Michael Burge

Michael Burge

Journalist at No Fibs
Michael is an author and Guardian Australia journalist who lives on Ngarabal country in the NSW Northern Tablelands. He was was born at Inverell into a farming family with New England roots deeper than most. His debut novel Tank Water is out now from MidnightSun Publishing.
Michael Burge
Michael's articles about writers, performers, artists, creative rebels and the writing process are available at his website.
"NUmber 11, 1952" (aka Blue Poles) by Jackson Pollock (National Gallery of Australia).

“Number 11, 1952” (aka Blue Poles) by Jackson Pollock (National Gallery of Australia).


I have never paid much attention to the fallout of budget week, simply because the Arts are always sufficiently financially knocked-around long before the Treasurer makes our economic disenfranchisement official.

If a body like The Arts Council or Screen Australia were to be closed, that would register. Hearing they’ve had cuts only blends into the usual budget week white noise.

Many artists subsist on a combination of incomes derived from our arts practice and our day jobs, spreading the risk between catering and painting, or admin and acting, like artist friends of mine; or journalism and writing, as I do. This means we can absorb multiple knocks and bonuses across our income. We can generally survive in good times and bad.

It’s always a lottery, and the media is usually slow to report the impact. Often artists will find out about budgetary changes weeks or months after the fact.

Treasurer Joe Hockey’s first budget this week has the Arts buried beneath the Attorney-General’s department budgetary top-line, with ballerinas leaping above it, because the only headline news for artists is that the Australian Ballet School in Melbourne will get new student digs.

This is excellent news. The only person I know who went to the Australian Ballet School, in the late 1970s, was left to his own devices with other teenagers in shared suburban accommodation. The experience sounded like a mix of Number 96 and Fame, without a shred of government funding in sight.

A new accommodation block sounds a little boring by comparison, but the key to interpreting the use of this ‘dance move’ of the Abbott Government’s is that it will be a building, which will employ people to build it.

An architect will ideally get a gig, and an interior designer or two, and hopefully other building industry-related creatives, but the overwhelming majority of people who will financially benefit from this pledge of one million dollars will not be artists, they will be from the construction industry.

Major Arts bodies are taking big hits in this budget – $87m is being stripped from the industry at large – but I know of only a few practising artists who have ever been able to secure government funding of any kind, so this news won’t impact on your ‘average’ artist.

We’ll call ‘the average artist’ someone who is courageous enough to work outside the nine-to-five paradigm as a result of some inner need to express themselves creatively.

Whoops, I slipped into subjective, indefinable territory, sorry. I don’t know which column of the budget the ‘average artist’ should go in, which only proves my point about not really caring about the fuss on budget week, because it only applies to us if it’s a broad measure such as a medicare co-payment, in which case the ‘starving artist’ should be concerned.

Speaking of starving, let’s look at the latest figures on artist incomes, albeit over a decade old. The Australia Council for the Arts’ report Don’t give up your day job says it all – artists just don’t earn enough to see us impacted by things like debt levies and Paid Parental Leave salary caps.

Yet we earn little enough that medicare co-payments will make a difference.

But artists have inured ourselves to the lingering feeling of numbness about what funding opportunities may or may not be around in financial years to come. I’ll take a wild guess: under this government, they’ll be lean.

Another indirect effect will be that the ‘average’ art buyer will, no doubt, have less disposable cash after this budget to buy our art, if we can get buyers out to a group show sometime during the year. That’s a worry, but then again, that’s always a worry.

I have seen group exhibitions rake in money during tough times, and I have seen empty theatre seats during good times. Somehow, the Arts seem to exist outside of the economy, constantly taunting and baffling the number crunchers.

Proof: some paint splashed across a board by some American was sold to the Australian people under the personal leadership of Gough Whitlam for A$1.3 million, and is now worth anywhere between 20 and 100 million dollars.

But governments are not all bad news for artists. One of the kindest changes a government made for creatives came under John Howard, when we could present our taxable incomes by combining day jobs and artist incomes … and something to do with deductions.

I am simply not going into detail in case it gives someone within the ATO a crazy idea about changing it back to the way it was for decades. Just know that it’s a little help at tax time.

Readers should also not confuse artists with arts workers, who reap a large share of Arts funding in the Australian economy.

Occupying salaried positions from federal through to local government, the nation’s arts workers are perhaps the ones to ask how Mr Hockey’s Great Big Surprise New No Excuses Budget Emergency Measures will impact on the Arts, because they are now in the frontline of job cuts.

All I really know about the Arts right now is that I completed my writing schedule this week, the bargain I have with my artist self to create despite Mr Hockey.

Therein lies the powerlessness, and the power, of the artist. Try putting a dollar value on it.

Note: Twitter ignited today (May 15) with suggestions that the Australian Ballet School’s A$100m may be linked to Sarah Murdoch’s position as deputy chair of the Australian Ballet Company. Despite being different organisations, the Australian Ballet School is the primary training facility of the Australian Ballet. A very high percentage of the company’s dancers are drawn from the school.