Artists’ poor health and welfare shows we have failed ourselves

There are terrible dangers of falling through the gaps between psychic satisfaction and material security in the performing artists’ career path, according to arts and entertainment solicitor Mark Williams in a new Platform Paper titled Falling Through The Gaps: Our artists’ health and welfare from Currency House released today. 

Perceptions of the actor’s lot can be largely divided between substantial fame and wealth on one side and penury on the other. In former decades it included people cast out from community by race, sexual preference, accident or, indeed, freakish ability. Some made good, more didn’t. Now we call out what used to be elided as a third category of unlovely or unlikeable figures cast aside: alcoholics, substance abusers, the mentally exhausted; the bitter and twisted. To these we might add yet another category of once-successful leading men—and others in positions of power—disgraced after decades of sexual predation.

These categories also describe many other professions; the distinction is that those performing artists who have achieved great heights and made substantial contributions to our culture and society will, by comparison with the rest of working Australia, still end up poorer, have worse mental and physical health, and a shorter lifespan. And the traditional support networks—the family, charity, the welfare state or free-market economics—will have failed them. That means, as a society, we have failed them. We have failed ourselves.

In the light of the recent, highly publicised accusations of sexual misconduct it is worth stressing here that none of us condone criminal behaviour. In stage and screen performance the expectation of just deserts is inevitably a moral element; but I prefer here to adopt the Salvation Army motto, ‘Love the sinner: hate the sin.’ Crime, or even sin, is not seen as involved in a very great number of careers that end in poverty and neglect.

Australian institutions do exist to support performers, crews and other creative contributors to the performing arts.

We lose a great number of our storytellers far too early and forever. We also know many living down inner-city lanes or in places no better than squats. Some are with their aged parents in small country towns on quarter-acres, or out in the bush with dubious plumbing. Some are in hostels or homeless. We lose a noticeable number, predominantly men aged in their fifties, to suicide, substance abuse and related cancers. In the last twelve months they have been designers and directors—a surprise possibly because those tend to be roles in the theatre where some longevity is possible. These are relatively high-profile figures on stage or screen but are personally known only to a few in tight-knit communities. They have died, often in squalor.

One of the surprises, in researching this paper, was that the first thing the American Actors’ Fund did after its foundation in 1882 was to buy burial plots in New Jersey. The stigma attached to actors was such that they were not even given a decent burial.

Australian institutions do exist to support performers, crews and other creative contributors to the performing arts. The Actors’ Benevolent Fund in NSW was founded in 1944. After the war, the Victorian Fund was formalised following a series of fundraising activities. These included benefit performances by visiting English artists from 1958 and with guidance from the equivalent English funds. A formal trust deed was executed in 1963. From 1975, the Actors’ and Entertainers’ Benevolent Fund of Queensland has also fulfilled a similar role in that state, whilst the funds in South Australia and Western Australia have a less formal structure and role. The remaining states and territories tend to be looked after by the older bodies. There are also close connections to the equivalent fund in New Zealand.

Each of these benevolent funds operate on principles similar to the English and other international models, in that they are for the relief of immediate hardship and are no substitute for pensions or other regular income support, health benefits or other forms of state assistance. Requests are considered in strict confidence and are sometimes made on behalf of a nominated person, who is often too conflicted to ask for assistance. A regular response being one of relief tinged with regret at the need to have asked because there are others worse off.

What the Australian funds have been unable to do – though the Dramatic Homes were set up to do it in Melbourne as early as 1870 – is solve the problem of homelessness in a workforce that spends most of its life on the road. The Dramatic Homes are now part of the Old Colonists’ Association in Melbourne where in the UK, the US and Europe, housing for members of the performing arts community stayed part of the landscape. In a dispersed national landscape, we need to rethink a solution to the proplem of low-cost social housing for all members of the community, not just those in the performing arts.

So, what practical steps could be taken to fix the problems with which we find ourselves today?

*The industry superannuation funds might look at the provisions of their trust deeds and set up and administer emergency and other charitable support for members of the industries they cover; not limited to the individual balances of members of the fund but out of specific reserves which would not infringe the ancillary purpose test of the SGIC.

*The commercial funds likewise should have elements of social responsibility further built in to support their members and the wider community.

*Government, in addition to low-balance support for superannuation, might consider a further supplement based on the salary sacrifice principles common in other sectors (and this includes the relatively low-paid university sector) under which individuals in relatively good times of well-paid work could make additional contributions to their super via the PAYG system.

*Another supplement (not a new suggestion) would be a levy of as little as five cents on every ticket to live performance sold in Australia to support a similar fund.

*An immediate need is a greater concentration, in training and within companies and the theatrical community, on dealing with health and mental health issues in the performing arts and should be provided with funding.

*Performing arts education institutions, including those run privately, must not be afraid to talk about the downside of being a creative performer, the protocols of good performance and the economics of the industry. Aspirants should graduate with a realistic understanding of the choices available and the networks to support them; that talent on its own is not enough: that performance is a competitive business and success does not come just by ‘wanting it enough’.

*Industry unions and producers, together with the major state-funded performing arts companies, must look above the hard graft of day-to-day issues and strengthen recent initiatives to encourage whole-of-life support even in a business with high short-term commercial risks, rocky long-term financing prospects and a reliance on youth, mobility and internationalism.

