Katerina Kokkinos-Kennedy is an independent artist based in Melbourne. She is the Artistic Director of Triage Live Art Collective.
ARTISTS TALKING ABOUT MONEY
Well hello! I think that the opportunity to parse how I conduct the economics of my ART LIFE is very interesting. Quite scary. A bit painful. And necessary. Ever since reading Bryony Kimming’s blistering article about her life as a so-called “successful artist” back in 2013 – I’ve been debating this issue with myself, my partner and close artist friends ever since. Because, more than anything, living as an artist is about having the vision, flexibility and capacity to survive in a pretty arts-hostile environment. It’s also about how you navigate uncertainty (practically and emotionally) on a daily basis. And how you plan your life so that you mostly make the work you want to make, tour, and meet your daily commitments. So, here I go…
Note to Self #1: I’ve come to realise that mobility is vital for me as an artist – this is because I love to travel, and I’ve realized that it’s essential to internationalise my practice in order to create broader opportunities, develop new partnerships and new ways of working.
Like many artists I’ve always worked independently. I’ve never worked full time for large arts or non-arts organisations. I’ve consciously resisted it, as it’s always felt like a threat to realizing my work as an artist. However, this has also meant having to do many other things in order to support myself, and my family. In my 20’s I worked part time as a retail manager, in my 30’s I trained actors at the VCA Drama School & other institutions, in my 40’s I worked as a writer, arts consultant and dramaturge.
Note to Self #2: Having a range of transferable skills is important for artists.
Now, I pretty much live from a range of grants, commissions and awards with a pretty constant sense of, “When will this House of Cards collapse”? And the bigger question of: what will I do then? The precarity of being the artistic director of a small independent company is a constant pressure. My hours are long, I work every day, and have little or no down time. I sometimes find myself wondering about what would happen if I became ill, or for whatever reason, was unable to work – even for a short while. In fact last week I was in Helsinki to meet artists, programmers & companies. In this strange city I suddenly injured my back and spent two days in a 5 star hotel lying in bed, in pain, with a lot of time to ponder some of these questions.
Note to Self #3: Having a little nest egg ($5K) is essential; as is avoiding debt. I have a credit card but I pay it off every month and I never, ever pay interest. This ensures that I always have money for emergencies and travel. Because being unwell is unsustainable for independent artists I’ve also chosen to have health insurance.
I often think about the trade-off’s I’ve made and how I’ve chosen to use the hours of my day as I wish to use them. This means that my work is all over the place & never-ending – but it’s also meant that I can organize my day around my children, go for walks, and visit friends in the midst of my working day. A friend once said to me, ‘no one asked us to artists, how we manage this impossible dream is our business’. In part this is true – the other side of it is, how do I make the economics of it work? This has meant that I must accept the stock-market-like ups and downs of my finances. This has meant that I can take up great opportunities, but also manage significant risks. Precarity is a way of life for me. I’m pretty good at it. But. It can also induce bad dreams, anxiety and depression – so it’s important to check in regularly with oneself and with loved ones. If you have children and major regular financial commitments: a back-up plan is essential. Sometimes I can ask my dad, sometimes I can’t. Sometimes I can ask a friend, sometimes I can’t. As a single person or couple this is was ok, but becoming a family changed everything for us.
Note to Self #4: Good financial planning, a nest egg, a disciplined and philosophical approach to the “vagaries of life”. Don’t sweat the non-vitals.
How I do things
I’m the artistic director of a small independent company, I work with a key collaborator, and we work with other companies and a range of associate artists to realise our projects. Like many artists I’ve been (in & out) of postgraduate study and academia since 2008. This is because the recent changes in scholarship availability for artists who are interested in theorising their work and making performance (practice-based research) offers a pretty decent place to hang out, to think, write and make works. The money isn’t great, but it’s a great help as a base salary, if: a) you have other artistic projects on the go; b) want to avoid Centrelink; and c) can fit its demands into your schedule. It also gives you time to think deeply, and to be relatively mobile. Some universities are fine with you spending periods of time on leave and/or abroad. But it’s best to check before signing up. Finding a good supervisor is vital: someone who will champion you and your ideas. Academic projects can add a lot to your thinking & practice – they can help you to find new directions for your ideas and work. But it’s also really hard work.
