THIS IS HOW WE DO IT – Theatre Network Australia Report into the Independent creative sector

RSAT Colder Ben Pfeiffer, Caroline Lee, Brigid Gallacher - photo by Teresa Noble PhotographyTheatre Network Australia has released a report on their 2017 survey of working trends and conditions for independent artists, creatives, and arts workers, analyses results from an online survey distributed to the sector. This survey garnered 178 valid responses: establishing working habits, conditions, personal financial management, and individually established ‘working rates’.

It is the first survey with this focus undertaken by Theatre Network Australia (TNA), although a number of surveys into different aspects of the arts sector in Australia have been undertaken by the organisation; and TNA’s work relies heavily on ongoing information gathering from our independent members in order to best serve their needs.

“We realised a survey for independent creatives was needed, because they don’t easily fit into other studies about pay and conditions, nor are there truly relevant industry awards that apply,” said Nicole Beyer, Theatre Network Australia Executive Director.

“We know from our members that their careers are based on what we call ‘alternative economies’ – a lot of trade, a lot of collaboration, and sadly quite a lot of difficult negotiation with employers about rates of pay and fees for one-off gigs. This report gets some of those stories down on paper, and hopefully will become a tool for change.”

“Essentially, independent artists are the most financially vulnerable cohort of the performing arts industry, and the systems need to change to address that, whether it’s funding processes, touring and presentation processes, the way we budget, or the way we recruit, contract and pay independents.”

THIS IS HOW WE DO IT is an expansive look at the working trends of independent artists and arts workers. The type of work they do, how many projects are balanced, management of paid and unpaid work, non-arts employment, and collegiate relationships all factor in to create a broad picture of how our industry works, and how that shifts as we progress through our careers from ‘Emerging’, to ‘Mid-Career’, to ‘Established’ artists.

The objective of this report is to contribute to the health of the sector by collating and publishing data that reflects the realities of making it as an independent artist or arts worker in Australia. We hope the findings presented here provide solid provocation for discussion, evaluation, and benchmarking.

The survey was open to all arts practitioners who identify as having an independent practice – most respondents balance this practice alongside ongoing employment, both within the arts and other industries. In line with previous TNA surveys, there are more respondents from theatre/performance, and more Victorian respondents, due to the remit and base of the organisation.

54.49% of respondents identified as ‘Mid-Career’, with an average age of 39, and an average of 14 years of practice. Roughly a quarter identified as ‘Emerging’, with an average age of 30, and an average of 6 years of practice. Slightly less than 20% identified as ‘Established’, with averages of 54 years of age and 30 years of practice.

We have used the self-designated career stages of ‘Emerging’, ‘Mid-Career’, and ‘Established’ as sorting categories for much of the data in the report, for readers to be able to compare their own conditions to those of their peers – and in order to establish a sense of career progression and generational shifts.

The comparisons have shown some striking differences. 34% of ‘Emerging’ respondents identified as Culturally &/ Linguistically Diverse, more than twice the 15% of ‘Established’ respondents. 8.51% identified as an ‘Emerging’ Person with a Disability; while no ‘Established’ respondents did, and only 3.3% of ‘Mid-Career’ respondents. This could indicate a more difficult path for CALD people and people with a disability, leading to attrition from the industry as they age; it could also indicate a generational shift in which a career in the arts now has fewer obstacles for CALD people and people with a disability.

The survey also gathered data on employment not related to respondents’ artform/creative practice (1). This included work in fields of arts administration, education, hospitality, and other fields – and the commitment level (casual, part time, and full time). Perhaps predictably, the data indicated a decreasing need to ‘rely’ on non-arts work as practitioners grow older – with 34.48% of Established respondents earning a living solely from their arts practice work, nearly triple the 11.9% of Emerging respondents who can claim the same.

Data was also gathered on the amount of time respondents commit to their work – and while the 22.09% of all respondents who work only within their arts practice have an average working week of 43 hours, the 14.72% of respondents who maintain full time employment in addition have a combined working week of 59 hours (assuming an average of 38 full time hours alongside the 21 hours they commit to their arts work).

Respondents split this time across an average of close to 8 projects per year – though respondents who do not work outside their arts practice complete an average of 14 projects per year to earn a living wage; an equivalent to commencing a project every 3.5 weeks.

In an industry where many engagements are tailored to projects and individuals, it is difficult to establish benchmarks for hourly or weekly rates. This survey therefore posed specific common scenarios, such as private tutoring, short masterclasses, panel discussions, and project employment by organisations, funded arts collectives, and unfunded collectives. The estimated fees that respondents would set for these scenarios vary, but the averages may be helpful.

The figures also establish a good sense of career progression, with Established practitioners in some instances charging more than 80% more than their Emerging counterparts; a testament to the worth of 30 average years of practice in the arts. Other scenarios, such as working with funded organisations, see Established artists valuing their time at only 2.86% more than Emerging peers.

Taken in combination with comments about uncertainty and limited success in negotiating fees for creative work with organisations, it indicates an industry where the power to financially recognise experience largely lies with organisations – as one respondent noted, “there is so often someone willing to do it for less. It’s like a race to the bottom…”.

Respondents have contributed a wealth of comments about scenarios in which they have successfully and unsuccessfully negotiated fees – these comments can offer a range of ‘how to’ tips for approaching these types of negotiations. While the report illustrates a mixed financial reality, it also paints a picture of a vibrant independent sector built on peer exchange, mentorship, and skill-sharing.

Respondents contributed a significant amount of detail to questions about mentoring and ‘alternative economies’ – in which they exchange pro-bono advice, space-sharing, administrative assistance, and other work on each other’s projects.

In many cases, trading is informal; other respondents carefully calculate the value of this work. One respondent noted “1hr of an artists skilled time equals an hour of teaching or mentoring from me. On some projects this is upward of 50 hrs of exchange” – evidencing a careful recognition of the value of time and relationships in the independent sector.

Indeed, over 40% of respondents have some form of formal or informal mentorship arrangement in place, and over 39% of other respondents want that type of relationship. These contributions illustrate a sector built on interconnectedness, relying on each other for employment, care, skill and information sharing.

Theatre Network Australia welcomes thoughts and feedback to this research, and thanks all survey participants for their time and valuable contribution. For more information and to download and read the full report, visit: www.tna.org.au for details.

Image: Red Stitch Actors’ Theatre’s production of Colder – photo by Teresa Noble Photography

Words: Published with kind permission of Theatre Network Australia


  1. There is much more detailed evidence about earnings in the 2017 report Making Art Work: An Economic Study of Professional Artists in Australia by David Throsby and Katya Petetskaya.

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