NiTRO Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

Playing at the art casino

It was a windy afternoon in Melbourne when I was gifted a small monopoly house by artist Ceri Hann … Over several years, Hann made and gifted objects from a fictional casino – symbols of economic value and exchange that were hacked and hijacked to provoke the receiver to think and talk. While these objects have no real economic value, they point to the invisible yet essential currencies that fuel the art world.

By Dr Grace McQuilten

It was a windy afternoon in Melbourne when I was gifted a small monopoly house by artist Ceri Hann, who had been working on a long term, iterative project called The Making of a Knowledge Casino. Over several years, Hann made and gifted objects from a fictional casino – symbols of economic value and exchange that were hacked and hijacked to provoke the receiver to think and talk. While these objects have no real economic value, they point to the invisible yet essential currencies that fuel the art world. The art world in Melbourne, like the art world in many parts of the globe, is permeated with hierarchies of value. These hierarchies are often contested, malleable and changing, and yet they are stubborn in their persistence.

Could artists themselves take up new models of economic organisation (such as social enterprise), beyond the gallery-dealer relationship, or the self-employed individual, to manage the sale, resale and contracting of their work?

There is no doubt that you need a certain number of chips from the casino in order to be able to play at the table. This may be in the form of social networks, education, language skills, confidence or bravado.  Working in the arts requires access to enough capital (human or economic) to invest in the cost of both art-making and staging exhibitions. This is evident in the 2017 Australia Council report, Making Art Work: An Economic Study of Professional Artists in Australia, which follows on from a series of reports on the economic status of artists in Australia.[1] In the report, two things became very clear. Firstly, artists are spending more time on their practice but earning less income. Secondly, there are significant economic barriers to participation in the arts. Furthermore, there is a significant under-representation of artists from non-English speaking backgrounds and artists experiencing disability. And the gender pay gap for female artists is currently sitting at about 25%, significantly higher than the 16% gap reported for the general population. 

As a curator and writer who has worked both within and beyond Melbourne’s art system, I have always been interested in the relations of power that are so crucial to developing an art career, and what that means for those artists and creative individuals who don’t have the opportunity. This helps, in part, to explain my role in the development of The Social Studio, a social enterprise in Smith Street, Collingwood where young people from newly arrived migrant and refugee communities explore and develop their creative practices while having accessing to pathways to further training and employment.[2]

How can spaces be provided that overcome the economic and structural barriers to participation that marginalise particular groups of artists?

The Studio began in 2009, with the view to providing a safe and welcoming environment for young people who have experienced being a refugee prior to coming to Australia. I am careful in the language that I use when describing participation, as the refugee experience is just that – an experience – rather than a label or identity.[3] The Social Studio provides a link to formal training (in the form of TAFE certificates from RMIT School of Fashion) and aims to support young people in accessing employment pathways, thereby addressing some of the barriers to mainstream education and work. Being able to link skill-development with employment makes participation more viable, particularly for people who experience financial pressures that limit their ability to choose a purely creative activity, without some potential for income-generation. Equally, the Studio is a space where young artists can develop social networks, collaborate with other artists and designers, and see their work presented on a level playing field.  

The supportive and flexible studio/learning environment of places like The Social Studio revive the value of free education, an ideal that was fought for and won in the 1970s in Australia, but which seems far out of reach today. In the 1960s, Joseph Beuys rallied for free art education for all. While teaching art at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, Beuys challenged the restrictive admissions policy and entry requirements of the university, wanting to accept all students who applied. Alongside his views on the importance of free art education, Beuys was also deeply committed to the democratisation of the art world, evident in his famous and often quoted proclamation that ‘everyone is an artist’. While all of these values may seem utopian in retrospect, artists such as Beuys worked hard to transform systems of power and value, and in their moment made some ground. A purely free and open space, however, is unrealistic in our contemporary market-driven cultural sphere. 

How might new economic or collective models of organisation facilitate greater agency and participation for artists in the structures of the art market?

The idea of social enterprise, which is the economic model of The Social Studio, is interesting in this context.  Social enterprise is a business model that prioritises social and cultural value over the single-minded pursuit of economic return. The concept is used in a variety of contexts and is not without its own problems.[4] However what it does offer is a way of thinking about economic exchange that does not focus singularly on profitmaking. It also offers a more democratic model of organisation – social enterprise emerged from the co-operative movement of the 1970s and 1980s, and are often run by committees and collectives rather than individual directors.[5]  It could be argued, in fact, that most ARIs and publicly run galleries and Museums already operate as social enterprises.[6] What these organisations often lack, however, is a direct focus on income-generation for artists. Could artists themselves take up new models of economic organization (such as social enterprise), beyond the gallery-dealer relationship, or the self-employed individual, to manage the sale, resale and contracting of their work? This is the question that drives Angela McRobbie’s call for ‘radical social enterprise,’ as an alternative to the existing creative economy.[7]

Currently we have a system where most artists are locked out of the economic power structures that drive the top end of the art market, and where art world hierarchies routinely exclude large proportions of the population, as evidenced in Throsby’s report. It is necessary to start thinking collectively about government policy changes, funding and economic structures that can provide for a more sustainable, accessible, diverse and dynamic arts ecology for Melbourne. As I have described in this short chapter, the model of The Social Studio offers a number of provocations for rethinking these structures. Firstly, how can spaces be provided that overcome the economic and structural barriers to participation that marginalise particular groups of artists? Secondly, how might new economic or collective models of organisation facilitate greater agency and participation for artists in the structures of the art market? Rather than playing by the usual rules of the art casino, let’s change them.

[1] David Throsby and Katya Petetskaya, Making Art Work: An Economic Study of Professional Artists in Australia, Macquarie University and the Australia Council for the Arts, Strawberry Hills NSW, 2017.

[2] The Social Studio website provides more details about the organization and how it operates. See www.thesocialstudio.org

[3] See for example Paul Power and Om Dhungel, “Strengthening the role of refugee communities in policy development,” Refugee Council of Australia, accessed https://www.refugeecouncil.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/Strengthening-role-of-refugee-communities.pdf, viewed May 20 2018

[4] See for example, Jonathon Lewis, “Are Social Entrepreneurs Failing to Fail?” The Huffington Post, 8 February 2013, accessed http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jonathan-lewis/are-social-entrepreneurs-_1_b_2646308.html, viewed 2 March 2014

[5] For a discussion on the history of co-operatives and how this has influenced the development of social enterprise, see Carlo Borzaga & Giulia Galera, “The concept and practice of social enterprise. Lessons from the Italian experience,” International Review of Social Research, vol. 2, no. 2 (June 2012), pp. 95-112

[6] It’s worth noting in this context that the new Collingwood Arts Precinct is Melbourne describes itself as a social enterprise.

[7] Angela McRobbie, “Re-thinking Creative Economy as Radical Social Enterprise,” Variant, Issue 4 (Spring 2011), p. 34


Dr Grace McQuilten is a senior lecturer in art history and theory at the School of Art at RMIT, a published art historian, curator and artist with expertise in contemporary art and design, public art, social practice, social enterprise and community development. Grace’s research considers the social impact of art and its engagement with broader social and economic systems.

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