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How do you put a value on art, and the people creating it?

Don't give up your day job. You'll hear it again and again if you are just starting out as an artist, and for good reason.

Artists down the centuries have been hybrids. They work one or two unrelated paid jobs so they can work in the arts for enjoyment, for "psychic income".

It's the reason so many great compositions, canvases and films are created, for non-monetary benefits such as joy in seeing a vision realised, peer recognition, fame and the prospect of influencing public opinion.

Of course some artists actually manage to make a living through what they do. But most never scrape together enough from art to live above the poverty line, despite a sympathetic tax system, government subsidies and grants.

Artists are both liberated and hamstrung by the notion of psychic income. It's their best friend and their worst enemy. They often volunteer their time; give away their work because they want to.

"Worse, they ask one another to do the same," Jack Lloyd, business and operations director at Belconnen Arts Centre, says. "We do this because, in part, we don't value our work ourselves."

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The question of what artists get paid came to the surface at last month's pre-budget arts forum convened by the Childers Group, an ACT arts advocacy organisation.

From the floor, there came an audacious idea of a minimum wage for artists. Community workers have one.

Greens arts spokesman Shane Rattenbury responded with humour.

"The problem is artists from everywhere would move to the ACT," he said.

While there's no national award covering artists, the Media, Arts and Entertainment Alliance and the National Association for the Visual Arts publish guide rates, covering everything from exhibition fees to teaching rates. Still, the average annual income of an Australian visual artist is just $10,000 – a fraction of what most other full-time workers get.

Governments will fund projects, but usually not salaries. Artists will sometimes quote a figure for "wages" or an "honorarium" when putting in grant applications, but they will rarely do the sums and be upfront about the actual number of hours involved with an actual hourly wage.

With no award, those artists that are employed lose entitlements when they change workplaces. Many are employed on contract which means they are responsible for paying their own superannuation.

In its pre-budget submission the Childers Group urges the ACT government to ensure there are "no professional arts workers employed by ACT key arts organisations earning less than the average Australian wage".

It is worried the ACT isn't attracting and retaining the best people and about disparities between what arts organisations and the public service offer. It wants the government's arts agency artsACT to examine how earnings in the ACT compare to those elsewhere and to benchmark standards. ArtsACT is reluctant to do so, saying art centres determine what their employees and contractors are paid. But when their boards, seeking to attract the best people, pay their managers well, those further down the line suffer. Programs can also shrink.

The ACT may scrub up well compared to the rest of Australia when it comes to funding institutions but a lack of curiosity and interrogation about artists' pay and conditions is at odds with the rhetoric from all three major parties in the ACT.

"The arts are at the core of our human existence. They give expression to our values," Labor's Chris Bourke told the arts forum at Gorman House.

"Art contributes to our health and wellbeing ... It strengthens communities," Rattenbury said.

"Arts is not an add-on but should be built into everything," the Liberals Brendan Smyth said.

All three, especially Smyth, spruiked the economic benefits of the arts but said little about the delivery costs.

Like most things, it's complicated. Art cannot and should not always have a dollar value attached to it. That can get in the way of creating art. And art means different things to different people, although we usually know it when we see or hear it. As in other fields, what a person is paid depends on their skill and the quality of their output. That's up for debate.

Nonetheless it is true that what gets measured gets valued and nurtured. The fact that we don't really measure the effort that goes into the arts and back advocacy to improve conditions suggests we think it takes care of itself or that we don't actually care about it. Maybe we think they are too many intangibles – it's all too hard to measure. Well, let's get creative on that front!

Toni Hassan is studying visual arts at the Australian National University and is an adjunct research fellow with the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture, Charles Sturt University.

Twitter: @ToniHassan