The National Association of Visual Arts is running a petition on artists’ fees. The petition, which it plans to send to Arts Minister Simon Crean, calls for the government “to mandate the payment of artists’ fees for the loan or new commissioning of artists’ works for exhibition in public galleries and art spaces”.

If you don’t know the way the visual arts industry works, you may be surprised to learn that many art galleries don’t pay the artists for the work on their white walls. NAVA’s Tamara Winikoff wrote in a recent bog post that “being paid for one’s labour is a pretty fundamental right but one which continues to be sidestepped for visual artists”.

The campaign has actually been running for nearly a decade. In the 2000s, NAVA had a win with the major state capital art galleries agreeing to pay artists fees — the flagships such as the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the National Gallery of Australia and the National Gallery of Victoria. But the design centres, the contemporary art galleries and the regional galleries are still holding out. Even Sydney’s high-profile Museum of Contemporary Art is not yet up to industry best-practice, despite that gallery’s growing patronage, huge building program and lucrative sources of private philanthropy.

And how much will artists get paid, should this campaign succeed? We’re not exactly talking big pay days. The current benchmark suggests an artists’ fee of $2300 for a solo show running for less than two months. Artists in group shows would get less. A gallery such as the MCA — which, according to its annual report, secured $678,737 in cash sponsorship in 2010 — can clearly afford this. You can bet the MCA paid Christian Marclay a fair bit more than $2300 that to secure his landmark installation The Clock.

But what the NAVA campaign really reveals is how different industry structures can make a radical difference to whether artists get paid, and how much. I’ve often criticised Australia’s major performing arts sector in this column. As a whole, the major performing arts companies are heavily reliant on government funding and don’t produce much new work. But they do one thing really well: they pay artists. Compared to museums and galleries, performing arts organisations devote far higher proportions of their budgets to paying for creative labour. Performing arts organisations also pay artists to rehearse and develop works, something that visual arts institutions rarely do.

Take your average state orchestra. Composed of a large company of professional musicians, capital city orchestras have unenviable cost structures. Much of their annual budget goes on wages — year in, year out. And there are huge numbers of musicians working outside of the classical sector, for whom a job with normal benefits and superannuation is just a pipe dream. But for those musicians in the orchestra, their high skills and long years of practice are at least rewarded by a middle-class wage.

Visual artists, on the other hand, operate in a very different sort of labour market. They must take their chances on the high seas of international art finance, in which the whims of fashion and the caprice of dealers and galleries can mean the difference between poverty and unimagined wealth. For the tiny fraction of a percent that make it into the ranks of art superstardom, the pay-off can be lucrative indeed: think Damien Hirst, Richard Prince or Jeff Koons.

Below the stratosphere, however, most artists labour in obscurity, selling little. Visual art is not really a labour market at all, in the sense that artists are getting paid for their labour in creating artworks. Instead, artists are a little like high-stakes mining prospectors, or start-up IT entrepreneurs. If they can’t get famous enough to get their work taken on by a high-profile commercial gallery or dealer, they will probably struggle to make a living from their practice.

The way governments support the visual arts reflects this. In film and television, and especially in the performing arts, public support comes in the form of production subsidies. Screen Australia, for example, is all about funding the production of works for cinema and television. Most of the money Screen Australia dispenses goes straight to paying artists and creative workers to produce works of art.

In contrast, support for the visual arts largely comes in the form of support for exhibition. Big public art galleries are essentially funded to provide access to works of art for the public. In other words, they receive consumption subsidies. This is especially true when galleries are free to enter, or have very cheap entry fees. As a result, most of the subsidy goes into the infrastructure to support the exhibition of artworks: buying art (which generally doesn’t benefit the artist, because they have already sold on their work), hanging and installing works, building and renovating gallery space, and paying ushers, curators and other staff. Artists fees are basically an after-thought.

Nobody asked Australian voters whether they wanted this system of support. Imagine an alternative universe, in which the government put most of its screen funding into cinematheques and film festivals, and in which support for filmmaking itself was essentially vestigial. Equally, a different artworld might see large public subsidies devoted to full-time organisations of working artists, leaving the business of showing and exhibiting works to the private sector.

Production or consumption? Artists or audiences? Which way the playing field of your particular cultural industry slopes can make a big difference to your artistic career prospects. That’s just another of the risks of making art.

CORRECTION: The original version of this article erroneously stated that the MCA does not pay NAVA rates to artists for exhibition fees. It also implied that overseas artists are paid preferentially over local artists. This was incorrect: the MCA does in fact pay artist fees at above-standard rates and does not preference international artists in this manner. Crikey apologises to the MCA, Liz-Anne McGregor and MCA staff for any offence.