Jul 20, 2012

Who’s making money in art? Everyone but the artists

The National Association for the Visual Arts is running a campaign on artists fees at the moment. It tells us a lot about the risks of being an artist.

Ben Eltham — <em>Crikey</em> arts commentator

Ben Eltham

Crikey arts commentator

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.

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12 thoughts on “Who’s making money in art? Everyone but the artists

  1. Adrian Clarke

    It should be noted that artists and craft people of all sorts did fairly well until Joan Kirner’s Gambling Led Recovery – the casino.

    All the artists in our large circle lost their customers within a few weeks of the casino opening and have never been able to regain them.

    It appear to the artists that all the “loose money” that paid for their works was soaked up by some mysterious cash sink into the casino because the effect was so strong and so immediate.

  2. judith pugh

    This is a fascinating example of the confusion that prevails about visual art and artists since text and curators began to control the scene. First of all one has to define the difference between the visual and the performing arts. (Which of course blurs as technology changes). Of course artists of all kinds have in common that if they are original and innovative the work they do is likely to be anti-marketing, i.e. challenging and difficult for the audience/buyer. As the audience/buyer becomes familiar with the work this can change but fashion and other pressures abound. it’s a high risk activity competitive if what you want is security and income, but it offers freedom and control of your life and most artists
    I have worked with value the capacity to express themselves above everything, and want a home rather than a mansion. No one forces anyone to be an artist and the risks are apparent from the start.

    And of course what I am about to write should be read with the understanding that visual artists are creative individuals who above all want to express ideas, not industrialists. However the issue is income and marketing; so, within that scheme of things:

    The DIFFERENCE is essential. A visual artist is a small business person producing a product for sale. If the product, painting, sculpture, drawing, print…is not sold from the studio or in exhibition, the artist still owns it. As the artist’s reputation increases so does the value of all the works that artist produces: they don’t wear out or become redundant or go off or grow up like widgets or packaged food or puppies or other products.

    This is the fundamental difference in MARKETING of work: video etc has changed things somewhat but performance essentially happens in time, so the perfrmer/creator of theatre or music has to get income at the time of performance: bums on seats are essential, if the crowds stay away you can fail. Anyone looking at. say, the career of Nolan or Tucker can see that despite early work not selling, the work in an institution helps sell the later work.

    Being in a public show is really good marketing for an artist, and while transport and such costs should be covered it is remarkable to me that anyone should expect pay for being included in a show. the particular object displayed is increased in value by being on the walls of a museum or gallery and artists long to be in public shows, it looks good on the CV, adds value to all the artist’s work, usually means an article in at least one magazine and a review, and all this becomes part of the package. It is not about wages or paid for work, it is about getting the name out there so that you can sell the things you make.

  3. Tim nash

    What a great article.

    There seems to be a sort of devaluation of visual art, out there.

    Graphic designers, visual art or anything on a piece of paper or canvas seems to be only any good if it has a famous name on it.

    The example of the orchestra is a good one, and interesting.

    It’s so bloody depressing because creating great visual art can be a labour some, time consuming , hard work.

    It can also take years of learning and understanding art, many people educate up to show that they just are not like anyone of the street.

    but still it makes no difference.. visual art seemed doomed.

  4. Euan Upston

    Please see a comment below from the Director of the MCA re your article. Interested to know that given the current debate about quality journalism as to why you didn’t contact the MCA directly to establish our current practice.
    Euan Upston
    Chief Operating Officer

    Dear Ben Eltham

    I don’t know where you got your information regarding artists fees. The MCA strives to set a standard of best practice for fees to artists. For example, we pay $4000 for a solo exhibition which is well above the NAVA recommended level. And we offer the same to international artists as Australians. (Christian Marclay was paid the same as Ken Whisson…) We pay extra for all lectures and for touring. We also pay a daily rate for artists who are installing their work.

    You rightly refer to the other ways in which we support artists. The issue is surely not whether artists should get the funding rather than the institutions that bring their work to a wide audience (and hence justify funding from the public purse) but that the sector as a whole should be better supported
    Elizabeth Ann Macgregor

  5. Warren Joffe

    Interesting observation by Adrian Clarke. The Casino does seem to have diverted quite a bit of disposable income from the time of its opening.

    Congratulations to Judith Pugh for plain speaking. I have heard Jeffrey Smart and Bert Tucker, inter alios, speak against the entitlement mentality applied to the visual arts.

    The letter from the MCA does suggest that there is one way in which paying artists’ fees for displaying something that no longer belongs to the artist could be justified. That is payment for their assistance in putting together a retrospective or other one-or-few person show. They should have quite a bit of valuable information on when and where paintings were made, who bought them or were given them, where they are now etc. Otherwise the demand is the same sort of unjustified rent-seeking (I hesitate to use that expression so often associated with ranting cant but it is technically correct for the attempt by artists to get paid for no current contribution) as the Resale Rights Royalty which the ineffable Garrett claimed would benefit Aboriginal artists rather than the heirs to Brett Whiteley and Fred Williams who will be the real beneficiaries.

  6. 4billion

    The Art bureaucracy and wanker art have a selfperpetuating circle jerk that has made visual art a joke, I swear ‘biennale’ is Italian for ‘pile of crap on the floor’.
    As Artist of 20 years who has spent each one under the poverty line as part of the deal it shits me that art has turned into half arsed amateur psychology that one has to regurgitate to get grants.
    The simple solution is to divert all money from Arts bureaucrats/infrastructure into rental space for local artists to exhibit our work for free with no more bureaucratic leaching than a waiting list and a security guard making sure people don’t piss on stuff. We have survived for thousands of years prior to the Arts bureaucracy, we will survive without it, we will flourish without it, Arts bureaucrats please fuck off.

  7. Ben Eltham


    Thanks for picking me up on that error of fact. I will contact my editor to arrange a correction.



  8. Warren Joffe

    4BILLION you suggest a good analogy to the respectable idea that public money should be used for infrastructure, for making scientific research possible without picking winners and generally levelling playing fields. But you have to remember that bureaucrats are voters and fellow human beings who, once employed, however useless, have to be given something to do e.g. in assisting the UN to play God in choosing an infinitesimal fraction of the world’s 30 million refugees to come to Australia and languish instead of being helped to go back to their countries with usable skills etc. and many etc.

  9. TheHoneybee

    The thing is the average person wants some decent and unique art for their homes – not the mass produced Ikea and Target stuff, no no. But where do you go to get it? ? You probably do want to meet the artist, don’t want to go to a gallery (yawn). I’m with 4Billion, would really love artists to get into non traditional art selling locations. Send a pose to W.A., between the corporate offices and cashed up bogans you won’t need the curators or the fees.

  10. Euan Upston

    Hi Ben
    Many thanks for that. It is appreciated

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