marcus westbury

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Unpaid? Unremarkable.

March 31st, 2009 by marcus

My comments here about the proposed billion dollar redevelopment of the Sydney Opera House have attracted more than the usual amount of attention as has Ben Eltham’s post about the same subject over at Larvatus Prodeo.

Comments on both sites have come from people who are working or have worked at the Opera House or at companies similar to those that are resident there. Their comments include legitimate criticism of the current state of the building and at times make a strong argument that the Opera House needs work. But they also confirm my growing frustration that there are effectively two separate art worlds with radically diverging expectations and realities.

After reading through comments both here and at LP I feel compelled to clarify my experience of life outside the cultural institutions in Australia. I hope it goes some way to explaining why the routine subsidies and additional demands of major organisations is so confronting to the majority of the Australian creative community.

This isn’t about the Sydney Opera House or even about NSW particularly. I no longer live in NSW but as a case study The Opera House versus the rest of cultural policy serves to perfectly illustrate the disparity and I have spent almost all of my life in that state.

I have worked on several major cultural projects in Newcastle down the years. Newcastle is the second largest city in NSW, Australia’s seventh largest city and a large enough place that it would be the largest city in Tasmania or either of the territories.

I’ve been involved in three major and countless minor cultural projects there. I founded the This Is Not Art festival — which remains the largest annual tourism event in the city and one of the largest media arts festivals in the world — and ran it for five years. I was also a founder and manager of the arts and media organisation Octapod that hosts the TINA festival and various other local arts projects.

I am actively working in Newcastle at the moment on a project called Renew Newcastle which has already had great success in converting some of the 150 empty buildings in the main streets of Newcastle into spaces for cultural projects and arts initiatives. To date we’ve put 14 projects into 8 buildings and I expect that number will double over the next few months.

I’ve never been paid for any of this.

None of the cultural projects I’ve done in Newcastle down the years have ever paid me. This is not simply that we’ve had to deal with substandard, even dangerous facilities, less than optimal conditions, or visions that were never fully realised. Most of us have simply never even got back what it has cost us to do what we do. In my experience this is so normal and unremarkable that I’ve never bothered to explicitly point it out in print until now.

I’ve done better than most because i have often crossed the threshold into paid work with some of the funded parts of the cultural realm. Almost all the people who attend the This Is Not Art festival or taking up shopfronts in Renew Newcastle are not getting paid. Most of the artists in the two Next Wave Festivals i have directed (as a paid day job) were in the same position. Almost all the artists and most of the catalysts for interesting projects in the country are unpaid and subsidising what they do. Outside the cultural institutions even most funded projects — those where the logos of our state and federal funding agencies are prominent — don’t pay many of the people involved for what they do.

It never occurs to most of these people to lobby for more money or better conditions. In most cases, they are simply too busy or they simply accept — as i have sometimes done — that it is a reasonable and natural state of affairs.

I’m not a whinger and i’ve not let it stop me. I’ve spent the last 15 years getting on with doing it and simply dealing with the reality. There is not and never has been enough money to do this stuff properly and pay me. I’ve spent many tens of thousands of dollars of my own money. I have worked multiple day jobs to cross subsidise it all. I’ve spent the last year funding the rejuvenation of Newcastle on my credit card.

Most of us never complain about it.

However, there are times — such as when the highest funded cultural organisations in the country ask for another billion dollars — that i am reminded there is something deeply and fundamentally unjust about all of this and i feel a little compelled to ask for a reality check.

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10 responses so far ↓

  • 1 David Blumenstein Mar 31, 2009 at 10:52 pm

    “Eh? Y’don’t like reality TV… AND y’don’t want us to fix up the Opera House? Can’t please you bloody art wankers!”

    This would be my way of suggesting that there may be people in power who see these two poles (Entertainment and High Art) and not much in between. So as long as we’re being provided with some highfalutin ballets to watch, us art-types should be satisfied.

    Too simplistic?

    As someone trying to commercialise their “art practice” I can see why we often don’t bother with it. The more I hammer away at the business side, the less of my own work I produce. My goal is to be paid for doing my own crap, so I can only try to balance things out, do that crap for free as much as possible and hope things work out in my favour eventually.

    Your problem is that care about things other than money (giving artists a forum, fixing up your hometown), so you can be convinced (or you set out, off your own bat) to do large amounts of work on behalf of those interests without being paid.

    If your main goal was to get paid, you would be, and very well, no doubt. But you might hate yourself.

  • 2 marcus Mar 31, 2009 at 11:07 pm

    I think you’re pretty right David.

    Yeah, It is not that it is impossible for me to make money. i have saleable skills and i can use them when i need to make money. I am not complaining that i’m broke just simply that if you live in the funded bubble you have no idea how it works out in the real world.

