Falling through the cracks: the precarious plight of performing artists

Mark R.W. Williams

What can be done to stop performers falling through the gaps between tax, superannuation and social security systems?
Falling through the cracks: the precarious plight of performing artists

In this edited extract from the latest Platform Paper from Currency House, Dr Mark R.W. Williams, a prominent arts & entertainment lawyer, looks at what can be done to stop performers falling through the gaps between tax, superannuation and social security systems.

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From my own observation of the Australian and, to a lesser extent, English performing arts scene, anyone of my generation who expected to have a career in the performing arts needed to start with the price of a house. That’s right, start with it. But that has huge implications.

A house itself is a burden; but the price of a house? This is the same issue, curiously, as for a fledgling performing arts company that yearns for a home, but finds that the cost of maintaining it in the end proves the death of the enterprise. So much better to have the price of a home – and even more so for the specialist performer who, because of the relentless need to find new audiences, must never settle but wander the globe in search of yet another success. In proposing a collective response to the structural problems of performers’ welfare, housing is central and the times are such that it is now glaringly obvious. Wasn’t this sorted out a century ago?

In a way, yes. In fact, not only have we done it before but Australia did it early. Surprisingly, many people still think today that a dedicated institution exists in Victoria for the support of elderly members of the theatrical profession. Known then and now as The Old Colonists’ Association of Victoria (OCAV), it was founded in 1869 by a group of passionate believers in self-help, including George Coppin, the largest figure on the Australian stage at the time. This was followed shortly by the Australasian Dramatic and Musical Association in 1871, predat­ing the UK Actors’ Benevolent Fund by ten years. Coppin was a theatrical entrepreneur, politician, property developer and Freemason who made three fortunes and lost two. He also helped make the fortunes of English actors Charles and Ellen Kean on tour in the 1860s and who afterwards took part in setting up the UK Benevolent Fund. Not only did Coppin and other committee members secure four and a half acres beside Merri Creek for the association but another four and a half for the welfare of actors and related disciplines, which merged together in 1907. Today the OCAV is a very substantial chari­table provider of care with four facilities throughout Victoria. Even after the merger, the Rushall Park complex, as it is also known, was portrayed in picture postcards of the time as ‘The Dramatic Homes’.

And what about overseas?

In the UK, the Actors’ Benevolent Fund, also mentioned before, sits alongside the Actors’ Charitable Trust and the Actors’ Homes, known generally after actor-manager and English MP Alfred Denville as Denville Hall. In addition to the Royal Variety Performance, the Royal Variety Charity Fund started receiving money from the phone voting in the US for Britain’s Got Talent in 2007. It supports the 36-room Brinsworth House in Twickenham, opened in 1911. Co-incidentally, it was Melbourne-born Sir Oswald Stoll who cre­ated the Stoll-Moss chain of Empire and Colosseum Theatres throughout Britain who supported the British funds between the wars as the Australian equivalents dwindled. He also created a separate foundation, still in existence, to provide homes for ex-service men and women. For dance and opera there is the Royal Opera House Benevolent fund for past employees and depend­ents of the Covent Garden and Royal Birmingham companies. Like the Australian Funds, they draw on grass roots knowledge of those who may need help, and, (unlike the Australian Funds) offer housing as one of the available strategies.

Across the Atlantic, the first Actors’ Fund home was dedicated in New York in 1902 as wider acceptance of the profession grew from the Actors’ Fund’s purchase of a burial ground. It now supports extensive rent-controlled and dedicated housing throughout the country. It has also developed health initiatives, and specialised clinics and programs on career transition for dancers.

One final example. In Milan Giuseppe Verdi founded the Casa di Riposo per Musicisti, popularly known as the Casa Verdi, for opera singers and musicians in reduced circumstances. Verdi and his wife, Giuseppina Strepponi, designed the building with the architect Camillo Boito, paid for construction and it was opened in 1899 after his death. The Verdis are buried there and the royalties from Verdi’s operas, among other benefac­tions from opera greats, help fund its operations. It has also recently provided accommodation for younger artists, some of whom receive stipends for providing part-time care for their elders.

In a letter to his friend Giulio Monteverde, Verdi, wrote:

‘Of all my works, my favourite is the home that I had built in Milan to care for elderly artists who did not possess the virtue of putting some savings aside in their youth. My poor and dear life’s companions! Please believe me, my friend, when I say that this Home is my masterpiece.’

The old ways might never have been the best ways and they are largely vestigial in Australia. Among condi­tions that are all too common for a country like ours, of poverty and social isolation, a home of one’s own, among one’s own, needs revisiting.