* The work of the Actors’ Benevolent Funds and related institutions must be inclusive, be clear on unified messages, speak to the discrepant and fragmented nature of the sector and avoid divisions of employment between ‘legitimate’ theatre, the media, variety and cabaret, circus, backstage and front-of-house.

*Finally, and, in my view, based on all of the above, housing and access to emergency accommodation has to be available both for working individuals and those in permanent or semi-retirement at or near to the major capital cities.

Platform Paper, No. 56, Falling Through The Gaps: Our artists’ health and welfare, by Dr Mark R.W. Williams, is now available from Currency House. 

Dr Williams is solicitor in Melbourne, an Adjunct Professor in the School of Art at RMIT University and a Member of the Committee of the Victorian Actors’ Benevolent Trust.

For details of the launch of this Platform Paper in Sydney tonight , Canberra (August 20) and Melbourne (August 23) click here

RELATED STORY: DYING ON STAGE, DRUGS AND TOURING, LEX MARINOS ON THE DARK SIDE OF ACTING 

5 responses to “Artists’ poor health and welfare shows we have failed ourselves

  1. THIS IS SO TRUE. After a few years now I have realised I am in recovery from dealing with Australian Government Art, I am sure I have Post Traumatic Stress hence my extreme anger at “THEM”.

    The art world is overwhelmingly Govt funded in this country BUT in visual art at least there exist no policies for dealing with individual artists consequentially there is no concept of DUTY OF CARE. So many artists I know would totally agree. Our art institutions are NOT for artists, our art institutions are run by Government so therefore our art is propaganda and our art is in the service of the politicians who pay the wages of their art public servant. I keep saying this BUT we need to re calibrate our thinking, ARTISTS JUST DONT MATTER. There will always be another artist to replace you if you become “difficult”, if you dare to rattle the cage.

    Australian Art is now far more about employing the managerial classes than individual artists, this is why I sometimes take an extreme position and say all Govt Funding should stop and all the money be given to artists to make…shock, horror..ART.

    I will give one example of what I mean. When I had my first solo show at IMA, Brisbane in 1986 there were 2 staff members, the Director and the secretary, some people were maybe employed to install art but mainly there were volunteers usually members of the IMA Board. NOW the IMA has what 10 full time staff {I could be wrong} and employs installers etc. Why we ask, well this is just one example of how the Arts has been “professionalized” or more precisely OVER “professionalized”. Every individual artist knows this. WERE the exhibitions at IMA worse in the 80s…NO, they were not, they were the same quality. In many ways the art world I started in is unrecognizable to the art world now. Yes things change but artists will still make art.

    The problem is Government. Governments are always suspicious of artists who they see as money wasters SO if an Institution can boast 10 employees that spells to Govt that it is worth something. Individual artists are just not the prime focus of Governments, audiences and book keeping are. In Qld the Labor Palaszczuk Govt has more than made up for the public servants the previous LNP Campbell Newman Govt sacked. Many thousands more, obviously the Public Servants Unions are very powerful and fund Labor. So if the IMA employs more staff then the Govt is happy. Problem is what will happen when individual artists wise up and STOP VOTING for Labor, as I have. THAT is the ONLY way a politician will listen. Just DONT vote for Shorten and Labor as Labor is as bad as the LNP for Individual artists.

    Artists are often seen as emblematic of of the Individual as we are seen to be loners and on the edge of society, which most of us are. What can we expect really, so many Australians feel so alienated from Govt, that their voices are ignored by all politicians.

    I truly believe we need to accept the fact that it would be better to totally unfund Govt Art and give the artists all the money to make art. Of course this wont happen…but we can dream.

  2. Thanks for all these comments, particularly yours, Jim. There’s a difficult word ‘resiliance’ floating around which is particularly difficult in a profession where rejection and criticism are a daily part of the process of finding work. There’s a particular risk here – and I would like to hear more from the specialists, real specialists in performing arts psychology.

  3. What about musicians?? Always struggling to make a dollar, no super , I quote one Alan Turnbull Jazz drummer extaordinaire, world class ,died from a heart attack in a housing commission flat in Maroubras ,penniless ,had to pass the hat around to give him a funeral, the Arts are a vicious place to try to survive, unless you are Rolling Stone there is nothing much ast all in it!

  4. What an important report. We need to look after our performing artists better. 10c per ticket is a very small price to pay. Perhaps it should be more.

  5. This is a tragic reality – flying beneath the radar of most members of the community. I remember in a former life spending some time speaking to some NIDA students who were preparing for an end-of-year presentation at NIDA – to which I was subsequently invited – Frank MOORHOUSE was also in attendance (1983 I think). Thinking of them in the years following as “my actors” – I looked at all credits for TV/other performance – thinking I might find and follow their rise – but never did. Did they fall out before final graduation – did they receive work abroad – they were of bi-lingual/bi-cultural backgrounds – or did they end up having to find other professional employ in order to live, buy a house, marry/have a family – travel – or whatever many of the rest of us were able to do over 30 years ago. Thanks for this insight Mark – and yes – why not that 5cents or 10 cents per performance ticket to care for our performance artists who have not followed the more humdrum pathways but have otherwise brightened our lives, moved us emotionally – with sacrifices many of us could not bear!

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