At the start of April at Arts Hub, Paul Isbel took on the thorny issue of emerging artists. He didn’t mince words:

“Imagine. You’re anaesthetised on the operating table, on the cusp of unconsciousness, when in walks all scrubbed up an emerging surgeon. Your last thought before you slip into a deep, dark sleep is ‘but … but … wait’ …”

Emerging artists, Isbel argued, are largely an invention of funding bodies and arts organisations, particularly in the visual arts sector. The definition is fuzzy and varies from place to place. And, anyway, the whole idea of being an “emerging” artists is a bit suspicious, isn’t it? Isbel points out that the Beatles recorded their entire oeuvre in their 20s.

In some respects, Isbel makes some sensible points. Talent is no respecter of age or reputation; some artists do their best work when still in the first blush of youth, while others take decades to develop their genius. For every Keats or Byron, whose talents were fully developed by their early twenties, there is a counter-balancing Thomas Mann or Margaret Olley, still writing novels and mounting exhibitions in their 80s.

And Isbel has stirred up something of a discussion within the industry. There’s been considerable chatter on social media, and inside many of the arts organisations around the country. Funding programs and other support for emerging artists has grown rapidly (albeit off a low base) in the past 15 years. There are several arts organisations and festivals devoted to championing the work of the young, the restless and the newly graduated, including the nation’s various fringe festivals, Newcastle’s This Is Not Art and Melbourne’s Next Wave and Emerging Writers’ Festival.

Melbourne Fringe CEO Esther Anatolitis posted on her Facebook page that “recognising that you’re at an emerging stage in your career is crucial to your development”. She argued that the surgical analogy is a furphy: any surgeon getting to operate on a patient had already completed an undergraduate degree, a postgraduate degree and years of specialist training. In contrast, “there are very few specific, rigorous and extended artist training courses”.

Next Wave artistic director Emily Sexton also disagrees. She told Crikey that “there’s something pretty boring in the category of emerging artists, which is that unless you create space for people who haven’t done it before, people who haven’t had enough experience won’t get a look in”.

Thus, programs to support and acknowledge emerging artists are crucial for the health of the sector. “That acknowledgement is crucial, and it’s about seeking out certain structures of support,” Sexton says. “Not to be too hippie about it, I think it is about defining yourself as being at the beginning of something and seeking strength from that.”

But perhaps the real value of the “emerging artists” debate is that it opens up a conversation about the difficult of making a living as an artist in general: a distractor from the pressing issue of support for artists’ careers themselves.

Those artists who don’t happen to be either established or emerging are often said to be enduring a period that is rather blandly called “mid-career”. Mid-career artists are of course the majority of all working artists, and yet there exist few programs or organisations specifically devoted to supporting them. There’s a dramatic winnowing effect as the hopeful hordes leaving art school are sieved through the exigencies of life as an artist in their 30s and 40s.

I interviewed electronic musician and Australia Council music board member Lawrence English recently, and he spoke about this. “There’s a time-line of attrition,” English says. “If you look around at the people you made art with 10 years ago, the number of people who have vanished from the scene is probably 90%. As a result, wealth and understanding is depleted.”

The middle of an artist’s career remains a bottle-neck that many practitioners simply find too difficult to negotiate. “I think it was Robert Forster who said that there has to be this ladder that artists can climb up. But the steps are becoming further apart,” he told me.

Sexton agrees: “Our life gets more complex as we grow up, so it’s inevitable there are things you will put up with in your 20s that quite rightly you won’t put up with in your 30s and 40s — housing insecurity and medical benefits are a big part of it.”

In fact, the travails of mid-career artists may be the biggest problem of the arts. It’s always been hard to make a living from the practice of art — as the Australia Council’s own research makes clear — and for those that want to participate in the normal aspirations of adulthood like buying a house, having kids or saving for retirement, the arts can be a thankless and penurious vocation.

Artists working at the commercial end of the cultural industries have long struggled with the difficult conditions of artistic labour markets, in which a few superstars make it big, while most artists toil in under-remunerated obscurity. The structure of arts support also makes it difficult: a recent Arts Queensland discussion paper points out that around 95% of arts funding goes to organisations; less than 5% of all arts grants by the states and Commonwealth are for artists to make work.

In other sectors where individual creative effort is the cornerstone of the labour market — such as those for academics and scientists — there is a much greater recognition of the need to fund individual careers in parallel with big institutions. The National Health and Medical Research Council, for instance, has a sophisticated palette of what it calls “people support” grants, which get a mandated 20% of all the relevant funding. These range from early career fellowships, which are aimed at enabling investigators “to establish themselves as independent, self-directed researchers early in their research career” to fully fledged career fellowships, aimed at keeping talented researchers in the system doing full-time research “during the most productive years of their research life”.

In contrast to this, the career development support for artists once they’ve left emerging status is negligible. Australia Council and state-based arts grants tend to be project based; there are precious few fellowships that exist solely to support artists to keep making art. As a result, many artists spend their entire career in a netherworld of “unestablished”, where the cost of making art can be counted in credit card debts, missed rental payments and grinding, lowly paid second jobs.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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