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Exhibition asks is making art a hobby or a real job?

Real Job  at the Counihan Gallery challenges stereotypes about art and artists

Curator Madeleine Thornton-Smith senses attitudes towards artists are slowly changing and hopes one day they can have their own union. 

Mark Phillips

MADELEINE Thornton-Smith has lost count of the number of times friends and family have asked how her “hobby” is going. 

A professional ceramic artist who has participated in numerous exhibitions over the past decade — including recently in France — Thornton-Smith finds it frustrating that her creative practice is frequently not treated as a real job. 

While those nearest and dearest to her have stopped questioning her career choice, it is a different matter with the broader economy. Thornton-Smith has never earnt anything near enough from her art to devote all of her time to it. 

Thornton-Smith’s experience is far from unique; it is so common that together with 16 other artists, she is part of an exhibition called Real Job currently showing simultaneously at the Counihan Gallery in Brunswick and the Seventh Gallery in Richmond which explores the precariousness of work in the arts.

As Thornton-Smith explains it, the labour of visual artists is neglected in Australian society and artists are frequently asked what they do for their “real job”. 

“[The exhibition] came out of something I’ve been thinking about, from my own experiences, that artists, particularly visual artists, have really experienced this feeling that they don’t have real jobs, and there is a similar cultural attitude towards the arts,” she said. 

“Sometimes it’s just friends and family that mean well but they’re just worried about my financial insecurity, and they’re like ‘time to get serious’, you know, to go and get a real job. 

“In Australia, I think probably years and years of conservative government that made lots of cuts to the arts really doesn’t help.” 

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Thornton-Smith, who has curated both shows, has the perspective of both an artist and a committed unionist. She has done an internship at the Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance, and volunteers at the Young Workers Centre at the Victorian Trades Hall Council.  

She said artists and artworkers are frequently exploited due to the unregulated nature of the industry, insufficient funding and lack of union coverage, recommended rates of pay are routinely ignored and artists are afraid to speak up for fear of biting the hand that feeds them. 

Artists are also disadvantaged by an attitude that if art isn’t real work, then it doesn’t need to be remunerated. 

Many of the other artists also have backgrounds as organisers, activists and workers, and they all share a belief that art is work and should be respected as such. Many of those exhibiting originally met and came together pre-COVID as part of the Workers Art Collective based at Trades Hall and through the Artists Union Working Group.

While an artists’ union is still some way off, Thornton-Smith is hopeful it could one day be a reality.

Real Job was an opportunity to bring the artists back together after the pandemic and resume the discussion about insecure work, exploitation and the arts. 

The Counihan Gallery was considered an appropriate venue to stage the works given Noel Counihan’s lifetime of political activism as a communist and his depiction of working class life in his drawings and paintings.

The Counihan Gallery exhibition opened on April 1 and continues until May 21. It features diverse works by 13 artists whose areas of practice range from ceramics to tapestry to comics and posters. 

One of the most striking works – and the first thing that visitors to the Counihan will see – is a large banner bearing the legend ‘Union of Working Artists’. Based on the kinds of banners unionists carry on May Day marches, it was created in 2019 by Nina Ross and Stephen Palmer but had been in storage until Thornton-Smith included it in the show. 

Other stand out works include a short comic strip by Tia Kass about his own relationship with his art, a doormat stamped with the word ‘Precariat’ by Amelia Dowling, and a series of ‘Real Job’ stickers by Aaron Billings. 

Thornton-Smith’s own work is seven ceramic ‘banners’ with elaborate frames featuring words and phrases like ‘Labour of Love’, ‘Hobby’ and ‘Real Job’. 

Works from the Counihan Gallery exhibition (clockwise from top left): Nina Ross & Stephen Palmer, ‘Union Banner’, 2019-2020, cotton, dowelling, 175 x 150 cm; Judy Kuo, ‘Bite The Hand That Feeds’, 2022, acrylic on paper, 62.5 x 45 cm; Aaron Billings, ‘Union sticker set’, 2023, vinyl stickers, 21 x 29.7 cm; Madeleine Thornton-Smith, ‘Don’t Quit Your Day Job’ (detail), 2020-2023, slip-cast and handbuilt earthenware, midfire, stoneware, glaze, dimensions variable.

Like many of her peers, Thornton-Smith, 34, is highly qualified with a double degree in Arts and Visual Arts, an Honours degree in Fine Arts, a diploma of languages and a diploma of ceramics. She has mounted numerous solo and joint exhibitions. Yet without her additional income from a local government teaching job, there is no way she would be able to support herself from her artistic practice. 

A major study commissioned by the Australia Council for the Arts in 2017 found that the median income for all artists from their creative work was just $6000, falling to $5200 for visual artists. All artists relied on other forms of work to supplement their incomes, with their earnings from creative work making up just 14% of their total income. 

Thornton-Smith senses a change in mood from the Albanese Government’s recently released National Cultural Policy, which explicitly acknowledged that artistic practice is real work. 

“I watched the launch from overseas and they kept talking about ‘artists have real jobs’ and everything and I thought I was going crazy, because it’s like this phrase I’ve sort of had in my head and I’ve been writing about for years. 

“There’s still a lot of work to do, but it feels like the tide is turning.” 

However, in a case of life imitating art, Thornton-Smith recently found herself in an argument about these issues on social media. 

“There were some posts from the ABC Instagram about a student who was struggling to afford food recently, and she was doing a creative writing degree.  

“And there were all these very nasty comments about ‘pull your socks up and get a job’ and ‘you’re so privileged to be at uni’ and yada yada and people being horrible and then I just said some comments about how I just got back from France [where the attitude to artists is different].  

“And then this guy started looking at my page and started having a go at me and started running all these mean hashtags like ‘go get a real job’, ‘art is a hobby’, all that stuff that are the phrases in my show.” 

Running as part of the ‘Real Job’ exhibition, Thornton-Smith will conduct a curator’s floor talk at 12pm this Saturday, April 15, followed at 2pm by a political cartooning workshop led by Aaron Billings with the theme of “drawing horrible workplace stories”. 

On May 6, she will moderate a discussion on Paying the Artist as Worker with a panel of artists and unionists, including Maize Wallin, co-founder of Game Workers Australia. 

Disclaimer: the author is a former work colleague of Madeleine Thornton-Smith.