On the abusive practices of the arts industry: a rant.


Recently my sister applied for a job at a well-known, medium-level new media arts organisation. One that is particularly known for it’s slick, ambitious installations featuring the latest in interactive technology.

She was asked to come for an interview, and though it was a long and involved interview, it was enjoyable, and she got along well with the staff, who all came across as passionate, genuine and sincere.

Later on, she was told she had been short listed and asked to come in for a second interview. She was also asked to do a pre-interview task that would help inform the selection process. At some point she was told that 14 people had been interviewed and they were down to 4 now, and because they really had to be sure that they were hiring the right person, the extra task would assist in this process.

She was asked to do a small research project on the art scene in Brisbane. Someone from this organisation was about to do a work trip there, and the task was to compile a brief on what organisations, exhibitions and key contacts this person should visit on their trip. It was quite a bit of work, if taken seriously, as my sister did take it. At one point when talking on the phone to one of the key arts contacts she was researching, she was asked “What is this project, anyway? Someone else called about the same thing yesterday.” Embarrassingly, she had to admit she was not actually an employee of this organisation, did not represent them and that this was actually for a job interview.

The second round interview was an hour long, with an interview panel of 4, this time including a representative from HR as well as the curators she had met earlier. She came out of this one feeling a little less certain- she felt she had “performed” well, but it was exhausting and depleting.

A week or so later they called again, to casually inform her that though “we really ‘got you’, it didn’t translate to the rest of the team”. Naturally she was upset to miss out, but a couple of days later she sent them a polite email asking for feedback- for her own professional development. No-one replied.

My sister is 33 years old and has multiple tertiary qualifications in arts, writing and multimedia, as well as solid research and admin experience. In the interview process it was stressed that this job, although only part time, was really a full-time scenario. She would be expected to work extra hours and weekends for no extra pay. They would expect the highest level of dedication and commitment.

How much did it pay? For four days a week of a secretly full time job, $32,000. After realising they were never going to respond to her request for feedback, my sister’s disappointment gave way to indignance, and then outright anger.

She felt the interview process was incredibly indulgent- taking up a huge amount of the applicant’s time, energy and work for no reward. She spent about 15 hours on the process in total and they came away with the results of her hard work, and technically, her intellectual property. There was no agreement laid out about who owned this, nor any sense that she could reclaim her work after the interview process was over. She felt she was put in an incredibly awkward situation with the rest of the applicants in having to decide between misrepresenting herself to the arts contact in Brisbane- essentially lying about who she was and what she was doing- or, simply embarrassing herself and potentially angering them that she was wasting their time.

In the final analysis, she felt like a dickhead for even caring about this abusively paid position that would’ve showed no recognition for her talents and abilities whatsoever- except perhaps an opening to a career in other abusively paid jobs in the arts.

This scenario is one I am all too familiar with, and I feel sorry that my sister was subjected to it too. It never fails to make me ANGRY though. Like a few other local industries, the arts sector seems predicated on the following FUCKED UP, but possibly true notions:

a) anyone who actually gets to work in these industries is SO lucky, they should practically have to pay their employers for the privilege

b) most of the work is done by women, and women don’t place as much value on their work/time

c) the people working in these industries are inevitably well-connected, well educated and well-heeled: otherwise, how on earth could they afford to work for such shit money???? Presumably someone is subsidising them?

d) There is a sense that no-one really wants art, except artists and wankers, so we should all just shut up and not make a fuss about it, cos if we do, people might actually start paying attention to what we’re doing and THEN we’d really be in trouble.

I no longer even apply for jobs like that for this reason: they can’t afford me. I’d rather work in a parallel or totally unrelated field where I can balance a decently paid part time position with my own practice (which, after all, is what really matters and why I work in the first place).

At the end of the day: no-one is going to pay for what’s being given away left right and centre for nada. Until artists and arts workers start standing up for what they are REALLY worth, they will continue to be abused in this way. And to those who might suggest that it’s true that art only matters to us: try to imagine Melbourne without it. Imagine if all the artists in Melbourne downed tools, gave up, went corporate out of frustration.

+ How would anyone know where the next “hot” up and coming suburb to sink their underpriced loan into was?

+Who would provide the raw material for graphic designers to appropriate and water down into their ads for cars and soft drink companies?

+Who would the music industry employ to come up with “edgy” videos for their up and coming acts, if they had to pay people what it actually costs to make them???

Sure, I’m being facetious, but in absolute sincerity: what is the real economic impact of art in Melbourne? People always talk about how much it costs the public- but no-one ever recognises what it gives back.

Art is a huge, underground generator that feeds into multiple industries and economies: retail, music, hospitality and most especially- and gallingly- real estate. I suspect that if you actually took the time to tot it up: take into account all the neighbourhoods that are now thriving little hubs of industry, mostly due to the artists that initially moved into them for the cheap rent, lending them a bit of cultural cache and creating a demand for artisanal lattes; and compare the net effect of that against what the taxpayer actually puts into it, the tax payer comes out very much on top.


4 responses to “On the abusive practices of the arts industry: a rant.

  1. All so true, and so totally unjust. Sounds like they’d have been bloody lucky to have employed your sister – one can only hope that the outcome of their absurd recruiting practice was that they employed a psychopath who will make their lives hell.

    Arts organisations are notoriously wretched workplaces – unsurpising when rights and dignity are so regularly left at the front door.

    You write a compelling rant Jessica Scott.

    I’d be saying all this even if I wasn’t the mudder of you and your sister.

  2. not that you’re biased or anything 😉

  3. Just wanted to post so you know other people have read this! I’ve seen this happen a number of times too. The one that really gets me is the reliance on the volunteer culture — volunteer for two years, and maybe, just maybe, we’ll consider letting you work for money one day a week later. Very few industries would allow this to happen, and sure, it may eventually help you progress but for those who are serious about what they do — how can they afford to give up so much time?
    I think the true gold-mine is for artists to be able to work out *which* parallel industries suit them to work in. I feel they should run classes on this in art school!

  4. Thanks Simon, you’re awesome.
    It’s true that the industry is over-reliant on vols, interns and the expectation that people will work for crappy wages.
    And I know that they (as in small orgs, galleries and even institutions) are in a really hard position- they are expected to produce much for very little.
    However, unless they push back on funding bodies, unless they make it clear that it’s unreasonable to expect to get a dollar value for every ten cents spent- it just won’t change. And I realise it’s easier to say that than to do it.
    It’s one thing to know that you don’t have much to offer, to treat your vols really well, to hire young people because you know you can’t afford someone with more experience. That’s all just part of survival in a tough environment. But putting people through the hoops like this is just taking the piss. They should be embarrassed at what they were offering and what they were expecting in return!!!
    They should prepare people for this in art school- also true. Instead, I think there is a stupid romanticisation of poverty that goes on with artists- that somehow it’s tacky & compromising to talk about money, that it doesn’t matter and it’s not what we do it for etc etc. Which I think is absolute crap. I’ve marched down the street for the rights of nurses, and teachers and wharfies- who would march down the street for artists?

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