Passing the bucks: a living wage for artists

Barbarian Productions company photoshoot 2017 'Ready to Work', photo by Owen McCarthy.
Barbarian Productions. Photo supplied.
Jo Randerson. Photo supplied.
Jo Randerson is passionate about artists earning their worth. That’s why her company Barbarian Productions just became a living wage employer. James Littlewood clocks on.

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It’s hard to tell if Jo Randerson is an interviewer’s worst nightmare, or a dream come true. On one hand, she speaks in long, fast, articulate sentences and it’s hard to get questions in. On the other hand, her passion for the arts is contagious, her conversation is deep and searching, and approximately everything she says is quotable.

“I don’t want to bag the arts” she enthuses, "because it’s my community, my people and I’m really happy to be part of it." She's on the phone from her office in the converted Vogelmorn Bowling Club, which she, her husband Thomas LaHood and a group of like minded Vogelmorn citizens purchased and revitalised as a community centre. It's the kind of integrated creative solution she excells at. 

Jo Randerson. Photo supplied.

"But I really just want us to reach out, to stretch our thinking. Why aren’t we good entrepreneurs? We’re creative, we’re risk takers, we’re smart. We should be good entrepreneurs ... But we just play it quite safe and warm...I feel we should smash it, and just value ourselves and what we put out there.”

It’s a mindset she sees a lot of when she’s teaching business chops to students in University of Victoria’s fine arts programme.

"A lot of people enjoy their work. Hopefully, many people do in our society. It doesn’t mean it’s not hard work.”

“You know,” she says, “classic things, like how can I make a budget for this project? Literally it will be me sitting in my bedroom working on my computer. And I’m like, what do you actually need for that? If you’re a sound guy, you need software on your computer. You need to have the computer, and what happens when that breaks down? What does your time cost you, or is that really something that you don’t see as a cost?”

We’re all familiar with the meme of the starving artist. It’s an image that Randerson doesn’t entertain for a moment. And she’s turned beyond the arts to find a solution for it. If the arts are dominated by “charity thinking”, Randerson draws a lot from her membership of the Sustainable Business Network and the wider social enterprise sector, where - she says - people are more likely to “think about business and the value of what we do.”

But it’s not all the artist’s fault. For some reason, even the nicest parts of our society can show a (sometimes unconscious) bias against the arts getting a fair go. “In the arts we get backlash… There are all these expectations and stereotypes out there, like oh, you know, artists enjoy what they do. You know? It’s so fun for you. But a lot of people enjoy their work. Hopefully, many people do in our society. It doesn’t mean it’s not hard work.”

The administrators ... are getting paid more than the artists... Bouncers get paid more than the onstage performers do.”

And artists aren’t the only ones on the receiving end of this. Vast sectors of the economy receive little or no financial reward. So, a big part of Randerson’s solution to the impoverishment of artists is that artists need to get realistic about the value they contribute, and the resources they need to do their work. Got a two hour gig at a hundred bucks an hour? Great! But what about the time and cost it takes to get there, set up, get in costume, get out of costume, pack down and go home? Any small business will factor those in. But for some mysterious reason, artists are often reluctant.

The reason is usually the very problem Randerson’s talking about: lack of money. Any normal business plan would simply crumple under the same conditions that many artists are expected to work in.

And it’s the people who pay artists who call the shots. As Randerson points out: “Unfortunately, it’s the artists and performers who are at the bottom of the budget... Generally, the administrators and organizational structures are getting paid more than the artists. I’m not going to name names but I can tell you that many performers are still working voluntarily. Bouncers get paid more than the onstage performers do.”

“We have to make sure legally that everyone we contract achieves the living wage."

So, as someone who sits on both the performer and the employer side of the equation, Randerson and LaHood took the bold and innovative step of gaining official accreditation as a living wage employer. “For me it’s a no brainer. There’s just such disparity between what we expect of people in the work they do.”

Becoming a living wage employer required Barbarian to achieve accreditation with Living Wage New Zealand. That imposes certain obligations which Barbarian must fulfill, in order to retain its accreditation. It’s an audited thing. “We have to make sure legally that everyone we contract achieves the living wage. So we’ve been quite careful with the actors that we employ that we pay them for rehearsal time, and we pay them a good, fair performance fee when they’re actually in performance mode.”

"It makes you think about the way that you pay people, and how much, and that’s what I think we should be considering all the time as artists.”

And, because Randerson is so often about the big picture - there’s more to it for her than simply doing right for her own people, nor does she care about it as a point of difference: quite the opposite. “I would encourage all organisations to go through the accreditation process. It’s sort of like registering for GST or something. It makes you think about the way that you pay people, and how much, and that’s what I think we should be considering all the time as artists.”

Accreditation is a rigorous process. “I think we were a bit of an unusual organisation. We employ a lot of people, up to a hundred performers a year. But you know just for a four hour gig, some of them. But we only have two permanent staff and they’re not full time, so it took Living Wage a while to get used to our organisation.”

But now that they’ve done it, Randerson reckons it’ll be easier for others in the creative sector to follow suit. “That’s also why we wanted to go through the process, to make it easier for other smaller arts organisations to go through it as well.”

Freya Sadgrove in Barbarian Productions' Yo Future, Kokomai Creative Festival 2013, photo by Philip Merry

That’s a view which Living Wage New Zealand’s convenor Annie Newman wholeheartedly agrees. “It’ a voluntary process, and so it takes courage and application to be the first in a sector to take the step. But it’s also about respecting our artists, who should be able to enjoy a lifelong career in their field. Accreditation can take time but it can be done. Together, we can transform this low waged economy.”

It’s hard to see how that could be a bad thing. It’s hard for artists to assert themselves in an art market which is fiercely competitive, broadly underfunded and almost entirely unregulated. Everyone’s trying to do more with less, and in a cruel irony, that buck stops with artists. It should be precisely the other way round. If the commissioning organisations drew the living wage line in the sand, they’d be sending the buck straight back up the line. And maybe, just maybe, an artist will find themselves at the top of the funding ladder, not the bottom.

You can catch Barbarian Productions in action with their show Soft n Hard, on October 11 and 12 at Q Theatre, part of Tempo Dance Festival.

And here's a little Creative New Zealand video case study about a Barbarian Productions musical confronting age prejudice. 

Written by

James Littlewood

17 Sep 2018

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