The dark side of Enlighten: artists not paid

Can you imagine Enlighten without the lights? Of course not, it's absurd. People don't come out in their hundreds of thousands just to queue for noodles and swear at the parking.

Yet, in its wisdom, Enlighten festival organisers have valued those artists creating the works that paint our monuments at the grand total of ... $0.

Questacon lit up for the Enlighten festival.
Questacon lit up for the Enlighten festival. Photo: Melissa Adams



When I first learned this, I didn't actually believe it. They're doing it for the exposure? Impossible. I can accept that groan-inducing cliche from less-savvy operators. Maybe charity nights, or smaller events that simply don't have the capacity to pay. But Enlighten is a well-funded festival with over $1 million a year in public funding, even before private partners are factored in.

Enlighten's annual call for works frames the offer as a development opportunity, which isn't unreasonable in itself. But let's be clear: the artists whose works are commissioned are professionals. Two have masters degrees in their craft. One has a PhD and lectures, in projection. This, notionally, is their livelihood.


Unfortunately, the chronic undervaluation or non-payment of artists/artistic works is endemic to the arts industry. The problem is, artists want their works to be enjoyed, and exchanging those works for a public platform is often genuinely worth the trade. The opportunity to work beats no work. But we have minimum award wages for just this reason: to prevent workers from competing away baseline conditions to secure a job.

The de facto norm of contract work for artists has effectively emulated the much-maligned Work Choices system of individuals negotiating their own conditions, often in an information vacuum. The carrot of a large audience is dangled, and the public events designed to foster the arts ironically end up exploiting the artists who furnish the programs of those (waged) officials who organise them.

My own experience in performance has left me appropriately weary of pursuing any awards-based justice in remuneration. In Canberra Tonight actually lost money as part of the wonderful You Are Here festival. Fun Machine played six full houses at the National Folk Festival for which I received about $12.50 a show. These experiences are normal for most artists, because opportunities are hard to separate from abuse when your work is your passion. Often you're underpaid, less often you're overpaid; but at all times, your super makes you look like a teenager.

The government wouldn't dream of treating any other supplier in such a shabby way. The shy tween trading fairy floss for coins; the bus driver enjoying the novelty of a full bus by starlight; the museum staff giving tours to excited punters. All of them deserve the living wage they receive in exchange for their efforts.

Fortunately, this isn't about trying to eke more funding from a tightening public budget. This is about ensuring that the money that is allocated for the arts actually ends up with the artists who produce the work. Currently, much of the money in events ultimately robs from artists and subtly coerces some of the lowest income earners in our community – the average annual income for visual artists is $24,000 – to heavily subsidise Canberra's enjoyment of arts and culture.

I encourage Chief Minister Andrew Barr and new Arts Minister Chris Bourke to commit to paying award wages to all professional artists who produce work for our public festivals. It's probably in line with community expectations and certainly consistent with the ALP's professed-values. It's an easy win that wouldn't take much effort.

Use existing budgets to pay award wages, and perhaps instead of Augie March, next year we'll just have to settle for Shannon Noll. And endure the inevitable opinion piece I'll feel compelled to write about that instead.

Chris Endrey is a freelance writer and comedian.