Professional Status and Renumeration of Artists in the 'Arts Industry'

(Submission to the contemporary visual arts and craft inquiry)
 
© Donald Richardson, November, 2001
 


 
In the more recent past, many artists achieved professional recognition with little or no formal qualifications. Vincent van Gogh is perhaps the most obvious example. On the other hand, many who have received full training at an art school have achieved little in the professional field. So it must be evident that 'professional status' in art has no necessary relationship with formal training.
 
This does not apply to designers, however. Whereas designers cannot begin to practice without considerable technical knowledge, artists can often depend upon native talent or develop what they need during their practice.
 
This means that, whereas it is logical to insist on formal qualifications before a designer may be considered professional, artists establish this status by obtaining commissions and/or achieving exhibition in recognised galleries or groups (as an alternative to obtaining formal qualifications). The key criterion for artists is disinterested peer recognition (long a successful operating principle of the Australia Council). One method of establishing professional status is to participate in a group exhibition annually or a one-person exhibition every four or five years. Panels of professionals could be established to decide on difficult cases.
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The term 'arts industry' is nonsense and should be discontinued. Industries are characterised by producing goods or services for which there is an established demand or for which future demand can confidently be expected through sales promotion (speculative investment). However, artists - by definition - if they are truly artists, do not produce items for which there is a pre-existing demand, except in the most general sense (eg for landscapes or portraits). True artists are innovators and experimenters whose primary thought is to create something unique. Whether there is a public demand for the produce is secondary. This is entirely opposed in principle to how an industry works.           
 
People who produce pictures or sculptures to order, following established forms, are operating to a large extent as craftspersons, not artists properly so called.
 
Commissioned works, such as portraits, are in a unique position in that the artist operates creatively but has to conform to what may be termed a 'design-brief' in that the portrait must represent the sitter. This applies also to works commissioned as integral elements of churches and other buildings. These artists could validly be considered to be operating as designers.
 
Another situation is where an artist creates a picture which is then reproduced, as limited-edition prints, by a printer (a craftsperson). Thus, it can be seen that the categorisation and terminology suggested in my first paper is useful in distinguishing the various aspects of an artist's work and, so, helping to decide principles of remuneration.
 
There is a visual arts market or economy, which consists of commercial galleries and dealers. These operate by selling on commission, on behalf of artists, their products. They operate in exactly the same way as any other marketing entity, ie by selling goods for profit and (if they are functioning well) promoting these goods in the market. Apart from the product the market sells, it has absolutely nothing to do with art per se.
 
Designers usually work in or for an industry at established rates of remuneration. On the other hand, each artist must establish for him/herself the selling-price of his/her works. This cannot be derived from time-on-task or other economic measures: it can only come from establishing and maintaining a reputation in the market.
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It is long established that employed craftspersons and designers price their labour by the hour at agreed or established rates, or are paid award or negotiated wages. This cannot apply to artists, who do not produce things for which there is agreed demand or remuneration; consequently - except for those who have established a reputation and can sell their products at a reasonable price - artists usually live in poverty. While the tenacious persevere in the hope that they will achieve a reputation eventually and be able to sell their product, there must be many who have been discouraged and give up. This must be a great cultural loss to the country. The logical solution is to allow those artists who achieve professional status by the means outlined above, but are economically impoverished, to draw the dole so long as they persevere with their work. Such people could not be labelled 'dole bludgers' because most artists actually work longer hours than employed people do.
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Taxation

Whereas it is, of course, equitable for artists to pay income-tax, moderated by deducting legitimate expenses, art should be generally exempt from the Goods and Services Tax.
 
In the first place, the GST places an inequitable burden on the art market (galleries, etc) because the mark-up on sales is usually only 33 1/3% or, at the most, 40%, whereas generally the mark-up is 100%. This situation is, in turn, unfair to artists who are not really in control of the prices for their works and cannot raise them to cover the GST.
 
But, further, artists who are registered as businesses and for the GST, and who operate their finances diligently, operate at a loss for many years on end and - because they are able to claim refunds of GST paid on materials they use, studio rental etc - are usually in a credit relationship with the Taxation Department. So, the tax system gains nothing from artists and artists have the unnecessary burden of keeping account of the small items of material they purchase (those who have the diligence to do this: otherwise they lose these amounts entirely).
 
This is a stupid and unfair situation. The best equivalent in other fields is that of the genuine farmer who stays on his property producing products, but also for life-style reasons, though he is economically impoverished. Such farmers operate businesses at a loss, as do most artists most of the time. So artists should be able to qualify for similar concessions as those available to such farmers.


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