‘I’m two months from homelessness’: the real lives of performers

Average weekly earnings of €494 for performers in the arts is two-thirds of the average in other sectors

On stage, timing is all. Just as a group of performing artists and Theatre Forum presented their research and lived experience of poor pay and insecure job opportunities to Oireachtas members in Leinster House last week, a few metres away on the Dáil plinth some of their actor colleagues created a pageant for a photocall marking Dáil100.

It was a perfect illustration of the gig economy, part of the trap many artists are in, lauded for their creativity but living precariously.

The previous week's "Abbey 312" letter drew attention to freelance creative workers on lower rates of pay.

As their letter landed on Minister for Culture Josepha Madigan's desk, Theatre Forum, the national organisation representing performing arts, was collating its research into wider pay and conditions for performing artists, showing one-third earn less than the minimum wage of €9.55 an hour (partly because 83 per cent are paid flat fees regardless of hours).


Theatre Forum (TF) presents the hard – in all senses – stats publicly on Wednesday morning, showing the careers of performing artists (including directors, writers, actors, dance artists, producers, composers and sound designers) are characterised by low pay, poor conditions and precarious work.

I want to live and work in this city but saying I'd like a mortgage is as much a pipe dream as saying I want to be an astronaut

Their average weekly earnings were two-thirds of those in other sectors (€494.98 compared to €740.32). It’s bad for those on a wage – PAYE arts jobs earn an average €18.54 an hour – but worse for the ultimate precariat, freelancers on €16.83 an hour.

TF's Payscales Survey illustrates many artists are dangerously close to the cliched starving artist in a garret. In Leinster House the artists – not beginners but established, acclaimed professionals – were eloquent, articulate and impassioned.

They don’t think the world owes them a living; they paint a sobering picture of precarious, poverty-striken lives, barely able to hold things together in a 21st-century first-world country lauded worldwide for its culture.

Those lives have limited options. Because they make so few PRSI and pension contributions, welfare is put beyond reach, along with pensions and housing.

Artists can't afford to be sick, find it difficult to plan careers, to access or afford a mortgage or rent. "Some of our best known performance artists do not earn anything close to a living wage and are in precarious employment, unable to sustain what appear to be successful careers," says TF director Anna Walsh.

Precarious lives

Louise Lowe, artistic director of ANU Productions
Lowe says her rent takes 95 per cent of her income. Its 2010/2011 production World's End Lane was acclaimed, but "the truth was, when I made that show, my net worth was €13.78. That's what I had in my pocket".

“The truth is, poverty stinks. I know colleagues who’ve watered down milk and set clocks forward to put children to bed early so they can turn heat off. That’s real for lots of people.”

Working class artists “have no buffer and no patronage. I’m two months away from homelessness. If I fall, I fall on concrete. So I’m worried about health and getting sick. There were 18 girls in my Leaving Cert class; six are still alive. I’m lucky to have a career.”

There’s a danger we’re creating a cultural cul-de-sac she says, “that only tells certain stories, from very privileged, white middle-class backgrounds, and the art we celebrate, like O’Casey, Behan, those voices living and breathing in this city, will be gone.”

“I want to live and work in this city but saying I’d like a mortgage is as much a pipe dream as saying I want to be an astronaut.”

Peter Power, composer/director/designer, Cork
Power says he is "caught in a web of institutionalised begging: project awards, bursaries, grants, residencies, free office space, mentorships. And every year, we need to knock at the door again, to check are we still worth it. Are we as good as before, like starting over and over and over on a zero-hour contract.

“I’ve worked as a security guard, barman, suit salesman. I’m a very lucky version of any mid-level artist in Ireland. I work hard, long hours, I am driven and hungry and eager and professional. And I am terrified. Because I wake up every morning and unwillingly tread a fraying tightrope.”

He points out average artist’s incomes of €24,600 (the national average is €39,000) are distorted by salaried arts workers; freelancers – the solo self-employed, like him – earn much less. “I am better at what I do now than I have ever been, yet 2019 holds less security than ever.”

