Want to make art? You better be rich: how Australian culture locked out the working class | Arts funding

Growing up in central Queensland in the 1980s, Ruth Clare didn’t even know a career in the arts was a possibility. Rockhampton was a “beef town”, she says, full of cowboys and miners, where there was nothing to do but drink. Her stay-at-home mum became depressed after her dad, a Vietnam war veteran, left. Even after a stint on a major TV soap and with a published memoir to her name, Clare says she still grapples with the sense that she doesn’t belong in the industry.

“No one wants to hear this story,” she tells me. “It’s not a nice story.”

“I was a smart kid with lots of talent, but no one in my family had been to university before me. I was driven to succeed so I could get out of Rockhampton, but I went to a crappy school with over 2,000 students and no cultural or artistic opportunities. There was no one there to guide me. I still feel working class, no matter where I’m living. I’m still navigating the arts world like a total outsider.”

‘I’m still navigating the arts world like a total outsider’: Australian actor Ruth Clare

Australia doesn’t like to talk about class. But after I posted a callout on social media looking for creatives from working-class backgrounds like myself, they came out in droves: writers, actors, theatre makers and musicians who wanted to discuss the many barriers that litter their pathway to success.

There are cultural, financial and emotional gaps that exist between working-class creative people and the affluent, networked and mostly private school-educated gatekeepers of Australia’s arts and culture. There are extra hurdles faced by people of diverse gender, sexuality, ability and race, and by those living outside the major cities – leading to an entire creative culture that, to an outsider, looks largely monolithic: a lot of white, wealthy people who seem to already know each other.

In Clare’s case, the cumulative effect of years trying to claw her way in has left her feeling she has no seat at the table. And the challenges are piling up. Amid a rental crisis and a cost-of-living crisis, most working-class artists cannot rely on the bank of Mum and Dad or a partner to subsidise their career. Many hopeful creatives lack the financial resources to access networking and educational opportunities, and lack the means to stick it out long enough to catch a break. When they do, there’s little social or financial capital to keep going – and the devastating impact of the pandemic on arts industries in Australia has only made it harder.

‘This is not sustainable’

Last month, Evelyn Araluen told Guardian Australia she was “one paycheck away from poverty” when writing her poetry collection Dropbear, which won the $60,000 Stella prize. In her speech, she said: “The arts are only sustained, barely sustained, by unpaid labour. By the struggle and sacrifice of artists and arts workers who accept punishing and finally untenable working conditions for love and passion … This is not sustainable, and it never has been. This structure produces mass inequality of representation and will continue to restrict access for creatives from working-class and marginalised contexts.”

Stella Prize winner Evelyn Araluen (left) with Melissa Lucashenko.
Stella prize winner Evelyn Araluen (left) with Melissa Lucashenko. Photograph: Marie-Luise Skibbe

And it seems to be by design. From the Coalition government’s continual reductions in arts funding, to cuts to public schools and higher education, working-class and other marginalised people have been kept out of the nation’s cultural conversation. As Alison Croggon noted in her recent essay The Campaign to Destroy the Arts, public funding continues to prioritise those “high” and mainstream arts that few can afford to experience, let alone create, “drawing a line between ‘legitimate’ art for the respectable classes versus the unruly, experimental, different and new”.

“Inequality is baked into the structure,” says Ben Eltham, an arts academic at Monash University and co-author of the Australia Institute’s Creativity in Crisis report. “Most of the funding available goes to arts organisations, especially the 28 major performing arts companies, with very little funding left for ordinary, independent artists. It’s very hard for an emerging artist to get a break, and even when they do there’s not a lot of support for them to continue to make work. It’s a winner-take-all market, lucrative for a lucky few but with most subsisting below the poverty line.”

The wages are low and the work is insecure. “If you’re working class, how likely are you to be able to afford to work in insecure conditions? There isn’t a sustainable career path, so they leave the cultural sector to work in industries that will pay them a living wage.”

No masterpiece in poverty

In 2017, in the last major study done on the issue, the Australia Council found that artists made on average of $18,800 a year from their creative work. For writers it’s a lot lower, with nearly 50% earning less than $2,000 a year according to a survey run by the Australian Society of Authors in 2020. That was before what Eltham calls a “once-in-a-century meteorite” smashed the sector in 2020, in the form of a global pandemic. Almost 40% of jobs were shed in the first three months. From February 2020 to November 2021, performing arts and live events workers reported income losses totalling $417.2m, and over 374,000 cancelled gigs. That’s an average loss of an income of $25,000 a year for each artist, rising to $38,700 in 2021.