Conclusion

So, what practical steps could be taken to fix the prob­lems with which we find ourselves today?

  • The industry superannuation funds might look at the provisions of their trust deeds and set up and administer emergency and other charitable support for members of the industries they cover; not limited to the individual balances of members of the fund but out of specific reserves which would not infringe the ancillary purpose test of the SGIC.
  • The commercial funds likewise should have elements of social responsibility further built in to support their members and the wider community.
  • Government, in addition to low-balance support for superannuation, might consider a further supplement based on the salary sacrifice principles common in other sectors (and this includes the relatively low-paid university sector) under which individuals in relatively good times of well-paid work could make additional contributions to their super via the PAYG system.
  • Another supplement (not a new suggestion) would be a levy of as little as five cents on every ticket to live performance sold in Australia to support a similar fund.
  • An immediate need is a greater concentration, in training and within companies and the theatrical community, and funding for dealing with health and mental health issues in the performing arts.
  • Performing arts education institutions, including those run privately, must not be afraid to talk about the downside of being a creative performer, the protocols of good performance and the economics of the industry. Aspirants should graduate with a realistic understanding of the choices available and the networks to support them; that talent on its own is not enough: that performance is a competitive business and success does not come just by ‘wanting it enough’.
  • Industry unions and producers, together with the major state-funded performing arts companies, must look above the hard graft of day-to-day issues and strengthen recent initiatives to encourage whole-of-life support even in a business with high short-term commercial risks, rocky long-term financing prospects and a reliance on youth, mobility and internationalism.
  • The work of the Actors’ Benevolent Funds and related institutions must be inclusive, be clear on unified messages, speak to the discrepant and fragmented nature of the sector and avoid divisions of employment between ‘legitimate’ theatre, the media, variety and cabaret, circus, backstage and front-of-house.

Finally, and, in my view, based on all of the above, housing and access to emergency accommodation has to be available both for working individuals and those in permanent or semi-retirement at or near to the major capital cities. For this there are the models which existed under the former rules of the Old Colonists’ Association in Victoria (sometimes actually known as the ‘Dramatic Homes’) and with ample precedent at Denville Hall in London and the Actors’ Fund homes in the United States. Investment in social housing and social capital schemes through superannuation funds or industry forms are a vital part of the mix. And let us not forget the philanthropy of individuals for whom art or show business has been kind: long-term contributions with far-reaching effects. Too many professional participants in the Australian performing arts are falling through gaps that were supposed to be solved by labour market reforms and compulsory superannuation. Regrettably, the way to fix these deficiencies is to go back and create an alternative future.

When next we’re in that actor’s bar at the end of a show, we need to be sure that breaking out the booze and having a ball is not all there is.

Platform Paper number 56, Falling Through The Gaps: Our artists’ health and welfare, by Dr Mark R.W. Williams, is now available from Currency House. Visit currencyhouse.org.au for details.

About the author

Dr Mark Williams practises as a solicitor in Melbourne specialising in copyright and the law as it pertains to the creative sector. He is also an Adjunct Professor in the School of Art at RMIT University. In his words, he is a product of the Melbourne University theatre circuit including the Law Revue from 1977. As part of the naissance of the Melbourne comedy scene he wrote, performed and directed whilst graduating in Arts-Law and undertaking articles of clerkship. He then headed to Oxford University where he performed in as much student theatre as consistent with completing a DPhil, which turned out to be a substantial contribution to the knowledge of how theatre of the 1610s and 20s actually worked on stage. Ten years followed earning half a living from the theatre.

After seven years as a partner in a Melbourne firm of lawyers, he has been in sole practice since 2003. He has advised large, medium and small performing arts companies, appeared in tribunals, instructed in the courts and lobbied for performing arts wages and condi¬tions on both sides of the fence. He has also worked for over twenty years negotiating venue contracts for the big stage musicals on behalf of Melbourne’s major lyric theatres. He has been at the forefront of copyright convergence issues including Federal and High Court cases on copyright infringement and the protection of confidential information. This has included work for film, television, computer games, music, stage and visual arts organisations.

Other theatrical activities include being drama critic, for mainstage and later fringe, for PBS-FM 1990–2010; and President of Melbourne’s annual Green Room Awards, of which he now holds a Life Membership. He has served on the Board and later as Chair of Melbourne’s Bharatam Dance Company (1986–2000), has been a board member of Arts Access Inc., Viscopy Limited and Currency House; and is now with Polyglot Theatre and the Committee of the Victorian Actors’ Benevolent Trust.

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