By Lauren Wraight
Like any arts or visual arts graduate, I didn’t pursue my field out of a desire for a high-paying job or an impressive, powerful career. I pursued it because I love art, cultural engagement, connecting over things that operate in those ‘grey’ spaces outside of the black and white narratives that we’re taught to view the world through. I pursued it because the arts are important. The arts and cultural industries, in all their various forms, remind us of the stories rarely told, identities not acknowledged, and of the sheer size, breadth and depth of the world we live in.
It’s easy to give in to despair in the face of repeated budget cuts, minimal graduate opportunities, and expensive postgraduate degrees that claim to be the new standard requirement for emerging arts workers. But I’ve resisted so far, instead aiming to constructively work through the challenges people in this industry face. It took a while to get here, but I feel tougher moving forward being able to acknowledge the rough terrain involved in seeking a career in the arts. So here they are, my five stages of grieving over the state of the Australian arts industry…
I’ve been trying to start writing this article for many weeks now. For some reason I am finding it difficult to actually confront the crisis of the arts job market. I suppose I’m experiencing imposter syndrome, except in this case I don’t have the job to feel like an ‘imposter’ in. This type of imposter syndrome makes me ask: Is the arts job market the problem, or is it me?
Australia has a wealth of strong cultural leadership and artistic talent, and Melbourne is a cultural centre. Why is it then, that there exist no formal, secure, dignifying pathways into a career in the arts? It is especially curious considering the fact that, as of 2016, the arts industry is growing but employment in the field is declining.
It’s easy to blame yourself for the constant rejections and lack of employment opportunities. However, when every rejection comes with the consolation that there was an “overwhelming” number of applicants, it is evident there are a lot of people out there experiencing the same thing.
What gets me angry in all this is the lack of investment I see from larger organisations in future arts leaders. Yes, the arts suffers from a lack of funding and continual cuts from right-wing austerity governments, but there is also a lack of insight in the art world itself into its continual tendency to compromise its own future. To gain experience to work in the arts seems to require the ability to work for free for two to three years, do a series of unpaid internships, or a string of unstable fixed-term positions. This not only requires significant financial advantage but also considerable psychological and emotional stamina. For myself, coming from a supportive family, I’ve managed it so far. But it’s been hard. To admit it has been hard leaves me with pangs of guilt because I’ve been fed the idea that I should be grateful for the opportunity to work for free with no guarantee of a job at the end, while constantly skirting the poverty line.
The existence of myriad master’s degrees with titles such as ‘Arts Management’, ‘Art Curatorship’ and ‘Arts Administration’ confounds the issue further. These degrees give the illusion that there are clear pathways to legitimately gain the skills you need to enter the arts. Speaking to friends of mine who have contemplated, begun or already completed a postgraduate degree of this kind, the content of each program is severely lacking in the skills-based learning actually needed to land a job. Some courses pile on more theoretical studies of art history, some dumb everything down. But they all cost somewhere between $30K and $50K and claim to give you that ‘edge’ you were hoping for on your resume. This hasn’t ended up being the case for people around me.
So at this point I think it is clear that I am aware of some of the problems with the arts job market. But I’ve considered all the factors, and came to the decision that my passion and enthusiasm will make up for the lack of immediate rewards. A lot of the time, I feel like I’m making progress, but at varying points I experience moments where it all seems futile and progress seems impossible.
After graduating in 2015, I have spent the last year and a half of my life focused on gaining experience of the ‘real world’ kind, attempting to gain the skills that might allow me an entry level position in any kind of culturally relevant role – should it be an educational institution, a council, a library, a museum or an art gallery. I’m not picky, which is a common misconception of people wanting to work in my field. I’m not even expecting a job any time soon. I went into this with my eyes open, knowing that it would require considerable sacrifice, both financial and emotional, and that once I get a low level position my income is not likely to grow much at all over my career.
I think it’s fair to say that seeking to build a career in the arts will suck at times. Not to mention that the most common response from people around me is simple bafflement that I would choose this career path in the first place – because really, there are no jobs, why would you do it? Putting aside the politics of work as a means to identity, the reality is that there is a strong industry, but the pathways to getting jobs, and growth within them, are limited and there is minimal commitment to change.
If you already experience some form of disadvantage, it’s harder still. In 2015, the Sydney Opera House and the Art Gallery of NSW, two major Australian cultural institutions, both reported declines in the diversity of their workforce. This lack of diversity is seen in major arts organisations across the board. This compromises the ability of the arts to be truly representative of the public it serves. Our continual lack of penetration into issues of Australian identity, cultural heritage outside of the major cultural centres of Melbourne and Sydney, indigeneity, and multicultural experiences of belonging in our national psyche is a reflection of this.
5. ACCEPTANCE, OR SOMETHING ELSE?
The fifth stage of grief is normally considered acceptance, and I suppose I have got there to a certain extent. I accept that the path I have chosen is not easy. I also accept that I have considerable advantages over other people in my position, and that is a responsibility in itself. If I do succeed, I will have an obligation to use my position to lift people up and work towards a more diverse and representative arts industry. But part of my acceptance is a commitment to being critical, because it doesn’t have to be this way.
Why shouldn’t people who seek careers in the arts, an industry which contributes to the economic and cultural landscape of this country on such a large scale, be afforded the ability to feed themselves and live with dignity, instead of the unhealthy tiptoeing around the uncertainty we are forced to endure and taught to think of as ‘just the way it is’? The reality is if we go on like this, the arts will continue to suffer from the lack of diversity and relevance to the wider public that is currently evident.
Lauren Wraight studied printmaking and visual culture at Monash University and is passionate about community engagement within the arts. She currently juggles paid work, various volunteering gigs and writing, and also fits in some printmaking from time to time!
Featured image by Belinda Neilson.