We Asked Three Aussie Artists How They Manage To Pay Bills & Still Eat

For every Kristen Roupenian – the writer who landed a seven-figure debut book deal after ‘Cat Person‘, her first-ever short story for The New Yorker, went viral online – there’s thousands of artists living commission-to-commission, grant-to-grant or by working in unrelated jobs.

That’s the reality for most Australian dancers, writers, musicians and artists, according to the Australia Council for the Arts’s 2017 study of Aussie finances, part of their 30+ year research.

And that’s not just referring to emerging names or recent art-school grads: most successful and, more importantly, fulfilling long-life careers in art are careful balancing acts.

Stock footage of average Australian artist.

On average Aussie artists make $48,000pa, well above the poverty line but well below our nation’s median income, $77,221. That includes revenue from working arts-adjacent and non-adjacent industries. Liveable, yes, but a tight squeeze for most, especially when you consider that that artist average would be buoyed significantly by those incredibly well-paid big deals.

Other fun stats: artists are getting paid considerably less and less, with a 19% average decrease in pay since the 2009 study. We can likely attribute that to growing casualisation, which creates a competitive pay-rate. Fun!

So how do they do it without freaking out? We asked three local artists – composer Cassie To, writer Carolyn A. Cage and illustrator Anna Vu – how they manage.

After graduating, I felt really unprepared.”

Most artists are tertiary educated, since most practices need precise technical skills precision. According to the ACA’s report, 90% of professional artists have post-school qualifications, opposed to 53% of the labour force.

Of all the creative industries, it’s the classical contemporary music industry that requires those qualifications in order to get a foot in the door. But where to from there?

“After graduating, I felt really unprepared regarding finding work, like how to network, how to put yourself out there,” says Cassie To, a Sydney-based composer.

Since graduating from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music in 2015, Cassie’s slowly found herself a fairly stable stream of work, bouncing between commercial and advertising projects, orchestral and performance commissions and more. Music tutoring provides a steady base income too, a pretty bread-and-butter practice for most composers and musicians.

“It’s a bit of everything, it depends who calls my number,” she says.

Cassie’s career pretty much looks nothing like what she thought it would while studying. Of course, it’s super rare that composers make all their money from commissioned pieces for performance, so she knew that definitely wouldn’t be the case.

Cassie To. (Photo by Nikki To)

But she very much fell into composing for Australian reality tv and documentaries: in Cassie’s own words, she “latched on” to a commercial music studio after doing work experience there while studying. Whereas while at uni Cassie might have viewed commercial work as less creative, it’s not the case anymore.

“For people starting out, it’s quite common to be balancing out a couple of different jobs,” she says. “If I just did TV for example, I wouldn’t have a constant source of income because it’s up and down. It’s hard when establishing yourself to do just one thing, but I don’t think thats a bad thing. Everything informs each other.”

That, of course, requires a lot of self-discipline. By the tax man’s standards, you yourself are a business: suitably, Cassie treats composing like a 9-5.

“I think a lot of people think freelancers do whatever they want all day but for me, routine is really important,” says Cassie.

It’s something artists simply aren’t taught in the majority of tertiary institutions, though some, such as TAFE NSW, have implemented business skills into their fine arts courses.

We are pretty much all treading water so we can stay afloat.”

Despite the necessity of most artists needing some sort of side-hustle, there remains a sense of shame – or, at the very least, frustration – over not living off your artistic labour alone.

That’s why Carolyn A. Cage, a freelance journalist who reguarly writes for Fairfax publications, recently started an open conversation with other writers about how they make money, simply by asking the 2000+ people in the Facebook group Young Australian Writers. Mostly because her own money-making occasionally leans stranger than fiction.

“I have an ethical clothing business on the side but that can also be unpredictable,” says Carolyn, “so I work a couple of nights a week at a pub to make sure I can always pay rent.”

“I’ve [also] recently signed up as a human guinea pig for paid medical experiments [and] just made an account with Steemit – where you get paid for your content through cryptocurrency.”

Essentially, Carolyn makes sure that she has a stable income to supplement her career as a writer. Despite that it might not always be her main source of income, it’s what she dedicates most of her time to, even if the hours are unevenly distributed.

“One month I might have a couple of stories under my belt and be set me up for the following month,” Carolyn says. “Other months I’ll have to cut down on social events, eat toast for dinner and dip into my savings. It can be stressful at times but I remind myself that I’m doing what I love.”

“It’s not the most conventional way for someone to a make a living, but it keeps things interesting and perhaps that’s what you need to do in 2018 if you want to be a freelancer in the creative industries.”

If the ACA’s study didn’t already prove Carolyn’s approach the norm, then the anecdotal evidence in the many replies to her Facebook thread certainly do. Almost all the commenters – ranging from emerging to established names – made their money through multiple revenues, and those who had full-time positions or steady work had worked up to it over time, a path often involving unpaid internships or ‘exposure’.

“We are pretty much all treading water so we can stay afloat, but in a sense it is also inspiring,” says Carolyn. “If we didn’t love what we did, then we wouldn’t do it. It also gave me a sense of reassurance that I am not the only one doing a million things on the side to support my career.”

That reassurance is invaluable. In an industry that should be competitive, support networks like the Young Australian Writers group see people offer their resources and experience to one another in order to ensure both a fairer and warmer industry.

Where unions like the MEAA offer similar support, grassroots networks like these are accessible to everyone without paying, helpful for those already struggling for consistent work. It’s also a reminder that you’re not going it alone.

“It’s just through word of mouth, really.”

Then there’s people like Anna Vu, who left behind her job as the head of art design at bougie food mag Gourmet Traveller to go freelance and focus on Good Food, Crap Drawing.

It’s pretty much what it says on the tin: Anna anonymously visits swank restaurants and draws the dishes she loves using felt-tip pens and texta. We could not confirm if the textas have to be in the shape of a gun as Anna draws, so we can only assume that this is her secret art technique.

When Anna started GFCP in 2012, it wasn’t a source of revenue, but through word-of-mouth restaurants and avid eaters alike began to pay for prints. But that doesn’t mean everyone is throwing her money.

GFCP’s drawings commissioned for Bondi Hall’s menu.

“Occasionally, restaurants will ask me to come in and try a new dish – obviously wanting me to draw it for free,” says Anna. “I’ll send back a quote, and generally they don’t reply.”

Evidently, food is important to Anna, so she’s been happy to cover bills with a waitering job at Mr. Liquor Dirty Italian Disco, the six-month Pinbone restaurant pop-up in Sydney.

“The hours are great for a freelancer: I can do everything during the day, then do a night shift,” says Anna. “I was only going to work a few days at first, but I ended up loving it so much I’m practically full-time. It pays for the rent and bills, then everything from freelancing is on top and savings.”

Over time, Anna’s received paid commissions and occasionally longer-term projects: last year, she drew a dish a day as Melbourne Wine & Food Festival’s artist-in-residence, and recently helped design, organise and man the floor of the Mambo Tuckshop pop-up in Bondi.

Admittedly, it’s a pretty niche field. But it’s one that Anna’s able to live off pretty comfortably and save for a future Berlin sojourn – where she’ll still be able to take GFCP commissions. With the freedom from working hospo – and her gourmet knowledge – Anna can draw till her gun texta runs dry.

It might not be her day-to-day income source, but she’s found a way to give time to what she loves. Which, as an Australian artist, is pretty damn good.

Image credit: Good Food Crap Drawing