Suddenly, it’s June.
For six months now, it hasn’t felt like the right time to post an update on Armchair Philanthropy. With fires, smoke, storms, flooding, illness, lockdowns and violence, 2020 is turning out to be the year we’d rather forget. AP artists are feeling like it “wouldn’t be right” to ask for philanthropy at a time when people have lost their homes and loved ones. As we all continue to treat our practice as a profession, of course we don’t want to be seen to be leveraging any situation for personal gain. But although we feel like that, we cannot escape that the arts are a reflection and expression of our humanity – indeed, they should be reflecting our thoughts and experiences as a type of historical documentation of our times. Some argue that the arts compensate us for what we lack. They complete the jigsaw puzzle of our human emotions: they perfectly fill the gaps of where our individual heads fall short, and that’s why they’re so relevant, comforting, confronting and important to our mental state, especially in times of crisis.
Throughout these end-to-end crises, artists have struggled to see their way forward. As art opportunities diminish and competition for funding increases, artists have been extremely vocal on placing the onus on external entities for a solution to their funding woes, especially for artforms that are reliant on the sale of a ticket that can no longer be sold. And artists are right to put their foot down. If the industry had commensurate support with its $111 billion contribution to the economy, or support on par with other entities such as sports or religion, we would be relatively sweet right now. (Relatively, I say.) But we don’t. We have found ourselves continuing to beg for financial support while figuratively elbowing each other out of the way for what’s left at the bottom of the barrel, or tossing our hands in the air and abandoning our art practices completely. The ‘I Lost My Gig’ campaign put a dollar value on the situation and had thousands of contributors, while the Australian Academy of the Humanities discovered that “Middle Australians are largely unaware of the contributions that arts, cultural and creative activities make to the economy, including to employment“, and Noni Hazlehurst discovered that the arts contributes almost as much as mining to the Australian economy.
Being a charity
But there’s one uncomfortable truth simmering beneath all of this justified activism: because artists accept that they are a ‘charity’, they therefore continue to be treated like one. I constantly find myself referring to the racial prejudice experiment, the “Blue Eye Brown Eye Experiment” from 50 years ago, in which Jane Elliott showed that young school children were only as academically capable as they were told they should be, according to their eye colour. Is it the same for artists? Are we only as capable as we are told we ‘should’ be as defined by being a charity? And if we constantly accept that we are charities, does that mean we are accepting our fate?
By its very nature, charity commits the arts to continue to scrape the bottom of the funding barrel. “Charity” is defined as something that depends on the good nature of volunteers to help people who are in need. We need to stop thinking of our full time professional world-class vocation in the same vein that we think of the down-trodden, poor, needy or sick. Yes, all of those things are worthy of financial support, but they are not all a chosen, full time, state-of-the-art cornerstone-of-humanity profession.
The on-flow of this acceptance is that we often do not feel empowered to treat our art practice as a business. This was made crystal clear to me early during the Covid-19 pandemic, when tens of thousands of artists joined a particular Facebook action group, primarily to complain about the lack of funding opportunities, and the long and complicated processes to get on Centrelink (should they even qualify for it in the first place). All completely valid and justified statements. However, how many of those individuals also came at the situation as a business person would? How many of those artists assessed how their business would respond to the crisis? How many established new ways for punters to engage with their art, considered ways for followers to invest/philanthropise in their work, or created new artwork in response to the situation? I wager, not a patch on the number who instead sat back and only did the other half of the equation by e-picketing their local member for funding.
Do artists just want free money?
As someone who runs a philanthropy platform, I was blown away to be told that my service is “not quite the vision” for an Aussie arts action group in response to the virus. Wha? You guys don’t want to know about a way you can instantly engage with your audiences and get some funds flowing? But the posts about the complicated Centrelink forms were fine. My mind was blown.
For artists, the 2019-20 Covid situation is about a considered, balanced approach between philanthropy, business and investment. We must take stock of our practices and pivot in response. We must set the standard for the treatment of our professions, and in doing so, reverse-engineer how our profession is valued by society. And in my opinion, the longer we accept the label ‘charity’, the longer we will continue to be treated like one.
Disclaimer: There are several excellent reasons for an arts organisation to become a registered charity in Australia, and I would like to add the disclaimer that I’m not talking about that. I’ll talk about that at another time, because I think we need a new word for organisations in that category, which do not require professionals to denigrate their chosen vocation by calling it charity.