which venues will still exist? What kind of arts infrastructure will we be left with?

Some emergency funding has been made available in the past week, at various state and local levels, in response to the decimation of the arts industry by COVID-19. The City of Melbourne has announced a quick-response funding round of one-off grants, up to $4000, for artists “working and regularly presenting” in that city. Arts Queensland has earmarked $2.5 million for arts organisations and individual artists in that state, and is promising a “streamlined application process” for those applying to access to the funds. Artists in the ACT are also able to apply for quick-response grants of up to $10,000, out of a total emergency funding pool of $500,000. The City of Sydney has also announced extra arts funding, but those artists who live in regional and rural New South Wales are, so far, out in the cold.

At a federal level, the Australia Council, already chronically underfunded, has announced a $5 million COVID-19 response package, but this money comes at the literal cost of suspending, “with immediate effect”, a range of other grant programs, including the Contemporary Music Touring Program, and the Career Development Grants for artists across a range of forms. In other words, the Australia Council has been forced to rob its own funds, further reducing the money available for the creation of future works. There has still been no federal government arts stimulus announced, and with every passing day it seems less likely to be, as the national cabinet busies itself with whether one should or should not book a hairdressing appointment in the midst of a pandemic, and how many people can attend your hairdresser’s subsequent funeral. A comforting thought for these times: some of those hairdressers are likely to have been artists, too.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford is The Monthly’s music critic.

"Sarah Aiken (tools for personal expansion)” © Gregory Lorenzutti

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