    I am capable of subsidising what i do but you could say the same thing to varying degrees about virtually anyone working in the arts and cultural realm. Why aren’t the endless armies of cultural beuracrats or salaried employees of major arts organisations doing the same or having the smae asked of them?

    It may be a reasonable question, it may be unreasonable one. But surely the same question should be asked equally of everyone or at least not be prioritised by whether you are reproducing 300 year old European works or not.

    Part of the problem here is the stupidly simplistic distinctions between high art and pop culture. A lot of policy tends to assume that creative people are trying to be commercial. In many/most cases they aren’t and in most cases they are far more likely to be successful by getting what they do right than by trying to adapt it to the highest bidder in the shortest possible time.

    We need to encourage, not deter experimentation. We need to value new stuff and not just dead Europeans. I think the dilemma you are in is the classic example of it.

  • 3 Diddley Mar 31, 2009 at 11:26 pm

    yeah, right on.

    only the money to fund your work needn’t have to come from un-funding architecture… more for the arts generally i say

  • 4 Feargus Apr 1, 2009 at 3:32 am

    “I am capable of subsidising what i do but you could say the same thing to varying degrees about virtually anyone working in the arts and cultural realm.”

    Yes Marcus u are, but, for a whole lot of reasons, the rest of yr sentence is just not true.

  • 5 marcus Apr 1, 2009 at 7:06 am

    @ Feargus. You will need to explain why that isn’t true as i am not clear on the argument. Are you saying that there is something unique about the high classical artforms or cultural institutions?

    @ Diddley. I simply no longer accept the argument that the answer is “more money for the arts generally”. Here we have a classic example where a government is contemplating putting an EXTRA billion dollars into an institution which has already had a billion dollars (in today’s terms) of capital put into and already receives a subsidy in the tens of millions of dollars a year. On top of that both Opera Australia and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra — two of the main beneficaries of such a decision — are the two most subsidised companies in the country.

    So here we have an example of “more money for the arts” and this is an example of where it goes. What we are lacking is a debate about priorities, about the relative importance of different things we could or should be supporting, and about equity across the cultural landscape.

    Ultimately, the role of government is to make decisions about prioritising scarce resources. I do agree that there should be a greater emphasis on cultural production — you could get a lot for the cost of a single joint strike fighter. However government can’t invent resources or make them appear out of the thin air and when they do scurry some away they tend to go to further support those who are already receiving them.

    As a matter of every day policy, Australia has decided that the nations’ opera companies and orchestras are worth far more than everyone else combined. I disagree.

  • 6 red*apple Apr 1, 2009 at 4:24 pm

    My experience also echoes this. I’d also like to say that the funding structures implicitly condone this, and in fact encourage this. Projects are never funded to anywhere near their projected budget, but the funders have the expectation that they will go ahead anyway, because that’s what artists do, they create art, and put on events because that’s what they are driven to do.

  • 7 Sofie Apr 1, 2009 at 4:45 pm

    Finally this subject is being discussed! Thankfully we have Marcus to speak up for us (and also take the criticism).

    I think maybe the Opera House, being such an icon, may be in a better position than most of the self-subsidised artists I meet to “self-fund” its renovations. I truly hope they rethink the enormity of this pledge.

  • 8 feargus Apr 2, 2009 at 12:23 pm

    Marcus, disregard my above comment…i have no idea what i meant either. Apologies.

  • 9 Tomas Apr 22, 2009 at 10:44 pm

    Good post Marcus…

    I agree, to some extent….

    What the government are investing this ridiculous amount of money in is not the opera house or the commercial arts world. They are investing in Australia’s image.

    After all when you ask foreigners about Australian landmarks we really only get a handful of answers. Obviously the Opera House is one of the most well known landmarks. We as a country should want one of our most popular landmarks to be kept nice and pretty for the tourists.

    So perhaps instead of another shocking aus tourism board advertisement they could put a bit of their cash towards the Landmarks they are selling the world.

  • 10 elle Apr 23, 2009 at 1:58 pm

    As both an artist and someone who sits on an arts grants selection committee, I agree the state of affairs is pretty dismal. The ways arts funding is dispersed is something of a joke – respected cultural institutions seem to submit grants with ludicrous figures, and no one questions why it costs (say) $30,000 to produce 1000 copies of a single journal issue – and that’s a partial funding. In many cases, grant writing is a skill more highly valued than the arts practice itself, and in more cases, being buddy-buddy with the organisations who disperse the funds count for more than a solid application.

    I think that it would be a great idea for arts organisations only fund smaller organisations or individuals that create art independently of funding as well… thus proving they are interested in arts practice and not just creating stuff because they’re being handed the money on a platter. The art should come first. The arts funding should come second.