There’s a popular belief that being an artist, whether as an actor, musician or painter, is a path to fame and fortune. If only. As prices have been rising, Ireland’s artists have watched their already modest incomes drop. “Eighty-eight per cent of individuals working in the performing-arts sector earned less than the national average,” says Irma McLoughlin, and the pay of musicians and artists is “lower by a third than the average of all other employees”.
McLoughlin represents Theatre Forum, which with First Music Contact recently commissioned a pay-and-conditions survey that they hope will influence Budget 2024 next month. “It is a very long road for artists,” says Angela Dorgan of First Music Contact, “and most of that road is spent in poverty.”
They say the pilot Basic Income for the Arts scheme is a game-changer that has resonated around the world, but they’d like the €325 a week it provides to be boosted. “It feels genuinely not viable for people at the moment,” McLoughlin says. “Even artists that might be perceived to be successful are going year to year, applying for funding streams and hoping for the best. It is hard to be constantly trying to make meaningful applications, keeping your hopes going. It is difficult to plan for families and very precarious.”
Add the periodic nature of employment, and frequent delays and difficulties in getting paid at all, and it’s no wonder most artists have a second and even third income stream. So what do artists in Ireland do to make a living?
Karla Chubb, the lead singer of the band Sprints, says that the stark reality of life is working 50-plus hours a week, with no days off and relentless effort. “Zero per cent of our current income comes from music,” she says. “Gig fees and merchandise sales cover our costs, but that’s where it ends.” Chubb has worked in advertising, marketing and publishing, and she and her fellow band members have full-time professions that pay for living itself.
“It’s quite a juxtaposition to spend your day time devising creative strategies for global brands – copywriting, creating content and more – and then switch to an entirely different type of performance mode on stage. The result, unfortunately, is mental and physical strain, creative burnout, intense anxiety and a great deal of time lost with loved ones.
“Why do we do it? The honest truth is for the pure love of it. I feel like I was born to make and create, to do some good in the world even if that is just music. Maybe one day the arts will receive the recognition and support it deserves so we can dedicate ourselves fully to our vocations, and sustain ourselves just on our art. Leaving work is a daunting and scary process. Unfortunately, for many people in the arts it is just not feasible.”
“My life has always been tied up with my art practice,” Orla Barry says. “Starting out as a young artist in Brussels, I did bar work from about 1991 to 2003. One of the first exhibitions I made was called The Barmaid’s Notebook.” When she moved back to Ireland she took on sheep farming to supplement her income as a part-time art lecturer. “That became an ovine obsession. I learned through doing and established a high-performance pedigree flock of Lleyn sheep, which I exhibited at agriculture shows.”
Barry says this combination of farming and teaching leaves her with about three days to spend on her art. It’s a schedule that doesn’t allow for weekends or holidays and includes the stress of constant deadlines. “Art and farming are very precarious areas of work,” she says. “You are relying on grants in both, which is endless work in itself. I have gained inspiration in the last decade of farming to fill 10 museums, but I would really like more space right now, to concentrate on my artwork full time.”
She values the support of the Arts Council, which has enabled her to work outside the gallery system and to have produced a strong and significant body of work, but she is disappointed by the low fees that are frequently offered for exhibitions and group shows. A campaign by Visual Artists Ireland to ensure artists are paid for exhibiting their work has borne fruit, but rates are often nominal. “Things are changing,” Barry says, “but it is very slow.”
Orla Barry’s Spin Spin Scheherazade is at Temple Bar Gallery from Thursday, October 5th, to Saturday, October 7th, as part of Dublin Theatre Festival. Her work is also at the 40th EVA International until Sunday, October 29th
Eoghan Carrick says a play takes about three years to make and, although the Arts Council offers development funding, he’ll need to spend up to two months putting together applications for it. He doesn’t get paid for that work and, like many in the industry, payment for his own time is often the first thing he’ll cut to make a funded project viable.