The cost goes beyond the financial. The Support Act helpline reported a 300% increase in calls, with over 2,700 hours of counselling provided to clients across the arts. Data collected by I Lost My Gig last year found that more than half (57%) of performing arts and live events workers have looked outside the industry for work.

The sector still hasn’t recovered, but the federal government is winding back its arts stimulus packages, resulting in a 19% reduction in federal arts funding in its most recent budget – amounting to a $190m loss. This includes cuts to regional arts funding of $10.5m, and to film and TV to the tune of $45m. It comes amid calls for a universal basic income and alternative funding models, with pilot programs in Ireland and the United States having demonstrated what is possible.

On the ground, the pain is felt keenly. Writer Travis Hunter says that while being gender diverse presented barriers when they first started in the industry, being working class has made it an ongoing struggle.

“We need to acknowledge that to even break in to the arts these days essentially involves working at a job, unpaid, for as long as it takes to get noticed – and that this isn’t a business model that can ever work for working-class and other marginalised people,” they say. “There is a massive overlap between class and other forms of marginalisation, particularly for the trans and gender diverse community, who experience high rates of poverty and unemployment due to discrimination.

“Participating in the arts can be hugely healing and empowering for gender diverse people like myself, but any genuine diversity effort really needs to also address material barriers relating to class and economic disadvantage that come along with being marginalised. That means paying creators for their time, and for their work, to start with.

“You can’t create a masterpiece while living in poverty.”

The fight for education

Author, playwright and Guardian Australia columnist Van Badham says a big part of the problem is failure to acknowledge the public-private school class divide in the cultural industries. “Sure there are state school people in the cultural industries,” she says. “But not – in my experience – at numbers that represent the general population.”

Data on this point is elusive. While arts companies regularly self-assess for diversity, class background isn’t a criteria. What we do know is that over 65% of Australian kids in 2021 went to government schools, yet public school funding in the latest election budget was slashed by half a billion dollars. If the Coalition is re-elected, private school funding will increase by over $2bn.

According to the Creativity in Crisis report, music and arts education have been gutted in the wake of persistent public school funding cuts. “No new music room, no end-of-year play, no visiting artists … this has a huge impact on working class kids,” Badham says.

Raised in Sydney’s southern suburbs, Badham is proudly working class. After studying creative arts at the University of Wollongong, she pursued an arts career in London for 10 years.

Badham believes Australia has “wilful class blindness”. The advantage overseas, she says, was “no one could hear my bogan accent”.

Even amidst the class-conscious British, Badham “was scouted and developed as an artist, got jobs and made contacts. Back in Australia, the reception was more often, ‘Why is the waitress talking about dramaturgy?’ Working-class kids get intimidated out of arts fora. No one actually wants to get treated like a stupid peasant.”

The university sector is another piece of the puzzle. The Coalition’s decision to increase fees for humanities and arts degrees – more than doubling them in some cases – makes higher education for working-class artists a dodgy investment. And with universities excluded from the jobkeeper subsidy during the pandemic, along with a decline in federal funding of more than $1bn over the next four years, the higher education sector has been brought to its knees.

Van Badham’s play Banging Denmark ran at Sydney theatre company in 2019.
Van Badham’s play Banging Denmark was staged by the Sydney Theatre Company in 2019. Badham believes Australia has ‘wilful class blindness’. Photograph: Prudence Upton

The financial pressure has led to the closure of multiple art schools and degrees around the country in the last two years. This includes Monash University’s world-leading Centre for Theatre and Performance, the drama departments at the University of Newcastle and Latrobe University, and fine arts courses at Griffith University, Australian National University, University of NSW, University of Sydney and Charles Sturt University. The resulting lack of access to affordable arts education has put a career in the sector out of reach for many.

Using data from 2017-18, the federal government itself estimated that cultural and creative activity contributed $115.2bn to Australia’s economy each year, employing around 645,000 Australians. The arts help define us as a nation and shape our culture, but while 32% of Australians are in the “lower income” and “poor” brackets, according to recent OECD data, working-class perspectives are missing from that conversation.

And with the election days away and no arts policy in sight from either major party, Australia is at risk of losing a generation of working-class artists – and their insights, voices and stories – to obscurity. As Araluen said in her Stella prize speech: “I doubt we’ll ever know how much the arts lost during these last few years.”

“Working-class people have stories to tell that bring a much-needed balance to society,” Clare says. “We need to recognise the barriers they face that prevent these stories being told.”

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