Why do artists do what they do?
I’ve been thinking about why we do what we do.
I was checking out the Australia Council Artist Career Research and saw some interesting stats about wages and employment and where artists come from. One stat that amazed me was that the median creative wage for an artist in this country is $7000 though the median full wage of artists is $35 900. I take this to mean that most artists make their living from jobs outside the arts.
I started thinking about what motivates and sustains artists, and what kind of returns artists get for all the energy, time and skill we put into our work. I’ve boiled down my thinking into 3 types of returns. They are Financial Returns, Artistic Returns and Career Returns.
Artists are often quoted as saying that we don’t do it for the money, that our passion and sense of vocation drive us. Our careers can be inconstant and insensitive, and the vagaries of our industry can take its toll on your family life, your health and other forms of stability. It is not a career path for the faint hearted.
There has always been a sense that as artists we are not seeking financial returns but seek solace in artistic merit, the adoration of the crowd and a personal sense of satisfaction in the work we make. BUT without an income our lives as artists become unsustainable.
Are artists not getting enough to live on? Is their art more hobby than career? Are they a part-time artist? If they’re not getting a great financial return why do they do it?
Artists are invested in discovery and exploration. The artistic return is when the work is extraordinary and/or their skills have been enhanced or stretched. There is nothing like that feeling of doing good work. That feeling is not always about audience reception though it can be. It could be about the admiration of your peers though not always. I reckon the feeling is about the satisfaction of a risk taken and the adding to the world of a new idea. In sport it would be a personal best or a world record, in art it is about the contribution to our culture.
Auditions are a well known discipline in theatre. In some respects everything is an audition. People watch your work and career and think about what skills you have and how they could work with you. As an artist you have to consider how to invest in showcasing your skills to achieve future employment, to develop a supportive audience following or create a body of work to demonstrate your aesthetic or insight. There are many ways artists achieve this. I spend roughly1/3 of my income earning my income. Paying for flights to attend meetings, sitting on committees, staying informed through magazine subscriptions, getting photos of my work. You have to invest in your career to have a career.
With Financial, Artistic and Career returns in mind, the challenge is for an artist to identify where any one project fits. A truly great project fits in all three but that is rare.
The line between paid and unpaid is blurring. Aspiring unpaid artists or interns sit side be side with experienced waged actors in venues, companies and forums across the country. Some organisations are established to offer support to Independent artists through venue, marketing and producing expertise. Others are hybrids with some professional activities and some Independent or unpaid activities. Some are venues that facilitate opportunities for community groups to perform and the same venues are hired to professional companies.
In fact many opportunities for artists these days go unpaid. The growth of Independent Theatre demonstrates the ingenuity of artists to practise their craft and extend themselves outside the funded company structures. Though there is limited Financial return, the Artistic and Career returns come to the fore and some great work is created.
However, audiences some times find it difficult to distinguish between the waged and unwaged shows as the bulk of the performers may be the same, the creative teams are fluid from paid to unpaid and the marketing material never says “the artists in this show are not being paid”. Would it make a difference to an audience if they knew?
The upside is the chance for artists to make their mark and grow a career. People like Matthew Lutton, Simon Stone and QTC Artistic Associate Todd MacDonald have forged careers in Independent theatre that have evolved into paid full time positions. The downside is that many people are creating significant work in our society that goes unpaid and that their careers may be unsustainable.
The question for any artist working in theatre is to consider how best to maximise the artistic and career returns in a show that is not bringing financial returns. Then the question becomes when is it unviable to continue if you are not getting a sustainable financial return for your art?
Check out the research here for some interesting stats on wages and demographics of artists.