Actors don’t earn a huge amount: the basic day rate is between €150 and €200. Even so, for theatremakers, that soon adds up when factoring in rehearsal time for up to five actors – Carrick dreams of a production that might include more – with total production costs amounting to something like €100,000. “It is incredibly limiting,” he says. “You can’t have a good design team, with a great set and a strong cast for very little money, so you do have to juggle.
“When you apply for funding to create a show, it is usually a year out from the audience seeing it. There’s risk, and not just artistic risk. Yes, you invest in it, as do other people. But not just time. You turn down future work that could clash. So you also risk income. And you might not get the funding. Before I was selected for the Basic Income for the Arts scheme, this risk was beginning to feel unsustainable: too much pressure for too little return. With the scheme I no longer feel I’m risking my livelihood, maybe my future in the industry. I can live and create art.”
Eoghan Carrick directs FemmeBizzare’s House of Fash Hun at Dublin Fringe Festival from Wednesday, September 20th, to Saturday, September 23rd. He is also working on Kate Heffernan’s Guest Host Stranger Ghost for Dublin Theatre Festival
Sophie Lenglinger, who has just played Nora Clitheroe in The Plough and the Stars as part of DruidO’Casey, at the Abbey Theatre, is a graduate of the Lir, the National Academy of Dramatic Art. “I waitressed during college, but with a full-time degree, living away from home and lockdown too, it would have been impossible for me to attend college and manage rent without my parents’ support,” she says.
“I’ve managed to live almost entirely off my creative work since I left the Lir last year. However, just like our training, that work is temporary. I am always on the lookout for writing callouts and acting opportunities, not only as a source of income but as a way to continue to learn and collaborate. I am currently part of Smock Alley’s Baptiste script-development programme for writers of colour, where I am working towards a public reading of my play this November.”
The Lir’s director of development, Joanne O’Hagan, raises money to fund scholarships, bursaries and other student supports that aim to ensure students from all communities can access its programmes. “Our training is incredibly comprehensive, and we ask for huge dedication from our students, so it doesn’t work for them to have part-time jobs. They are also not going into a career that is going to pay off debt immediately,” she says. Corporate partners donate about €5,000, which is divided between students on the basis of need. O’Hagan is engaging with donors to create support for alumni, similar to graduate business programmes, “which simply don’t exist in the arts”.
Right now, Julia Pallone says about three-quarter of her income comes from the teaching that currently takes up about two-thirds of her time. (No two years are alike, she adds, as Arts Council bursaries can change the ratio.) As her children get older, she can spend more time making art. Childminding was definitely an issue, she says – as are paying the mortgage and finding the rent for her studio and time for artistic research.
“My teaching position helps me to support my family and my art practice. To earn an income outside of my art production gives me freedom in my work, as I am not dependent on sales. Though teaching takes a lot of energy and creativity, it is important to me. I am able to bring a sense of play and experimentation to the students. It gives me intense contact with many different people and necessitates ongoing research into other artists. I enjoy being part of the journey others undertake. The social aspect also complements my time alone in the studio. All of these influence my work in ways that are not fully obvious.”
Film and theatre director
“Surviving as an artist in Ireland is no joke,” says Maeve Stone, who is a film and theatre director. She is on the steering committee of the National Campaign for the Arts, whose pre-budget submission outlines 10 key steps to help the arts, including increasing Arts Council funding to €150 million, increasing support for Creative Ireland and Culture Ireland, waiving VAT for theatrical events, reforming the insurance system, and including spaces in residential developments, as a condition of planning permission, for artists to live and work.
She also makes jewellery. “Starting Stone Circle Jewellery in 2020 was a way to immerse myself in nature in Co Clare and kept me sane through anxious times. It let me connect in a joyful, colourful way with people all across Ireland and helped me pay attention to what is changing in the landscape. Every collection is inspired by those details, and each pair is unique. It’s probably not a brilliant business model, but making these one-of-a-kind pieces keeps me curious.”
Maeve Stone’s The Last Harvest will be shown at film festivals from November