Jini Maxwell
Labour failures in the arts industry

It’s gauche to complain about money as an arts worker. After all, we’re so lucky to be here in the first place. We may work too much, but we do it because we want the work to be the best it can be. We may be unpaid, or underpaid, but we love this industry. When I miss an appointment to attend a meeting for a festival that doesn’t pay me, insistent that I’ve been doing fine, my therapist reminds me over the phone that I have a bad memory for bad things. It’s a maladaptive coping mechanism: when hardship becomes overwhelming, my brain ceases to register it. Focusing on the positives is no longer a conscious process, but a structure of my life. On one hand, it buoys me; on the other, it inhibits my ability to recognise warning signs.

You know the drill: the arts is an industry built on labours of love. It is underfunded, underpaid and overworked. We are so devoted that we are willing to talk about the love to the exclusion of talking about the labour. The truth is, I can’t afford to work in this industry. I’ve had break-ups and breakdowns caused by my relationship to work. I’ve booked flights to a board meeting on credit while on hold to Centrelink. I can’t afford these expenses, this life, these hours, but who can? We don’t do it for the money. Working in an industry that prides itself on devotion requires a bad memory for the bad things. We focus on the work, and not the expectation of outsized labour that facilitates it, or the voices this labour model necessarily excludes. We do it for love.

People who criticise arts organisations for their unpaid positions can risk being blacklisted. If not formally, then, as in many aspects of the arts, through word of mouth. A kinder but no less insidious approach is to deny aspiring arts workers unpaid and underpaid opportunities out of concern for their finances or wellbeing. Couching exclusion in the language of care frames these as individual concerns, and not institutional responsibilities. If the worker isn’t paid, or if the worker isn’t happy, the worker, implicitly, is to blame. The institution positions itself as caring, while also divesting itself of the responsibility of care. It’s not just the rejection of a worker: it’s a rejection of the financial and affective responsibility of a workplace to its staff.

At its core, this logic resists conceiving of an arts worker at all; instead, we are treated as devotees. We’re so lucky to do what we do. Arts workers all know that the arts is underfunded, and this feeds the myth of passionate labour. As workers, our first allegiance is not to ourselves, our rights, our wellbeing, but to the arts industry, this amorphous and all-consuming underdog. The grants our industry is built on are precarious, and their allocations generally change from year to year. Underpaid staff spend their limited resources on strategic planning focused on securing capital from funding bodies who are more interested in seeing work programmed and produced than they are in ethical labour practices. Without this funding, there is no work. The arts comes first. There’s no time left in the workers’ days for the organisational structural development that would allow for better work conditions. Where can an arts organisation apply for a salary for its workers?

In a labour structure where the options are to work without pay, or not to work in the industry at all, arts workers aestheticise the struggle. We all laugh about being overworked and underpaid, but voicing a structural criticism of our industry in any serious way has professional ramifications. At work, we feel we are being observed for signs of struggle. We watch others for signs in turn. We do it out of care, and in an attempt to outsource responsibility. Burnout, like overwork, is not an accident of the arts, but a structure of it. Shadowing every financial and professional conversation is the awareness that when you crack, someone “more” devoted will replace you, in the same untenable financial and affective labour conditions, and burn out just as hard, and just as quickly, and be replaced again, just as easily. The anxiety of burnout precludes discussions of labour by discussing devotion instead: we’re so lucky to do this, we love this. We don’t want to talk about our labour for fear of being seen as lacking the devotion necessary to qualify as part of this world. How do we start to criticise unpaid labour when we are so lucky to do it? 

In an industry proud of its refusal to professionalise – and the boundaries it blurs between social, professional and leisure time – a worker is expected to structure their life around the ever-shifting needs of the work. The institutions themselves are never reliable, either in terms of time commitment or financial remuneration. If there are honorariums or stipends, they are the first things to go with the loss of a grant; even if this isn’t instituted at the level of policy, the expectation is that it will be volunteered by staff. The maxim holds that arts work shouldn’t feel like work if you love it enough. We don’t have to treat your work as work if we can treat it as your passion. If there is funding, it should go to the art, and paying workers is optional. We would if we could, the organisation says. This divestment of responsibility does more than harm arts workers; it actively reproduces prevalent and exclusionary power structures within the arts. The explicit currency on which arts organisations are run is passion, but the implicit currency is personal privilege. We just want to make sure you’re looking after yourself.

And who am I to comment? I joke about my lack of work–life balance all the time; all my friends do. A joke doesn’t reveal what happens to your brain when the adrenaline of a 90-hour work week isn’t keeping you healthy anymore. At one point, I stopped filling a prescription on the basis that if I regulated my sleep, I wouldn’t have as much time to do my job. I cancelled my birthday dinner out of exhaustion, but I went to a book launch the next night. If I don’t love it enough to handle it, I don’t deserve to be here. So I work, and joke, and break down, and start again. I do love this. Honestly, how would I rather spend my time?

Arts work is a twofold privilege. Arts workers know how many other people want to do it, and we know the socioeconomic privilege required to take a role that either won’t pay, or won’t pay well. The problem of outsized labour in the arts industry isn’t just a question of my time. The arts in Australia is dominated by able-bodied, middle-class, cis white women. This is because we exist at the intersection upon which labour in the arts is predicated. On one hand, we have a socioeconomic privilege that makes unpaid or chronically underpaid labour possible; on the other, we are conditioned to accept that our outsized affective and physical labour is unworthy of remuneration or recognition. To criticise this structure is to harm the fragile thing in which we believe: the art.

No degree of ethical programming, commissioning and curation can mask the exclusivity of an industry that relies on the individual socioeconomic privilege of its constituent parts. It is one thing to promote diverse artists; it’s another to divest systemic power from an institution. The arts excludes marginalised workers; in a system where workers aren’t treated as workers, and the workplace is treated as a lifestyle, equal and representative power distribution is not possible. How can we divest power when the roles we occupy are predicated on privilege and paid in cultural capital? Apart from the issue of labour rights for those of us already working within the arts, the arts industry as a whole suffers from its structural inability to support its workers as workers. No work, however loved, exists outside the realm of socioeconomic constraint. A labour of love is a privilege, and a system that demands it is more than just exploitative, it’s oppressive.

This structure is self-replicating across the industry. Workers in the arts just don’t have the time or means to fulfil our underpaid, overworked roles as well as to restructure the institutions, to campaign for better funding, training and support. We’re barely staying afloat as it is. If you have time, don’t you want to spend it on the work? Don’t you love this?

In writing this, I set out to criticise an industry, not its workers. At the same time, as arts workers we are complicit. When we devote ourselves to a culture that does not just accept but rejoices in overwork and poor pay, and one that weaponises the phrase “labour of love”, speaking of love only to foreclose the possibility of speaking of labour, we also preclude a future of reasonable professional practice standards for the next generation of arts workers. By accepting these labour conditions, we reproduce them, and with them, the unequal allocation of power in the arts. How can I program events about unionisation and artists as workers, knowing that the organisation at which I work is volunteer-run? Sometimes I feel as though everyone in the arts is functionally a scab, myself included.

If we can’t think of ourselves as deserving better, we must think of the younger arts workers who deserve better. Work is work, whether we love it or not. If we can’t extricate our undervaluing of our labour from our undervaluing of theirs, we must think of this industry that we love and labour in, and believe that it deserves better than to be run solely by those privileged enough to survive it.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 26, 2018 as "Funds are short, and the art long".

For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.

All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.

There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

Use your Google account to create your subscription