Universal Basic Income: The answer for a decimated arts sector?

By: Deanne Weir   |   The WeirAnderson Foundation   |   http://www.weiranderson.com/

A recent thought-provoking article in the The Conversation saw Jo Caust examine the idea of a Universal Basic Income for Australian artists. Caust provides a summary of a new scheme introduced into the Republic of Ireland and compares it to other initiatives in the US and some targeted COVID-related initiatives in Australia.

The article is very timely given the huge impact that COVID lockdowns have had on the Australian arts sector, and the concern that deteriorating economic conditions will reduce the amount of corporate and philanthropic support for the sector in the years ahead. 

With a new federal government perceived as more friendly to the arts than their predecessors, is this an opportunity to re-consider the structural underpinning of support for the artistic community? 

The government’s election commitments included the implementation of a National Cultural Policy, with a promise to address issues faced by casual and gig workers.  New Arts Minister Tony Burke is also Industrial Relations Minister, and he has announced he will soon start consultations using former Prime Minister Gillard's Creative Australia policy as a starting point.  So, it appears that if Australia really does value the role of the cultural sector in national life, then the conditions are ripe for an honest and active conversation about how we best support artists to pursue their vocation. 

If that is to occur, then what role should the philanthropic sector play in those discussions?

The COVID era exposed the vulnerability of many Australians who pursue the arts, whether in creative, technical or support roles. The entire arts ecosystem was shown to be on the knife-edge. The loss of live performance opportunities and subsequent closure of venues saw many sector participants needing to walk away.  For those in technical and support roles, their skills may be readily transferable to another sector, but the loss of their experience and passion will be felt by the sector for years to come.  For many of our creatives however, the impact has been less about skills transfer, and more about skills abandonment. While some were able to secure Job Keeper payments, many were not, and so they faced the inevitable decision to seek alternative employment options with the possibility of never returning to their craft.  And while some individuals were able to take advantage of targeted philanthropic support programs, none of these programs were broad enough to address the sector as a whole.

The outcome of support for the sector being mainly targeted to arts companies rather than individuals may have a parallel to the university research sector. 

Just as university funding has an increasing focus on ‘applied’ as opposed to ‘pure’ research, arts funding is more focussed on artists who have already secured a role to apply their practice, as opposed to supporting those who are looking to develop their own practice more generally.  COVID has accelerated the loss of such artists to the sector. The result is not just a loss to those individuals who felt forced to give up, but it is a huge loss to the nation’s creative heart and output. 

Further, the reality is that those most likely to have walked away are those who could least afford to go without whatever meagre income they may have been earning from their endeavours.  This is where gender and class lenses need to be brought into the debate around how to best support the arts sector.

While we are all grateful for the millions of dollars in temporary measures that Federal and State governments provided to the sector during the height of the pandemic, none of those support measures address the underlying challenges at the heart of the arts sector in Australia.  The reality is that our arts sector will never properly reflect a diverse Australia, or benefit from many unique perspectives, without ongoing support measures that address the issues of gender, cultural and socio-economic diversity.  The full participation of women in the sector is not just challenged by the reality of insecure employment; the lack of affordable and available childcare is an impediment to many women creatives.  Further, as discussed in a recent Guardian article by Vicki Kyriakakis, the insular nature of much of the arts sector means that working-class creatives face many barriers to participation.  Those from more financially and socially privileged environments have many ‘insider’ opportunities, including the financial resources to participate in exclusionary activities such as unpaid internships.

Finally, many traditional philanthropic practices, no matter how well intentioned, can also exacerbate the power imbalances that exist between the philanthropist and the artist.  In a country as wealthy as Australia, is it really appropriate that an artist should be solely reliant on the kindness of philanthropists for their survival as well as the pursuit of their work?

Australia will face many issues in the years ahead but surely, we will be better placed to address them with a thriving cultural and artistic sector to inspire, challenge and entertain us.  If we truly value that sector, then we must ensure that creative Australians can pursue their work while having their basic living requirements met. A Universal Basic Income could be one way to make that a reality. 

Jun. 09, 2022

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