Open Navigation

uncertain times – should i stay or should i go?

March 21, 2015

Uncertain Times was conceived and curated by Grace Blake with contributions from Kate Murphy, Martyn Jolly, Robert Guth, Louise Curham and Oscar Capezio.

On being an artist in Canberra

Canberra: the most liveable city in the world, a haven with fresh air, birdsong and (almost) no traffic.

Canberra: the circle of hell Dante missed; a bland maze of never-ending roundabouts populated with concrete monuments and public service worker-drones.

We’ve seen plenty of this in the media over the years, our city denigrated as a soulless over-designed toilet block or the defensive residents’ response of – hey real people live here, the quality of life is great and it’s not boring at all once you scratch the surface.

In an article for Overland magazine entitled ‘Why art?’ Alison Croggon commented that ‘Artists do a lot with the little they receive. The biggest funder of the arts is artists, through unpaid labour; the biggest beneficiaries of artistic activity are not the artists themselves but the communities around them.’ For Canberra to be a fully rounded city, a place people want to live and a place where cultures thrive, it needs the arts. But do artists need Canberra? What are the benefits or drawbacks of living here? Should young creative types choose to live here? Why or why not?

Unlike inhabitants of other cities of comparable size, Canberrans experience the advantages and disadvantages specific to living in a capital city, home to a collection of large cultural institutions. One of the advantages is that we have a wealth of local arts organisations focused on working in the community and then the big institutions providing employment and other professional development opportunities. There are many artists working as educators, art handlers and registration staff across the galleries, archives and museums. Not only can they draw an income to support a non-commercial or experimental practice, they can develop an inside knowledge into how these organisations work and how to effectively work with them.

I’ve heard differing opinions on the value and role of the big cultural institutions in our community. Some artists agree they provide useful support structures and the relatively small population means that the chances of getting work are easier than in the larger centres. Others have commented that these institutions encourage a bland, conservative approach to art and culture, that the environment in this city doesn’t push artists to experiment or make challenging work and that the art community itself is not very diverse. I wonder if this is because we expect art with a strong agenda to be loud or ugly and if we look closely at what artists are doing, could we find work that is more subtly challenging, asking intelligent questions and choosing quiet forms of experimentation? I also wonder if those comments are coming from people who have had any engagement with the community arts centres and the art being made outside of the art-school-trained contemporary art community.

There are some wonderful interstate and international collaborations bringing fresh work and ideas into the community. I’m thinking of Megalo Print Studio and Gallery’s work with Indigenous artists in remote communities and the Culture Kitchen art collective’s work in Indonesia and Canberra. This is where I really admire the work of younger artists who live here and collaborate with interstate and international groups. Last year ANCA gallery shared an exhibition with Sawtooth ARI in Tasmania, and the ZONK Vision collective has hosted a number of performances and events both in Canberra and elsewhere. It’s one way to remain in Canberra whist having outlets to push exhibition practices, gain experience and find audiences.

Compared to many other places, life in Canberra for artists is a breeze. We have solid arts organisations such as Canberra Contemporary Art Space and Craft ACT that provide exhibition space and professional support, local media that engage with the arts and smart audiences.

What we don’t have are many commercial galleries – the very small local scene means limited opportunities to exhibit and sell work. Exhibiting interstate is expensive, and some commercial galleries are now pushing the financial risks back onto the artists they represent expecting them to foot part of the bill for openings and publicity, while continuing to take substantial commissions on sales. The downturn in the global market has affected Australian galleries, forcing a number of closures and amalgamations in Sydney and Melbourne over the last five years. Most exhibition opportunities in Canberra are in non-commercial spaces that charge a hire fee for the use of the venue. Once the artist has paid rent, done the legwork, funded making the art – they are spending thousands of dollars to put on shows where they may be lucky to sell any work.

The question of how to make a living in the arts has always been a tricky one to answer. To choose the creative life is to choose a strangely privileged and simultaneously challenging path. So for fresh graduates leaving the shelter of a university course, art school, music school, film school – what happens next?

Should I stay?

For visual artists there are opportunities to apply for studio residencies and exhibitions. You may find that a busy year after graduation turns into a couple more years of nothing much and a struggle to find an income and keep creatively motivated. The advantages of staying reside in your existing network. You will know other graduates, established artists and art professionals who can help you with applications, letters of recommendation, critical feedback, practical assistance and finding paid work. To take advantage of the community you will need to be visible and participate. You may find, that you can generate an income working in arts related fields and continue to pursue a fulfilling practice.

Should I go?

Artists leaving Canberra to live elsewhere face the challenge of finding their way in a larger city with no support network, risking becoming trapped in a cycle of unpaid internships and volunteer work they hope will lead somewhere – while juggling paid work and cramming their art practices around the edges. Larger populations in Sydney and Melbourne also mean larger pools of artists competing for exhibition space and grant funding.

If you go – seek out like-minded artists and communities – know that getting work in the arts in large cities is highly competitive. If you can, do postgrad study in order to build a network of peers you can work with and to meet professionals in your area. Get involved with artist run initiatives and spend time burrowing your way into a new social scene. Keep in touch with the scene ‘back home’, come back and show work here, use the support base in Canberra as a launch pad and a bolthole, when you need to retreat and have a break.

When I think about the traps for artists – the offers to work for no pay for some mythical bonus called exposure, the vagaries of a limited commercial market, the challenges of making work that is not the flavour of this month – my advice to new players would be Ask not what you can do for your city, but what your city can do for you. What do you want from your career in the long term? What kind of a life are you working towards? How can you establish a practice that is sustainable, that won’t result in burnout and bitterness? Can this city provide a platform for that? Or do you need to take off and find a niche somewhere else?

Kate Murphy

Kate M Murphy has a split personality, she teaches Professional Practices at the ANU School of Art and exhibits photography, video and performance art under the pseudonym of Ellis Hutch. She produces a blog http://artbusinessbits.tumblr.com/ where she shares arts related information and opportunities; and also interviews artists about their working practices.