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Should artists unionise?

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Richard Horvarth Victorian Artworkers Union newsletter between 1975 and 1985, printed in colour inks, from multiple stencils; electrostatic prints, printed in black ink; offset lithography, 30.0 h x 21.3 w cm, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, Gift of Richard Horvath, 2009, © Richard Horvath

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The arts create $111.7 billion dollars a year for the Australian economy.

How many times have you heard this, or whispered it yourself, teeth clenched, in weary disbelief at yet another cut to the arts. The tightening vice grip of market logic seems to have the arts in a constant state of economic self-justification. However, it’s not just written in the media releases sent out by arts advocacy organisations where we see these figures. The arts and its’ relationship to value production are also issues on the minds of those most implicated: artists and arts workers. Recent works such as Labour Talks by Sydney based duo Make or Break, the ARTSLOG database by the Artist’s Subcommittee and the recently published, Permanent Recession: a Handbook on Art, Labour and Circumstance, indicate that artists are navigating the ways in which art-making can exist inside the mode of production that currently determines our social existence.(1)

Art-making is labour. It is, however, a form of labour that sits uncomfortably aside the capitalist mode of production. When artists work in their studios it is not because they have been hired by an employer to do so. As the artist’s artistic labour is not purchased, they receive no hourly wage and there is no extraction of surplus value as profit for employers. So how do the visual arts contribute to the $111.7 billion dollar a year impact of the arts on the economy?(2) Besides the significant contribution of arts festivals and museums as both employers and to tourism and hospitality, the sale of artwork is the way that profit is realised for gallerists, auction houses, collectors, and, occasionally, artists. As artist and academic Dave Beech writes ‘[t]here is no labour market for artists, only a market for artworks produced by artistic labour’.(3) However Beech suggests that an artwork’s economic value is not determined by labour-time, but by the previous sale prices of an artist’s work,(4) in a self-perpetuating marketing machine driven by the work of curators, critics and gallerists. Suggesting this is not to reduce art to purely economic forms of value, but to see our relationship to capital production clearly. Indeed I would argue, alongside writer Ali Alizadeh, that the inability of artistic production to be easily subsumed by the capitalist mode of production is testament to arts intrinsic purpose of providing a ‘nonalienated’ space for the creation of work that meet our mental and intellectual needs, outside of what is dictated by the market.(5)

Although art-making is unwaged, artists share working conditions. Artists have workplaces (studio, galleries), fulfil short-term contracts and commissions, receive artist fees, sell work and pay taxes on their artist income. In the last decades there has been a re-emergence of artist-led unions and activist organisations that organise from the basis of these conditions, such as W.A.G.E. (2008, New York City), Obywatelskie Forum Sztuki Współczesnej (the Civic Forum for Contemporary Art, 2009, Poland) Artists’ Union England (2014, London), or the art-worker led New Museum Union (2019, New York City). At home we’ve seen the incorporation of the Australian Unemployed Workers Union (2014) and the First Nations Workers Alliance (2017).(6) While these local examples are not specifically artist unions, they undoubtedly represent artists within their ranks, and are examples of workers in precarious economic positions organising for their own common benefit.

The national body representing the visual arts in Australia is NAVA, the National Association for the Visual Arts.(7) NAVA advocates for Australian artists in the government and media, creates codes of practice for the sector and provides members with information and advice. While NAVA do invaluable work as an advocacy body, many functions that could be provided by a trade union model are beyond their purview. These include the provision of legal advice and representation in court, organising membership-wide industrial actions, representation in meetings or negotiating collective agreements for groups of artists with organisations who contract artist labour or purchase works. The Dutch artists’ trade union Kunstenbond fulfils many such functions for their members, such as debt collection for invoices and contract screening. They also successfully take organisations to court on behalf of members, such as organisations charging excessive studio costs (8) and their current case against the National Opera & Ballet for the exploitation of freelance choir singers.(9) The union model provides not just policy and advocacy, but means to enforce them through the collective power of artists and arts workers.

Writer Angela Dimitrakaki emphasises the importance of collectivity, especially for those in precarious relation to capital creation, stating: the “art worker” is not necessarily a [economically] productive worker, but “art workers” are.(10) When artists refuse to compete (see Turner Prize 2019) or collectively withdraw their work (see the 2019 Whitney Biennial and the 2014 Sydney Biennale), this action creates a disruption in which isolated conditions of art production and consumption change. If such actions were organised industrial actions across the visual arts sector, with this collective power aimed towards securing fair pay and physically, socially and culturally safe work environments in enforceable industry agreements, there is the potential for massive shifts in the working conditions of artists.

Over the last five years, the arts in Australia have been subjected to seemingly endless budget cuts, institutional closures and erasure from departmental representation at the State and Federal Government levels. With the COVID-19 pandemic temporarily shutting down our sector and throwing us into new levels of collective economic hardship, now more than ever we need to radically rethink the ways we organise ourselves. Unionism could present an opportunity to confront the exploitation and fierce competition visual artists are put in by market forces. And, by joining the institution of trade unionism, artists could act in solidarity not just with other artists, but all organised workers.