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Opinion September 3, 2021

What arts grant funding means to an independent artist [OP-ED]

Jess Chalker
What arts grant funding means to an independent artist [OP-ED]
Studio 1 at 301 Studios, Sydney

As one of many Australian artists who self-fund their small businesses, I was fortunate to receive an Australia Council for the Arts grant this year to help release my debut album, Hemispheres on November 5.

It took me a month or so to compile the grant application – lots of recommendation letters, stats, crafting a compelling business case, and bigging myself up. I was realistic about my prospects.

So a few months later, when I got the email letting me know my application had been successful, I burst into tears.

While I’m thrilled to have the support and am excited to be putting out my first album, it’s not without some guilt. I know my success might have come at the expense of someone equally deserving, who may have had to postpone their project for another year; maybe indefinitely. 

Grant money for artists is always precious. In these times especially, where so many voices are in danger of being lost or snuffed out forever, funding is critical. Even before Covid, it was hard enough to stay afloat as an independent artist.

I live in London currently, but I’ve been active in the Australian music industry for over 10 years. Being a DIY woman representing herself that whole time has not been a walk in the park; among other things, there’s been more rejection and ignored emails than you can imagine (don’t even get me started on that triple j tweet). Until now, the idea of putting out a record independently was financially impractical for me.

After years of being knocked down, getting back up, blood, sweat, tears and the proverbial touch of madness (so goes the ballad of an artist), I’m now a Grammy-credited, independent Australian songwriter, putting out her first record in her 30s. And like so many other Australian creatives – both signed and unsigned –  I often have to top up my artist salary with the more reliable income from an adjacent career.

Releasing an album during a pandemic comes with some compromises — it means my touring options will be limited, and so too will that income potential. I’m one of countless others whose livelihoods will be/have been impacted in this regard. And it’s not only individuals. Around 53% of Australian arts businesses have stopped operating since April 2020.

Covid has shattered the Australian arts sector, it’s hardly news. But if it’s to survive the meteor, let alone bounce back from it – it’s time Australia valued the arts more highly, and urgently.

In principle, I’m sure most would agree that the arts are a public good, and not the superfluous indulgence our politicians make them out to be. It wasn’t that long ago that the arts were swept into the same portfolio as the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications. The same office that oversees trains and roads. 

Recently, the Creativity in Crisis report by Australia Institute’s Centre for Future Work concluded that it was time for a ‘total public-led reboot’ when it came to the way our government considers, and funds the arts. Highlighting the grave damage already done to the sector as a result of the Covid crisis, it lays out some urgent policy measures, advocating for greater public investment to ensure the arts ‘flourish on the other side’ of the pandemic.

Being an Australian artist in London, I can’t help but share the way the UK responded to its flailing arts sector when Covid struck. 

The rollout wasn’t perfect, but the emergency funding package to cultural, art and heritage institutions was worth £1.57bn, with the appointment of a Commissioner for Cultural Recovery and Renewal to get things back on track.

The UK also implemented a Self-Employed Income Support scheme that saw grants available to artists and individuals of up to 80% of prior earnings, capped at £2,500 (approx. A$4,750) a month. I was lucky to be eligible for this scheme, which helped me get through lockdown. And I’m not even a UK citizen.

I don’t mean to compare apples to oranges. But I do know that if I was in Australia right now (not possible, thanks to border restrictions, extremely costly flights home and quarantine expenses), I’m unsure I’d even qualify for JobSeeker.

As an upside to all this, history has always shown us that the arts thrive in times like these.  

It’s been amazing to see the amount of creativity that poured out of the long, grim lockdowns in Europe, which will no doubt happen in Australia too. When I think about all the art and music likely being forged across the country at this very moment, it’s heartening. I guess, if there’s one upside to desperation, it’s alchemy.

I know I’m just one small voice. But for me, receiving arts funding has been a lifeline. I hope I do justice to the privilege. 

This article originally appeared on The Industry Observer, which is now part of The Music Network.


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