Note to Self #5: Think broadly about who and what supports your work. Develop good and lasting relations with the people and the places who “get” you & what you do. Work to develop these relations and opportunities to further your practice, and to build new connections. There’s nothing like respect, affection, and being on the same page.
What fees do you charge?
This depends on the commissioning process and the organization/s. We try to charge fees that take into account a base salary of $1,000 AUD per week, per artist. Travel, accommodation, and per diems are a must. If we’re working with partners who have fewer resources, such as small organisation or poorer countries that are struggling financially, we will cut deals (such as accept billeting, or ‘restaurant vouchers’ instead of per diems, etc.,). For a while I tried to build in a $500-1000 company fee that could be used to fund a new project development, or future travel – but this has become virtually impossible due to universal funding cuts, tighter and meaner budgets. Of course haggling is almost always mandatory – with many organisations offering too little money for developments or even ready-to-go works. But each offer has to be considered for the opportunities on offer, how it will impact our work calendar, the development of new projects, our company profile, etc. Compromise is at the heart of all our contractual negotiations. It’s very rare to find ourselves in a clear, non-haggling, non-embarrassing situation in terms of money and conditions. It’s an on-going topic of concern as funding allocations get smaller, and more competitive, as programmers struggle, and we all try to make ends meet and stay on good terms. Sometimes, there is the straight down the line ‘exploitation offer’ – this is always met with a firm ‘No’, and occasionally a free tutorial (in person or via email) as to why this is a totally crap &/or offensive offer.
What income as an artist do you aim for/receive annually?
I aim for an income of between $40 – 50K per annum. It’s not a lot, but I don’t always get there either. We live very frugally, which I was once proud of, but now find limiting and frustrating – especially as we get older. We still don’t own our own home. I just wasn’t willing to change my entire life in order to buy a house. At 30 I experienced a serious illness, which put LIFE (the big issue) in perspective and ‘home ownership’ (a small issue) also into perspective. However, there are still days when I wish we had a home of our own. Instead, holidays have become important to us, so for the last 2 years I’ve made sure that we have 2-3 weeks of rest, in a nice place – every year. This has been a good decision.
What tips do you have for sustainable practice (ie how to sustain your mental & Financial health).
See above. Make sure you do the work you really want to do – at least some of the time. Do other things that you like – I love teaching so I run workshops whenever I have time. In the last 2 years I’ve done more admin than in the last 10 years. Whilst I’ve learned a lot about balancing budgets, and international standards of accounting – all I want to do is make a new work. So I’ve just squeezed in an extra project & short residency into my already absurdly overwrought work calendar. Making work remains a priority for me as an artist. Stay in touch with yourself. Make time for simple pleasures. Eat well and take care of your health. If you find your mood is getting low or your resentment is too high, talk about it. Get help. See a doctor or therapist. Strategise, plan, stay active, take a day off, talk to people and have some fun. In fact have as much fun as you possibly can. It always surprises me how many of us are struggling with the same issues. This is why Bryony & Alex’s articles were so great. The great taboo of money gets raised and then suddenly people start talking. The health of artists should be a topic of local and national concern. I was thinking of talking with Arts Victoria, Vic Health & the Australia Council about conducting a study into the finances & mental health of artists. Victoria University recently launched an online study into this very topic. Like any taboo it’s about airplay, getting people into the conversation, and keeping it alive.
What are your bug bears?
Everybody wants art, art is good for us, art is important for culture, art is essential for wellbeing, blah, blah, blah, … BUT no one seems to want to pay for it, right? Hmmmmm. Paying for art and ensuring that artists aren’t exploited is a big issue. There’s still a largely unconscious cultural strategy to ensure that there’s a lot of support for emerging artists (akas the foot soldiers of art – young people between 18-35). There’s support, and opportunities in spades – this is the time in your life when you’ve got time & energy to burn. But at 40 with two kids, and a real need for new opportunities – there’s NOT much going at all. Helping artists to keep going once they hit 35 – 40 years of age is another big conversation. A major turning point in my career was the combined opportunity of my Masters scholarship, the Solo Residency at Victoria University (Greg Dyson’s brilliant program), working with Punctum Inc on several projects, and ArtStart (Oz Co). The grants enabled me to travel extensively in 2010/2011 and to reconnect with peers, and a range of opportunities in Europe.
