Sunday, October 10, 2010

This is Not Art: This is not a pay cheque?

A week away in Newcastle for fieldwork and presentations at National Young Writers Festival as part of TiNA. From my 'researcher's perspective' the most interesting session from the perspective of the current project on freelancers working in the arts (Giving it Away) was a round table discussion entitled ‘What Are You Worth?’ dealing with how to make a living from freelance life. As you might expect, no shortage of horror stories about exploitative work in the arts: people underpaid, and sometimes, not paid at all. But also some very interesting and animated discussion about the problem of self-exploitation: which, in a nutshell, involves undervaluing your work, either deliberately or through lack of confidence. By doing creative activities for free or next to nothing, freelancers do themselves a disservice they not only exploit themselves but their whole field. If you offer to do a job for 20% less than your colleagues, then you’ll wind up deflating the value of your work in the market. A clich├ęd phrase comes to mind here: “why buy the cow if you get the milk for free…” Most of the time we hear that phrase used in conjunction with self-respect and cautionary advice about chastity. I suppose this was a comparison that I’d already made (perhaps inadvertently) when I entitled my project ‘Giving it Away.’ It captures that sense of insecurity (or in industry speak – precarity) that often affects creative workers who feel that they can’t challenge the expectations of the workforce, either by asking for higher wages or better rights at work. It’s also important to consider how easy it can be for creative workers to do work for free because it is (at least in some respects) pleasurable work. This can mean that it is all too easy to do ‘extra’ work, to under charge, or, in some cases, not take stock of the fact that some everyday creative tasks can, in some contexts, also constitute work and ought to be factored into the rates that creative workers charge (for instance, blog posts like this are part of my daily work, but not everyone would think to consider their commentary on blogs, forums, etc as an important aspect creative work online).

This question about valuing creative work and representation as an industry is of growing importance. Just this year, for instance, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission ruled that freelancers can unite to seek better rates and conditions. In the last few days I’ve uncovered research similar to my own being carried out by OzCo and Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (you can do the freelancers survey here). Hopefully there will be some chance for cross-pollination of our ideas resulting in advice for arts organisations which represent the interests of creative workers (especially young people and those just starting out) wondering how to put a price on the work they love.

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