Recently artist Bec Delange messaged me and asked: “Remember when it was cool to be poor in the art scene?” While I don’t remember it being cool I do recall that, despite the sense of struggle at the time, living in poverty was still a viable means of being an artist. During the aughts one could still source economical accommodation, food was still cheap and Austudy/Newstart plus a few hospitality shifts per week was sustainable.
This gave us time to make our art and disseminate it at our own expense. These included production costs, installation expenses as well as the gallery hire fee. What most gallery visitors don’t know is that artists are usually paying upwards of $500 to display their work to you, a model that persists to this day.
She followed up with ‘Remember when no one had designer anything?’ Phrased as a question, this was actually the answer. Because once becoming an artist was as simple as having the intent. In the decade or so since Bec and I were doing our undergrad at art school the landscape has undergone dramatic alterations. Art openings are now choreographed affairs where pristine appearances and couture clothing are a prerequisite for attendance.
It’s not the fashions that have changed so much as the demographic of artists themselves. Because art school doesn’t guarantee you a job, it’s no longer an option for those who aren’t financially secure. The cost of living has gone up so exponentially that one can’t cover the expense of being an artist a well as that of survival. That means artists need to have family money, a spouse with money or a pre existing career that guarantees an ongoing stream of income, such as being a dentist.
All of this makes buying the relevant outfit possible. It also reinforces the sense of exclusion felt by those who don’t have spare cash to drop because guess what, being an artist is not lucrative. In fact many of your fave ‘famous’ artists are or were at some point supported by one of the aforementioned income sources. Arts funding was once a more viable way to fund your practice, but grants on the wane.
In 2015 I was among those interviewed by Vice about cuts the Australian Government made to arts funding. The focus of the article was the loss of the Art Start Grant, $10,000 of funding available to graduates of an Australian art program. Grants like these are rare for emerging artists. This money covered the production costs and gallery hire that artists usually foot themselves, and now it’s gone.
Trump is making arguably more drastic cuts to American cultural funding, the ramifications of which will reverberate across the sector. Both the Australian and US regimes tend threatened by content that stimulates independent thought. Which is while it’s essential that artists continue to produce work.
Fellow Vice interviewee Hanna Brontë gave the most salient response when questioned on what kind of impact cuts would have on artists. She said:“I hope that the lack of money will make the art better because the people still around want it more.” The hunger Brontë speaks of is now a prerequisite for makers who need to sustain their own practice. These people are creating because they need to, not just because they can, but how?
As an information officer at a university I’ve advised many students about tertiary education pathways . Australia is a country that’s fortunate to have a culture of ‘lifelong learning’ and a system that currently supports access for all. What’s conspicuously absent to school leavers is an active discussion about outcomes, pathways and career planning.
These days I counsel people to consider doing a more vocational degree than art school, one that features industry links and a strong internship program. Developing a trade is the best career move an artist can make, particularly at the start of their career. If your heart is set on art school it’s not too early to research potential postgraduate courses that are going to make you more economically viable.
For some, art school is the only degree they feel capable of doing. While this is relatable it’s still important to establish an alternative career before you get creative at uni. My aunt was a nurse for 30 years before she went to art school at 47, and she still sustains her practice working as a nurse. That’s the kind of commitment that’s required in the current climate.
The people I went art school with are for the most part cultivating a dual career that supports their practice. In some cases this has emerged from technical skills acquired through their practice such as photography and video production. Other people have worked on progressing in their day job over the years and used that as a means to pay to produce work and mount shows.
In reality even the most successful artists don’t necessarily earn a lot of money from their practice. Once you accept this you’ll realise a day job is not a source of shame but rather a caveat of art as a vocation. It’s unfortunate that it’s difficult to earn a living solely from your art practice. At the same time it’s liberating to develop other skill sets, to become viable in your community and have the ability to support yourself. For some of us, that’s the only option.
Bec Delange currently supports her art practice working as an education aid.
Image by Katherine Soutar