A friend in the UK (a very successful artist) recently said to me, “Art is for rich people’s kids.” She is herself, the child of wealthy parents. She said this to me because she knows how much it costs to supplement her art, despite being a sought after artist. I was shocked. Is this the case in Australia I thought to myself? Yes, it is. When I looked around, I could see that it was true. Art is very much about class, gender, race, and who you know. So, whether we choose to see it or not, whether we like it, or not – art is very much about having access to money, or being paid, or both. Most of my artist friends who’ve managed to buy houses only did so because their parents were able to give them home deposits. Whether it offends our sense of the ‘fair go’ or our egalitarian myths, or whatever – we do need to spell these issues out. These myths drive people crazy because they are false, but also widely upheld by our silence. We need to face the fact that success in the arts is not just about brilliant ideas, passion, and good fortune. Or that talent ‘speaks’. Talent actually CAN’T ‘speak’ if you can’t travel, can’t network relentlessly, can’t leave your kids, or can’t pay your bills. It’s all about getting the right support: so questions remain about who has it, who can’t get it, and what needs to happen? In Australia we tend to deny issues of class, gender, race & access. But art is about all of these issues. Just look at the debates in recent years: the deep resentment expressed by women directors (which came to a head at the ATF in 2011 & which has since activated a lot of great initiatives for women directors), more recent outcries about race & diversity on our stages (AU, US & UK) and in our films, or issues about indigenous representation. There’s still a long, long way to go – so let’s keep talking.
What changes would you like to see?
I’d like to see Australian funding organisations recognise the immense contribution to arts innovation that is made by independent artists and companies. Without the independent scene mainstream theatre would be dead in every sense of the word. See the recent article in The Conversation. I’d also like to see that reflected in new and braver funding structure changes so that independents are encouraged to be ambitious and clever without having to take on all the unrealistic structural features of large organisations. How could this be done? How could we research this? Create new templates? How could independent artists and small companies work smarter and bigger without being utterly bogged down in administrative issues? Six years of funding to established companies and no commensurate changes in funding to the independent sector. Uggghh! Just look to Europe & the US to see where this approach has lead. Huge bloated, conservative, state funded companies producing (mostly) terrible work, with an enormously vibrant culture of near-starving independent artists working like an underclass, creating heaps of creative cache for their cities but receiving a tiny portion of available funds. This is recipe for disaster. Witness the near-collapse of the theatre scene in Amsterdam in the last 2 years.
This is a big topic for Triage right now – we need a general manager like there’s no tomorrow – but becoming a company just simply won’t work for us. I’d end up producing everyone’s work but my own. There has to be some alternative to this, but also an alternative to my currently impossible workload and working hours. We need new structures for solo artists and small innovators within the arts. One very simple idea that has been mooted many times over is a shared producer. Take three small companies and allocate one brilliant producer. I’d pay good money for that. I can’t understand why it continues to be too hard to find solutions that actually save us money, and create much better working conditions.
We also need to tackle the issues of audience development and access. In countries like Norway and Sweden – the government funds all schoolchildren to attend the theatre at least 5 times per year. They see that exposure to the arts as making a positive difference to people’s lives regardless of their income and background. In France and other EU countries professional artists are paid an annual stipend. This is a base salary that is supplemented by their on-going projects. This ensures a safety net income but allows them to avoid the hassles and humiliations of the Centrelink cycle.
I’m an optimist by nature. I’m always thinking and dreaming about a world in which people get to do what they’re good at. What they love. What they care about. Imagine that? That’s a transforming thought. Art is maybe one such place – potentially. It’s why I love being an artist and being part of a community of artists. If I hadn’t become an artist I would probably have ended up working in the medical or teaching profession. For me they are sort of related. It’s about being with others. Through art I get to be connected to work that makes deep demands of me, and also asks a lot of audiences. I get to create events and situations for other people to experience – they get to contemplate things, to think about and share aspects of their lives, we all get to engage with interesting and challenging ideas. Being an artist is a privilege – but it’s also a human right to be paid a fair wage.
Note to Self #6: When I’m on my deathbed I won’t be thinking about money or taxes. I’ll be thinking about the people I loved, the work I made, the beauty of the world, and my small part in it. Thank you, and goodbye.