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Rupert Myer's Speech on Perfomers' welfare

Falling Through the Gaps: Our Artists’ Health and Welfare

By Mark Williams


45 Downstairs, 45 Flinders Lane, Melbourne

3pm, Thursday August 23rd 2018

I acknowledge that we meet on the lands of the Kulin Nations and I pay my respects to the traditional owners and to elders past present and emerging.

I would like to thank Mark for the invitation to speak at this launch tonight.   I would also like to thank Currency House Platform Papers, Katharine Brisbane, Victorian Actors’ Benevolent Trust, fellow speakers and all of you for being here on this significant occasion.

The Acknowledgements should also be acknowledged, particularly the references to Fiona Gruber and her family and to the number of people, including John Adamson, who have supported Mark in this endeavour

This is an important and timely Platform Paper, but it’s more than that.  For Mark, it has all the hallmarks of a personal pursuit, a calling. This is a document that had to be written and it has had to be written by him.  And it is beautifully written.  The language that he uses creates a poetic pathway to highly complex matters.  It feels deeply personal.  It is a call to action for each of us.

It is written with great authority from the perspective of someone who knows just about everything there is to know about law in as much as it relates to theatre and to those whose careers are in the performing arts, and in the arts more generally.  He has worked on both sides of the curtain, both sides of the ticket counter, all sides of the board table and in multiple different roles that give him insight and perspectives on a number of pertinent issues related to how we might better value artists and performers in our community.

This is a narrative that is not just seeking a greater expression of kindness, financial support and more awareness.  It speaks to a higher civic responsibility and duty.  At its core is an incitement that is simultaneously strategic, practical, supportive, compassionate and more than a bit inspiring.

What Mark tells us might come as a surprise to many but is too well known by some: 

The reality in Australia is that, no matter what unique skills, experience, awards and honours a professional performer may hold by mid or late career, most are underemployed or spend long periods ‘resting', developing new work or, indeed, waiting to get paid for jobs.

He captures a world too little understood by audiences noting that:

These are private matters in a profession where people are expected repeatedly to come up smiling no matter how relatively well or badly they are treated.

His reference to ‘falling through the gaps’, the title of the publication, comes for the first time when he writes of the ‘terrible dangers’ for workers in the performing arts of:

…falling through the gaps between psychic satisfaction and material security in their career path.

The key problems that he identifies are financial insecurity, mental and physical health, adverse family circumstances, low standards of living, minimal savings and housing.  He also notes that the dual quest by many artists for ‘personal competition and perfectionism can be toxic’.

There are some, many, uncomfortable and disconcerting truths contained in the Paper including a reference to death ‘from suicide or the effects of drugs and alcohol’ being ‘particularly pronounced’ for musicians ‘beginning several years after retirement or decline in popularity’.

He draws upon both historic information and right-up-to-the-minute research.  The paper is peppered with references to ground breaking work by David Throsby and other cultural economists, annual reports of the theatre companies, Australia Council research including last year’s Making Art Work: An Economic Study of Professional Artists, multiple websites, the Income Tax Assessment Act and Australian Taxation Office rulings, Commonwealth Government commissioned reports, the Superannuation Guarantee Act and related publications as well as a number of personal communications. 

As a consequence the paper is well researched, authoritative and succinct.

The contrasting policies and practices around training and early career development and what happens later in life could not be starker.  Professional development, pathways to employment and work along with media training and the maintenance of social media profiles are all matters that are covered in the early stages of professional careers.  Little preparation is provided for what might occur in mid-life or towards the end of a career.

The Paper offers a great deal more than an accurate diagnosis. Mark plans a pathway in which greater recognition is given to the issues facing artists.  He proposes solutions that would provide greater flexibility in eligibility criteria for access by artists to public services and support.  He advocates for programs for whole of life financial training, health and skills development, the creation of social housing and a living safety net to ensure that those who have given so much of themselves are not abandoned by the communities that have benefitted from their craft and talent.  Each of these constitutes a quite specific call to action. 

So what might we do? 

First, I encourage you to read this Paper carefully and develop your own 30-second pitch to have at your disposal for whenever you have an opportunity to use it. 

Second, in an election year, it is well to have at the ready policy proposals that the parties might adopt at quite short notice.  It may be ambitious but I encourage a submission to the major parties around Status of the Artist legislation.  Although meaning different things in different jurisdictions, generally such legislation enshrines government acknowledgement of the professional status of artists and, in particular, their work practices. The legislation is intended to ensure that these factors pose no disadvantage to artists compared to others in the community in relation to taxation, social security, superannuation, insurance, industrial relations, occupational health and safety and other administrative regimes.  When this matter was looked at in the context of the Visual Arts and Craft Inquiry, a number of quite specific matters pertaining to visual artists and makers were recommended but the report fell short on recommending a broader legislative approach.  That was in 2002 and it was the last time the matter was given a considered examination.  Since then, Australia’s reliance on the creative sector and cultural economy has grown and, I believe, a stronger case could now be made.

Third, it is necessary be very clear headed about exactly what is being sought from government.  As Mark’s paper notes, in 2002, there was an unambiguous recommendation in support of a Resale Royalty for visual artists – not a recommendation for further review.  Pleasingly, the government supported the recommendation and it was introduced.  In the period since it was introduced, more than 1600 artists have shared in over $6.3million in distributions.  With regard to the proposals outlined in this Paper, the next stage is to progress the development of specific policy proposals that have the following three characteristics: that they are ‘fenceable’ (can be clearly defined), defensible (there is a powerful public good argument) and implementable. I believe that it would be timely to do so.

My final remark is to thank and congratulate Mark for this substantial contribution. At a time when we are more often than in the past speaking about the importance of cultural memory, creativity and imagination, cultural power and confidence, an act of cultural leadership and cultural democracy would be to seek policy responses to the very matters that Mark has raised.   In the same way that we are encouraged to take pride in our cultural assets, we should all mobilise to take great care of our artists.  Let’s take this Paper as a motivation to do so.


Rupert Myer

23 August 2018