Ian Pidd is an independent artist based in Melbourne.
You show me yours. I’ll show you mine.
I’m just going to make a few observations about my current situation, and some about the past. I’m hoping this isn’t too nostalgic. And my partner Sue has just read it and said, “you are a little bit saying suck it up.” Hopefully only a little bit.
I’m an independent artist who has managed to be employed almost exclusively as an artist for 33 years. (My wife Sue Giles and I had a few months cleaning houses when we first arrived in Melbourne in 1988.) For the last several years my taxable income has been somewhere between 40K and 50K per year.
I have had full time artistic directorships – Back To Back from 1994 – to 1999, and Moomba in 1999 (it’s a long story.) But mostly I have worked on a bunch of stuff – directing theatre, directing festivals, community events, collaborative processes, occasionally performing – for myself, for teams of people I work with regularly and for others as hired gun.
Between a third and a half of my income comes from activity related to The Village, which produces 5 festivals a year. During The Village at The Falls we have around 500 artists and crew working across three sites in three states (perhaps some of those artists would accuse me of the kind of behaviour that this blog accuses others of). The Village should really be a full time job, given the amount of activity and the numbers. But the compromises we would need to make to the model to make it generate that much income, are not ones we will make. For now. And I REALLY like all the other stuff I do, so it works well for me.
When I left drama school I went straight into a FULL TIME job with Toe Truck Theatre in Education company in Sydney. For much of the 80s Toe Truck had a virtually permanent, full time ensemble of between 4 and 6 actors. The office for most of that time was the General Manager, Artistic Director and Administrator. And a part-time person ringing schools. Thus we had a full time roster of a minimum of 5 artistic personnel and 2.5 administrative. Toe Truck was one of half a dozen such companies around the country. The work wasn’t glamorous (up to 12 shows a week in schools in Sydney and country NSW.) But we made really good shows, worked with excellent writers and designers and directors and fellow actors. And I learned way more than I did at drama school. And we lived well in inner city Sydney on an artist’s wage. Those companies have all gone. And if they did exist today it’s very hard to imagine that the office would be that small. Just saying.
In the later 80s when I wasn’t working for Toe Truck I was making all sorts of other work and slipped on and off the dole with ease. With absolute ease. We would take work to the Fringe in Adelaide and tell the dole office we were doing that and they would tell us to put our form in in SA. No hassles. One could say that this was ripping off the system – we were not really unemployed (we were crazy busy) and we certainly weren’t looking for work. But the skills learned in those times meant that neither Sue nor I have been on the dole since that time and we both pay a fair bit of tax and employ lots and lots of other people and have generated many millions of dollars of activity.
I am in a very fortunate position because:
A: My wife, Sue Giles, is AD of Polyglot and has a pretty decent wage and conditions for the arts. Even though my annual income is pretty crap, our combined income is pretty good. (BTW Sue’s wage – running a million dollar plus organisation with a big staff – is about the same as a reasonably experienced young teacher…) After a particularly good Adelaide Fringe in 1994 (and on the back of landing the AD job at Back To Back) we were able to buy a house. For 120,000. We have a tiny mortgage after recently making the place energy efficient (water, solar) and fixing the kitchen. Our monthly housing and utility costs are tiny.
B: The rest of my income comes from theatre/project work undertaken across the country and overseas. I aim to be paid $1500 per week for this work. I rarely achieve that. Mostly because I choose to spend more time on projects than the budget allows and because I often agree to do a project for less because I love it. Just last week I came back from directing The Inaugural Annual Dance Affair (HUGE dance work – cast of 80) for The Bleach Festival on the Gold Coast. I was probably paid about 8,000 dollars (including allowances) for two full time months work over a year. Did I rip myself off? Maybe. But the three key artists all agreed to the deal. The piece was great. And it will almost certainly tour and we’ll make sure we get paid better down the track. I can’t blame the festival for not putting enough on the table – they were taking a risk on a brand new work. And it was our desire to make the work in a really ambitious way that made it necessary to do those extra weeks. But if we had waited to gather all the money we really needed, the work wouldn’t have been made.
I usually do a few things a year for nothing. Usually because they are my own things that I think will yield a project further down the line. Or because it’s going to be fun and I like the other artists who are working on it.
I work pretty much every day. And many days are long days. And usually I have a duty of care over a bunch of others. And often the quality of my work is under intense scrutiny – both as a boss and as an artist. I don’t think there will be many other professions where the amount of work done and level of responsibility is so high, for such a low wage.
BUT…I feel very, very lucky to be making a living in the arts. The work is interesting and sometimes profound. On occasions I feel like I make a difference in the world. I get to travel a lot – both within Australia and overseas. On the whole I adore the people I work with. The vast majority of my close friends are also people I regularly collaborate with. I feel certain that I will continue to make work until the day I die.
A couple of extra thoughts:
We are not owed a living in the arts. There are quite a few artists who are attempting to make a living with work that is not very good or who have a dreadful work ethic, or are painful to collaborate with.
There are some really good artists whose work is so niche that it is hard to make a case for them to make a full-time living doing that. For example the Australian Opera company.
In Indonesia very few of the amazing artists I work with make a living from their art. In Java people see no shame in being teachers and artists; car mechanics and artists; barbers and artists. We fetishize the professional artist in the West and I’m not certain that’s healthy. This is a whole other issue but worth us talking about.