Research and policy #16

Sat, 22/06/2013 - 15:02 -- damien

It is approximately ten years since the Australia Council amalgamated the Visual Arts Board and the Crafts Board, and despite the passing of time, there still seems to be a worry that somehow the two areas of activity are not getting along quite as happily as they should. While much of the discussion of the differences between visual art and craft practice seems to operate at the level of vague impressions, with particular perceptions of a hierarchy between the two areas and with the visual arts usually placed higher up the ladder, explaining exactly what the differences are hasn't always been easy.

Earlier this year the Visual Arts/Craft Fund released a report, prepared by Claire Bardez and David Throsby, that set out to explore some of the similarities and differences between Australia's visual artists and craftspeople. Similarity and Difference: Craftspeople and Visual Artists in Australia is based on the data from the 1993 Individual Artist Survey, and more recent successful and unsuccessful applicants for Australia Council grants. While this report provides a lot of very useful information, it also raises more than a few questions. In many instances, these questions are not answered by the analysis of the statistics, but seem to need a more qualitative study. Of particular interest would be some developed understanding of how visual artists and craftspeople deal with working to a market. For example, are visual artists' lower levels of income from their creative work the result of not producing work with a particular market in mind? Or is it just that the "markets" are defined by cultural rather than economic criteria?

Once again, we learn that most artists earn very little from their practice, with the underlying implication that this is a significant problem for the sector. But perhaps, as I've argued before, part of the problem is the result of how we decide that someone is a professional artist. Could we argue that if an artist or craftsperson earns below a certain income level from their creative activity, they should be considered to be an "amateur" artist- a "Sunday painter" or hobbyist? How many full-time professional artists and craftspeople can we support in this country? What would be the impact of tightening up the way we include individuals in studies such as this, would it change the (economic) picture we have of visual arts and craft practice?

Significantly, the Taxation Department's current approach to the way artists and craftspeople are allowed to make claims for their expenses tends to suggest that in future, professional artists will need to more carefully consider the economic foundations of their practice. Because the Department seems to be focussing on the figures, rather than the "professional" elements of an artist's practice, it may have become more difficult for practitioners to convince the Taxation Department that they are professional - that they are running a business, rather than a hobby - and many could find that their claims for expenses are disallowed if they do not demonstrate that they are at least trying to turn a profit. On the face of it, the situation looks worse for visual artists than craftspeople, with those working at "the cutting edge" possibly facing the most significant potential difficulties. The core issue seems to revolve around how practitioners respond to the market.

On the basis of income levels we might conclude that there are some differences in the way visual artists and craftspeople operate. For craftspeople, the average income from creative work ($11,500) is quite a bit higher than the average for visual artists ($8,800). But when we consider that the median income for visual artists is only $3,000, with over 75% of visual artists earning less than $10,000 from their creative work, it becomes very clear that creative work in the visual arts does not provide a route to easy riches, and on the surface craftspeople seem to be doing quite a bit better. In the crafts, 44% earn over $10,000, and 24% earn more than $20,000 (only 13% of visual artists manage to make this much from their creative work).

But the income figures alone do not tell the whole story, and when expenses are taken into consideration the differences between visual artists and craftspeople appear less dramatic. With average expenditure for craftspeople at $11,700 and visual artists at $8,200, both areas of practice would appear to be populated by very significant numbers of practitioners who make a loss from their creative work – on average, craftspeople make a loss of $200, while visual artists come out $600 ahead. Although, when we consider the fact that the creative earnings of half the visual artist population are $200 less than the average cost of materials (let alone other expenses), it seems clear that most visual artists are not even managing to break even.

But talk of averages isn't necessarily going to give us an accurate picture. For a start, losses from creative practice may be off-set by income from other sources. And perhaps more importantly, what the averages for both income and expenditure don't tell us is how many practitioners actually made a loss in relation to their creative activity. In a way, to really get a firm grip on the situation we may need to think of craftspeople and visual artists as small (perhaps part-time) businesses. It might be interesting to know how many visual art and craft practitioners formally organise their practice as a distinct business. Then one might also want to ask, how many practitioners balance the books - how many earn more from their practice than it costs them to keep operating? How many explicitly subsidise their practice with income from other sources, perhaps without considering ways of changing their practice to make it more economically viable?

The key question might then become, are visual artist and crafts practitioners "in it for the money", are they directing their practice with the aim of making a profit? In some cases I think it is very clear that this is not the objective - at least in the short term. But, my comment here is speculative, as there is (so far as I'm aware) no recent research available on this issue. In Similarity and Difference there is quite a bit of information about how artists work, but less about why. The report is very clear on one fact. Of those visual artists and crafts practitioners who would like to spend more time working in the arts a majority would like to work full time. At present only 17% of craftspeople and 11% of visual artists spend 100% of their working time involved in creative work in the arts, with 42% of crafts people and 34% of visual artists working 35 hours or more at arts practice.

One very interesting piece of information contained in the report relates to desired arts work. While only 5-10% of visual artists would like to work in another area within the arts, 15-20% of craftspeople would prefer to work in another field. Even more interesting is where each would like to shift to – for those in the visual arts who want a change, the shift is from work such as illustration, to painting, whereas the majority of craftspeople would like to shift from the crafts to visual art. So again, visual art practice, and painting in particular, seems to emerge as somehow on the top of a hierarchy.

So what factors inhibit the careers of visual art and craft practitioners? In simple terms, the answer is money, or rather, the lack of it. The report is quite clear on this point, "a lessening of the economic constraints on professional practice would generate a larger volume of work". (p.17) But, of course, the generation of more work may, once again, introduce economic constraints – by creating a situation where supply exceeds demand. Significantly, this comparison of visual artists and craftspeople does not include any data on the relative size of the markets, or any comment on the relationships between overall income from creative work and the value of individual income units – the prices of paintings or pots (or the fees paid for the production of temporary installations).

In commenting on a table concerning the "stage at which first income is earned from principle artistic occupation", the report notes that while almost 50% of both visual arts and crafts practitioners earn some income before their training is completed, 10% more craftspeople have earned income within 12 months of the end of training, with visual artists having to wait longer for their first income. In explaining this, the report notes: "This situation reflects in part the greater opportunities for craftspeople to make small sales of their work (eg single small items at relatively low prices) compared to their visual arts counterparts". (p.12)

It is here that the most significant differences between visual art and craft practice may well be found. As was made very clear at the recent Creative Merchandise seminar in Brisbane – an event organised by the Queensland Artworkers Alliance and the Crafts Council of Queensland – that the key to successful merchandise development is finding a market before making the product, and tailoring products to fit the demands of the market. For many craft practitioners, this is already a part of their approach – particularly those craftspeople who produce both "production lines" and exhibition pieces. In such circumstances, different economic and cultural forces come into play in different areas of an individual's practice, and production work may well subsidise the development of more "risky" exhibition pieces. But while both artists and craftspeople may well be able to develop merchandise to serve various markets, and may also be able to improve economic returns by using such a strategy, they may find themselves (and others) asking ... but is it art?