Friday, 28 December 2007

A summary of the campaign

March 1996

The Howard Government is elected to federal office for its first term. It denounces the arts as elitist and artists as elitists. (see What to do with an elitist stinkbomb?)

A mandatory artists’ fee payed to artists exhibiting in public art galleries — introduced in 1983 by the Australia Council as the result of intense lobbying by the Artworkers Union — is scrapped. (see Let’s knock knees and talk fees: Proposition no. 1 )

July 2001

Alarm bells alert the federal government of the dire poverty under which visual artists practice here in Australia, as statistical information emerges that contradicts the blatant and still, to this day, damaging prejudice against artists with which the Howard Government took office. The cultural environment — far from elitist — is instead found to be troublingly impoverished. To its credit the federal government launches a landmark examination of visual arts and craft in Australia chaired by Rupert Myer (the Myer Inquiry) and admits that, “Visual arts and craft are major contributors to Australian culture and the Australian economy, yet at the same time, visual artists and craftspeople are amongst the lowest income earners in Australia.

September 2002

The resulting Myer Report makes 20 recommendations to counter the impoverished state of visual artists and craftspeople. Recommendation number one calls for the reinstatement of the mandatory artists’ fee by the Australia Council: ‘The Australia Council should recognise the importance of artists’ fees … by formulating an appropriate schedule of fees. Funding needs to be made available … to pay fees to artists’.

December 2003

The federal government makes public its response to the Myer Report. Of the $9 million per annum called for by the report, the resulting contribution by the federal government is $6 million per annum, only. No funds are assigned to the payment of fees to artists as requested in recommendation one. (see the then Premier Bob Carr’s message )

In total, including the matching contributions made by the States and Territories, $39 million is injected into the sector as a result of the Myer Report. Of this amount no financial contribution is made to enable the mandatory acknowledgement of visual artists through a fee that will effectively counter the derogatory status visual artists undergo in the broader Australian community; a derisive status that directly impedes on their ability to secure the same sort of economic certainty as fellow Australians. Instead of attending to this unhealthy status through an acknowledgement fee, the federal government allocates nearly all the money it injects into the sector to ‘infrastructure’. (see things still true today )

Artists — whose poverty is the cause of the Inquiry in the first place — receive basically nothing from the Myer Report. (see Hardly a baby bonus!)

July 2004

Artists mount the ‘Visual artists say no to nothing but yes to acknowledgement’ campaign. The campaign calls upon the federal government to properly address recommendation one of the Myer Report by contributing the missing $3 million per annum to the payment of a mandatory artists’ acknowledgement fee — based on a fee schedule of no less than $2,000 for a solo exhibition in a public gallery.

August 2004

Visual artists and supporters SIT-IN to STAND UP for contemporary visual art in Australia, in a number of major public art galleries throughout the nation.

October 2004

The Howard Government is returned to parliament for a fourth term.

November 2004

The campaign’s THE STARVING VISUAL ARTIST put the cliché to rest PETITION is tabled in federal parliament by Tanya Plibersek MP (Member for Sydney).


In Labor’s 2004 arts policy it writes: “Labor recognises the importance of proper acknowledgement of artists and proper payment for exhibition of their work in federally funded public art spaces. This was a position formally mandated by the Australia Council prior to 1997.

Labor will consult with the National Association of Visual Arts (NAVA), the Australia Council, and other relevant stakeholders to investigate reinstatement of proposed minimum mandated payments of artists' fees.

Labor will look at current funding levels resulting from the Report of the Contemporary Visual Arts and Craft Inquiry and act to ensure that all the recommendations of the Myer Review are implemented."

The Labor party in 2004 took heed of our call. Our campaign, to this extent, has been a great success.

In response to our campaign a number of major public art galleries in Australia raised their fees. We appreciate the curators who informed us of this increase and for making a direct response to the campaign in this way. Regrettably, however, some fees were only raised to the out-of-date fee schedule proposed by NAVA (a fee schedule that has not been properly maintained and, as a consequence, does a disservice to visual artists — even though it is a relief that NAVA has kept the schedule aloft rather than let it fall completely buried). Nevertheless this is a marked increase from what, in some instances, was only $200 beforehand.

This, however, is the good news. And yet it is important to remember that these increases were voluntary, only, and entirely due to the pressure exerted by this campaign on art administrations that, most thankfully, honoured it as best they could. Without this pressure this would not have happened. This campaign will not be around forever. Its recourses are negligible, if not in deficit from the beginning, for which reason it cannot be depended upon to ensure a fairness to artists. All art administrations, no matter how sympathetic — even those that advocate for visual artists — missed the crucial point of this campaign prior to it. They, therefore, cannot be relied upon to speak from an artist's perspective that may be at odds with their own when they, themselves, as administrators are also vying for the same funds to improve the management of their own operations. This is not, at all, to admonish the proper remuneration for art management, especially as wage rates within this field are often markedly less than comparable duties and qualifications in other professions. And although these positions offer the income security that artists lack (as do other small business people), those who fulfil these positions have often to rely upon their own virtuous diligence beyond the call of duty (and payment), to get their daily tasks done. 