He describes the trap between not qualifying for a medical card but unable to afford primary care; unable to get a mortgage, or to afford rent; unable to access either social protection or secure employment.

Gary Keegan, director/writer/producer with Broken Talkers
Keegan's whose high profile productions have toured 22 countries, has two children. Most of his contemporaries have left the business. "They've copped on or moved on."

He describes “absurd charades” of receptions in international embassies, “with nice wine and everyone gets a bit dressed up”, where there’s “lip service to the value Ireland places on artists”.

“When I think of how I struggle to make ends meet, that smacks of hypocrisy. Everyone is pretending it’s fine, that there’s fairness, that it’s not just one-sided with the artists giving while the others use us as photo opportunities, soundbites and good news stories.”

If we spend money on international promotion of Irish culture, “you have to look after us here so we can make the work. Then by all means show up for the photo and talk about how you value the arts. There won’t be the work to back this up in six or seven years if you don’t look after core funding to the department now.”

Sean Dunne, a writer/director/performer in theatre and film
Dunne describes himself as  "relatively young", with no dependents, and work is on a good run. "I'm not falling out of me standing. I'm managing, just about." He made his name with Home Bird, a "performance rally" about emigration, begging his peers to stay in Ireland with him. Eight years later he looks back on show ironically, "and I think, what was I thinking, have I now missed the boat? Like most artists I can't afford to rent in the city. What do you do when your hometown can't be your home?"

Liv O'Donoghue, choreographer and dancer
She has performed worldwide and has been in regular employment and would be considered top of her game. But "the average income of dance artists was just over €10,000.

That is well below the poverty line. Successful dance artists earn on average €13,000 per year. We are among the working poor. My income does not reflect the success I’ve had. Health insurance, pensions, mortgages, basic security and the means to start a family, are all well outside of our reach.”

“Ireland sends out its impoverished artists with a fanfare of glitter and pompoms to great success, and we return home to poverty. Surely, if we are to represent Ireland at the highest levels abroad, it’s not too much to ask for the security of a basic income at home?”

The numbers

Budget investment in arts and culture have increased in recent years, but this is on foot of years of severe post-crash cutbacks, which slashed sustained annual funding in favour of one-off projects. At 0.1 per cent of GDP, Ireland’s arts funding is just one-sixth of the average 0.6 per cent on arts in other European countries.

What can be done? The Minister stresses the importance of the arms length principle of arts funding, with the Arts Council responsible for arts funding decisions. It has been publicly quiet this month as low pay for performing artists hit the headlines.

Arts Council strategy aims to “advance artists’ living and working conditions” and it intervenes to insist funded organisations pay artists, making it a condition of funding; it withheld €300,000 of the Abbey’s €7 million funding this year pending satisfaction about the quality of its employment.

But, but but. Many artists fall outside its funding or slip through the net, and even if an artist is paid reasonably for an individual job, work can be intermittent and unreliable, and an artist’s overall income very low.

Many suggestions made by artists are within political control.

How to improve artists’ income and lives

(1) Increase spending on arts, up from 0.1 per cent of GPD, closer to the 0.6 per cent European average, and what Keegan calls "something less shameful".

(2) Housing is an abiding challenge for all precarious workers. Louise Lowe suggests artists' social housing, tailored to fluctuating incomes.

“It could absolutely change the lives and working conditions of artists, and take away some of the fears”.

(3) Production hubs for independent artists with resources, support and facilities.

(4) A basic income for artists. The "artists' dole", piloted for 18 months, allows artists apply for jobseeker's allowance when unemployed. Creative Ireland director Tania Banotti hopes the Department of Social Protection will expand it into a simpler, bespoke scheme.

Fewer than 200 artists have applied, she says, because it is only for writers and visual artists, and because the system is cumbersome.

(5) Expand artists' tax exemption: Liv O'Donoghue suggests it should apply to performing artists as well as books and visual art.