Saturday, August 11, 2018

Platform Papers No 56: Falling Through the Gaps

Falling Through the Gaps: Our artists’ health and welfare by Mark R.W. Williams.  Platform Paper No 56, Currency House, Sydney, August 2018.

Commentary by Frank McKone

“Many giants stand on the shoulders of pygmies” is a comic insight well worthy of a lawyer who has spent his life on and off stage as much as in courts.  He acknowledges his wife, Fiona Gruber, for her “insights going back to a cast list for The School for Scandal in the 1770s containing RB Sheridan’s notes”. Sheridan wrote “scratch Groves”.  The Groves not chosen was an ancestor of  “the last of the Groves”, Gruber’s late uncle Donald, while earlier in the line was Fred Groves “who worked for Fred Karno’s circus and developed the silly walk that Charles Chaplin took over when Fred Groves left the company”.

“To the Groves family: you aren’t forgotten.”

The sense of humour is infectious but in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs “if self-actualisation sits at the top, and making and working with great works of art brings one towards it, some seekers will always struggle up to grasp it before they have a firm footing….So, keeping the prize firmly in view, let’s have a look at the base of Maslow’s pyramid for workers in the performing arts.  At the welfare level, there are terrible dangers of falling through the gaps between psychic satisfaction and material security in their career path.”

And so his Chapter 6 “From problems to solutions” begins:

From my own observations of the Australian and, to lesser extent, English performing arts scene, anyone of my generation who expected to have a career in the performing arts needed to start with the price of a house.  That’s right, start with it.

Williams’ purpose is not to wallow in stories of  performers living in poverty, drawn into dangerous use of alcohol or other drugs, or even committing suicide; nor of the difficulties of short-term and unpredictable employment, the need to move – often around the world – to follow the work, and the effects of these on family and personal mental stability.  He does make the point that the public’s perception of well-known performers as doing well for themselves is often out of touch with the reality that a big payout for one event (or even several events over years) which makes their name does not create what he calls a “longtail” income, or set them up with a comfortable retirement.

He does mention Helen Mitchell aka Nellie Melba as a case in point, though, and it is instructive to read the details of the provisions and lack of provisions for people working in the theatre industry, and the facts and figures about incomes and superannuation balances in comparison to other industries.

Williams’ purpose is to lay out practical structural steps “to fix the problems with which we find ourselves today”.  In brief:

 Industry superannuation funds trust deeds to make particular provisions for emergency and charitable support;
 Commercial funds to build in elements of social responsibility to support their members and the wider community;
 Government to consider a better salary sacrifice system for individuals in relatively good times of well-paid work to make additional contributions to their super via the PAYG system;
 Levy (say 5 cents) per ticket sold in Australia to live performance to fund super supplement for performers;
 Greater training and funding for dealing with health and mental health in the performing arts;
 Performing arts education institutions to teach realistically about the downside of being a creative performer, the protocols of good performance and the economics of the industry;
 Industry unions and producers to encourage whole-of-life support by companies.
 Benevolent funds to be inclusive…and avoid divisions of employment between ‘legitimate’ theatre, the media, variety and cabaret, circus, backstage and front-of-house.

I found Williams’ description of the situation and past history which has led to how the Australian industry operates made me think wider than employment in the arts.  He mentions in passing the similarities with what has begun to be called the ‘gig economy’, in which people are contracted for all sorts of jobs (the ‘gig’ – a word borrowed from the pop music industry, I think), without the protections and benefits of being ‘employees’.

This leads me to take seriously the moves already well underway in Europe towards a new system of supporting whole-of-life survival in the new life of flexible work and continuously changing technology.

The concept of Universal Basic Income, which is being trialled in Finland and elsewhere including Canada right now, may be well worth a visit.  There’s an interesting run-down of what’s happening (as of April 26, 2018) at

If you would like a more substantial discussion of Universal Basic Income (UBI), I invite you to look at the RSA article

[The Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) is a still active 17th Century London-based, British organisation committed to finding practical solutions to social challenges.  Disclosure: I am a Fellow of the RSA ANZ]

For a fun finish, read “I hated maths at school. It came back to bite me later.” by Danny Katz (Canberra Times, 10 August 2018).  He turns the Binomial Theorem into the Buy-no-meal Theorem and Differential Calculus into Depressional Calculus, and – consistent perhaps with Mark Williams’ arts education suggestion – demands that “ArtsMaths should become a proper subject, compulsory for all poncey gits, massive wankers and arty dickweeds” like him.