Undervalued and overworked: the underbelly of Melbourne’s vibrant arts scene

Old Metropolitan Gas Company Building at 196 Flinders Street, next to St Paul's Cathedral
 Image: Fractured Fairytales by The Electric Canvas projected on the Old Metropolitan Gas Company building on 196 Flinders Street during White Night 2017 by Desirene Johnson

“Burnt out, job insecurity, financial ruin,” Sonia Lindsay lists, picking off sticky notes covering a poster board one by one. She smiles shrewdly at her audience of arts professionals.

Executive Director of Human Resources at Arts Centre Melbourne, Sonia is running a seminar on Creative People Management for the Arts Wellbeing Collective. As part of the workshop, she asks attendees to identify common threats faced by individuals in the arts industry.

“Burnout, odd hours, burnout, financial insecurity… and insecurity,” she continues, and is met with knowing laughter from the crowd.

These are focal issues in the discussion surrounding the work environment in the arts industry.

Predictably, individuals who aren’t involved in the arts industry themselves don’t quite recognise the enormity of these issues and its implications on the industry’s workforce. Like workers in any other industry, arts workers work for their livelihood, and constant instability and lack of recognition for their work can have a very damaging impact.

“Art is so intrinsically part of our day-to-day lives,” says Susan Cooper, the General Manager of Entertainment Assist.

“We have a creative industry that is constantly creating material for the consumption of the general public and if it’s not valued for what it’s worth, that’s a real issue.”

Visual Arts student Ceitidh Hopper is familiar with these concerns. “If you work, you’d do it for ‘exposure’ – you don’t get paid, but you’d get exposure. I can’t eat exposure. I can’t pay rent with exposure.”

In fact, 63% of arts performers earn less than the annual Australian Minimum Wage. This lack of monetary compensation for work only makes artists feel more undervalued.

“People don’t want to pay you because they don’t see it as worthwhile labour,” Hopper says, shrugging. “Even highly successful artists are not financially secure, and that’s kind of disheartening.”

Arts and culture has an immense positive influence on our lives, but, in a city like Melbourne, considered to be the cultural capital of Australia, it’s easy to take our vibrant arts scene for granted. For all its charm, the industry does have a fairly sour underbelly – arts workers, whilst among the most passionate about their jobs, are often underpaid and overworked.

Rather alarming research from Entertainment Assist and Victoria University has revealed that industry workers are more prone to mental illness as a result of being overworked and undervalued.]

Cooper says there could be multiple reasons for this, including working unsocial hours. This is a huge concern since almost half of the arts workforce are shift workers, whilst only a meager 16 per cent of the entire Australian population work shifts. These unsocial hours then lead to greater isolation and ultimately lead to problems in social connectedness.

“It all just adds to a big ball of trouble.”

However, Sonia Lindsay says these issues can’t merely be attributed to structural problems in the industry mentioned earlier.

“I think there are some common characteristics of people who are attracted to the arts, but I don’t think it’s the nature of the industry because that would be an excuse for our people to be overworked and essentially unhealthy, and I don’t think that’s right.”

She stresses the importance of having a model to process trauma – ideally, this is where organisations like Entertainment Assist and the Arts Wellbeing Collective come into play. In response to troubling findings about the arts industry, the Arts Wellbeing Collective was set up to improve understanding of mental health issues, their prevention and treatment.

De-stigmatising mental illness is also a key goal of the collective, which is in its pilot year.

“If you change the dialogue to being about health and well-being [instead of illness], then you actually are able to remind people of all the things that accompany those outcomes, such as productivity, stronger families, better relationships and healthier bodies.”

It also tries to establish a strong arts community that tries to create an inclusive and supportive space for arts workers. This is important because the public sphere can, as mentioned above, be unkind to artists.

“One of the challenges we have in our industry, regardless of whether you say ‘oh I’m an actor, I’m a musician, I’m a technician’, is that people would say, ‘well, what’s your real job?’” Cooper says.

“But that is their real job – that’s what they do.”

Originally written 4 April 2017
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