Nevertheless it is important to note that a conflict of interest does exist, especially as 'performance indicators' exclude the proper payment of artists, while they include the number of exhibitions mounted and the degree of professionalism in doing so, and the number of the general public who visit (a number enhanced by the degree of professionalism). Within this taut environment something, obviously, has to give — or should I say someone (the artist) has to give. (see things still true today 

Where the 'has to' part is the problem, no matter the abundant generosity artists continually proffer at the detriment of their own livelihoods and ability to provide food not only for their families, but for themselves. The 'has to' part is ethically problematic in that the beneficiary of this 'forced giving' is the general public whether or not the public gallery it visits is under federal, state or local government jurisdiction. It is ultimately, therefore, under the behest of the federal government of the day that an Australian general public becomes the beneficiaries of the 'forced giving' or, in more common language, the exploitation of artists. 

For this reason it is crucial that legislation is passed in federal parliament that protects the vulnerability of artists. No matter how sympathetic an art administrator might be, they are first and foremost an art administrator who will, consequently, ensure the security of their own position at the unwelcomed expense of artists (what do they say in airplanes '… make sure you secure your own oxygen mask at times of danger before helping your infant with theirs’, where, unfortunately, artists fall into the ‘infant’ category). This is not criticism: one cannot assist another if they are in danger themselves. Nevertheless the fallibility of priorities such as this have to be recognised so that a suitable structure can be devised to overcome the unethical position it leaves public galleries and the federal government in as a result, a suitable structure that will compensate for the vulnerable position artists are 'forced' to work in if they are to maintain a credible practice.

This, therefore, is the bad news.

Within the climate of ‘Work Choices’ legislation introduced by the Howard Government in its fourth and (as it now turns out) final term — legislation that effectively endeavoured to eradicate an equitable basic wage in Australia — it is no wonder our call for a basic artists’ acknowledgement fee went unheeded.

To this extent it is possible to say that a mandatory artists’ fee — through its abolishment in 1996 when the Howard Government first came to office — was the first casualty of legislation still to be formulated and passed in parliament in proceeding years.

To the Howard Government’s credit, it did face the prejudice against artists with which it initially approached government and, in finding that visual artists were far from elitist, mounted an inquiry.

With much regret, however, the instigating impetus that drove the inquiry in the first instance was ignored in the final result. Hence the observation made by many media commentators of the Howard Government that if ever it wanted to ignore a problem, it mounted an Inquiry.

When the problem, however — as clearly identified by the Howard government — is a sector of our society who “are major contributors to Australian culture and the Australian economy, yet at the same time … are amongst the lowest income earners in Australia”, then ignoring the problem is not only unjust but also inhumane.

It is nonetheless the predisposition of a federal government more intent on serving its ideology than its people.

For not only does the lack of acknowledgement of our contemporary artists here in Australia make it much more difficult for their achievements to be internationally recognised (why should anyone else recognise our artists if we don’t?) and, thereby, disable Australia in taking its place in an international dialogue (one, for instance, that is read in international art magazines); but this lack of acknowledgement more insidiously robs us Australians of the potential of our own imagination being made perceivable through a rich dialogue that awaits us here — a dialogue between ourselves.

The only question that now remains is whether the Rudd Government will unleash this potential by recognising that visual artists were the first to fall foul of the ideology that later fashioned the Work Choices legislation.

To ensure the rights of artists are not eroded by the unavoidable corrosion of art bureaucracies no matter how sympathetic, legislation must be passed in parliament to protect the vulnerability of artists in Australia.

The Rudd Government can do this by legislating in parliament a mandatory artists acknowledgement fee based on a schedule of no less that $2,000 per solo exhibition (a schedule to be properly maintained unlike before, see knock Knees: proposition 3  ).

Importantly, though, this legislation must rest on the Myer stipulation that money must also be specifically earmarked for the payment of this fee. The Rudd Government must make available the $3 million per annum initially kept back by the federal government to pay this basic fee. It, and the accompanying legislation, will form the necessary bridge by which we can reach an awaiting dialogue that will give meaning to contemporary art practice here in Australia for practitioners and, most importantly, the general public; a bridge the ideology of the former federal government prevented that government from building.


This bridge now awaits being built by the Rudd Government as it readdresses the Work Choices legislation, the nascence of which a basic acknowledgement fee for artists fell so foul of.

Gail Hastings


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