The Hard Work

Michael Keighery, current Chair of Viscopy and past chair of NAVA and the Crafts Council of Australia reviews the apathy and ignorance of artist about their industrial, copyright and taxation rights. He draws attention to the hard worn, by NAVA and Artslaw, ruling by the Tax Office in 2005 that all kinds of artists can now claim their art business expenses against all forms of income.

The launch of the official Labor Party Arts Policy in Sydney in late September gave arts spokesperson Peter Garrett the opportunity to spruik the centrepiece of that policy, the introduction of a small percentage of the resale of artwork on the secondary market going back to the original maker.

To my amazement, one visual artist in the audience discounted the initiative by saying that such legislation would only favour established artists. This view perpetuates the line put out by interests representing the auction houses that '76% of resale royalties (would) go into the estates of six dead, white, male artists'.

This statement totally ignores the modelling done by the researchers for the 2007 Senate Report into the Indigenous Arts Industry showing that a scheme using 5% on sales over $8,000 would see royalties of $339,000 being paid to 67 Indigenous artists of which 55% would be shared between the families/communities of five deceased artists while the average royalty payment to the remaining 62 artists would be $2,460.

Within the arguments of opponents of the introduction of Resale Royalties is the implication that because great artists such as Rover Thomas and Emily Kngwarreye have died, their families and communities should not benefit from their success. The opponents of resale royalties have even quoted the increasingly daft David Hockney as saying that such a scheme would create 'a shameful inequality between famous artists& and struggling artists' as if to suggest that established Aboriginal artists such as Dorothy Napangardi and Tracy Moffatt neither need support nor are entitled to it.

A few weeks before the aforementioned artist criticised Garrett for the Labor Party's stance on resale royalties, a video artwork by Shaun Gladwell sold at auction for nearly twenty times the price initially reached at exhibition! Gladwell may be 'established' but I am sure that he is like most artists I know and is working very hard to get by.

In this era when the collective industrial bargaining position of groups of workers is being eroded by an emphasis on agreements on a case-by-case basis and workers are being expected to argue their entitlements individually, it causes me great alarm when I hear artists suggest a weakening of positions that have been hard fought by other artists who have joined forces with supporters, formed organisations and lobbied long and hard for legislative and administrative changes that affect their economic situation.

In this current deregulated climate, there is a surprising and reasonably high level of bipartisan political support for the visual arts sector and a recognition that the conditions under which it operates need to be nurtured and supported, but it is often the apathy or ignorance of artists that provide ammunition for opponents of such supportive changes.
The issue of copyright is a fairly typical example where I detect an 'über hip' attitude amongst some artists that the digital world is making the notion of copyright redundant or an impediment to ideas of freedom of information etc. There seems to be some bravado in the view that the digital world is a free world, a new frontier of exciting possibilities that cannot and should not be shackled by outmoded constructs. I am as excited as the next artist by the possibilities of the digital age and I know that we need to keep reviewing how we work in this domain. I am however still aware that the age old construct of the profit motive will drive and shape this new environment and that I will not give up or trade away my rights and my working conditions without due consideration and serious advice from trusted experts.

The music industry has long been united and politically active and savvy about what makes the market tick. Musicians, composers and songwriters and their industry organization APRA know that radio stations are not interested in promoting musicians but that music is a raw material by which they can sell advertising so as to make a company profit and so they should and do pay for their raw materials. They too realise that the digital age offers new challenges and possibilities and are looking at ways that the Industry can capitalise on these changes to assist the artistic creators.

Visual artists by the nature of their traditionally individual practices have been late compared to the performing arts to be regarded (by themselves and by others) as a sector of the cultural industry in Australia. Indeed there would seem to be a growing reluctance amongst some visual artists to use language such as 'Industry ' to describe the orbit of their practice even though it was the adoption of such concepts based on serious research in the 1980s and 1990s to quantify the economic dimensions of visual arts practice that brought about extremely important changes to taxation, social security, copyright, moral rights and the general level of Government support for the visual arts.

These changes have been hard won by visual artists through organisations they have set up and through the support of dedicated administrators, researchers, accountants, economists, researchers, writers, lawyers and lobbyists. These supporters have given their time, foregone greater incomes because they support the visual arts and because visual artists have so often been prepared to stand up for principles of fairness and parity impacting on their working conditions.

I would like to illustrate this with a thirty year old example. In 1977, I bought a beautiful ceramic bottle form from the Jam Factory in Adelaide which had a hideous cork stuck in the top of it. I found out that this cork meant that the ceramic piece was a 'Bottle ', a utilitarian item and not a 'Vase', a luxury item, and therefore attracted a lower rate of Sales Tax. A piece of ceramic work nearby was made by the same person and called a 'Ceramic Sculpture' which did not attract any Sales Tax because it was 'Art'. You did not have to be a genius to realise that something was very odd here and the Crafts Council of Australia (set up by crafts practitioners) worked for years to change this and many other inequitable situations.

A more recent example of changes to artists' working conditions and the establishment of equity, centres around the definition of what constitutes an 'artist'. Until 2005, artists were, for income taxation purposes, regarded as hobbyists and not being 'in business ' unless they met a set of financially based criteria designed to stop tax rorting by various 'Pitt Street farmers'. Vigorous lobbying, primarily by NAVA and ArtsLaw, led to the Australian Tax Office adopting a definition of a 'professional artist' based on standard arts practices so that an artist could be defined by a wide range of 'indicators' or activities rather than a narrow economic determinant. The upshot of this ATO Ruling has been that visual artists, craftspeople, performers, writers, composers and choreographers can now claim their art business expenses against all forms of income, whether from their art practice or any other income source. Artists, their organisations and volunteer lawyers worked for years to have these very significant Industrial changes introduced.

If we artists do not remember recent history, do not involve ourselves in gaining a minimum understanding of these complex areas that impact on our work and support the organisations that we set up and that represent us then we are in danger of losing momentum in an Industrial environment which increasingly wishes to see the worker act individually rather than seek strength through the weight of numbers. If this happens, I fear that we will indeed see a return to the view that visual artists work alone in garrets


Michael Keighery