- 30 Mar 21
With the music industry grinding to a halt, and theatres and galleries closed art-workers have borne the brunt of the pandemic crisis in Ireland. But even before the arrival of Coronavirus, there was a feeling among many arts workers that they’d had enough…
Praxis is here. A group of young artists have launched a new trade union to fight for the rights of the country’s art workers. The first item on the agenda is to challenge the funding processes of the Arts Council of Ireland, Hot Press has been told. The fledgling union is also seeking better wages and living conditions for artists and creatives.
Praxis is the name of the brand new union. The name means practice as distinct from theory, and is intended, the union’s welfare officer Megan Scott says, as a call to lead life “with a set of ethics.”
As Hot Press has reported on numerous occasions in recent times, the coronavirus pandemic has upended the livelihoods of those who work in the arts. However, the decision to form Praxis was taken just before the first lockdown in March 2020.
Azzy O’Connor, Praxis’s communication officer, who works in film and photography, said a series of pre-pandemic meetings and discussions made the need to form the union crystal clear.
“As the year progressed, we realised that we needed a union now more than ever,” O’Connor adds. “The timing was quite convenient.”
O’Connor says that over 400 artists have said they will join Praxis. The aim of the union is to represent a wide variety of art workers – from fiction writers to visual artists to dancers and comedians.
“We’re hoping to get more and more of them involved and then get them to meetings, and then hopefully – after the pandemic – we can actually do something in real-life,” O’Connor says.
#ASK THE ARTIST
Members of Praxis believe that the Arts’ Council’s current system of funding art projects is flawed, bureaucratic and especially inaccessible to underdog artists. The pandemic has made the need for reform clearer, they say, as diminished work opportunities have led to a growing number of artists “turning to these lengthy grants processes for income.”
“The vast majority of eligible applications will not receive any funding,” O’Connor complains, "yet artists are expected to invest significant time in their applications. Artists can lose up to a month’s work to the highly bureaucratic process.”
The process, they say, involves a painstaking level of admin work, which in many cases goes to waste. For art workers, not on a stable salary, and in a vulnerable position financially, completing the process and then being omitted in the end can be especially frustrating.
“Some will get paid to do it if they’re working in an arts institution or lucky enough to be a full-time artist,” he says.
“But the average artist doesn’t get paid for putting what is exactly the same amount of work into an application. The truth is that, given the number of applications they get, only a very small percentage actually get financed.”
The organisers of Praxis want to make the process more inclusive and kinder to precarious art workers. They have started an active campaign for change.
“The union launches with a campaign to address this ‘unfit for purpose’ system,” they say in a statement, “and is requesting that the Arts Council consult with the union to #AskTheArtist and make their funding procedures ‘artist-centred’.”
FIGHTING FOR BETTER PAY
The gender pay gap in the arts; wage discrimination; and the issue of unpaid gigs and internships are among other issues that Praxis plans to campaign campaign against.
A study commissioned by the Arts’ Council in 2010, which used data from 2008-09 found that the average worker in the Republic “had earnings in 2008 of more than 1.4 times the total average income of an artist.”
“The average artist income was close to the income of clerical, sales and service employees and well behind the incomes of professional and managerial workers,” the study stated.
Ruairí Ó Donnabháin, out-reach officer of Praxis, told Hot Press that – even before the pandemic – he’d witnessed a persistent lack of appreciation of the contribution of art workers, including through the paying practices of festival or exhibition organisers.
“Artists working on festivals, or in group exhibition contracts, have seen that the technicians who work at those exhibitions get paid in correct time, and the producers of the artwork are often the last people to get paid,” Ó Donnabháin observes.
Praxis, he said, “is about artists coming together collectively”; sharing information on if and how they are mistreated; brainstorming to find solutions; and fighting overall for positive change.
In Ireland, forming an independent trade union requires those involved to obtain a licence, which can be a complex process. So, for pragmatic reasons, Praxis must choose to affiliate itself with a larger, already licensed trade union, located in the State.
Members of Praxis have yet to reach a decision on which larger union to go with.
“We have no affiliated union currently, but will be looking to merge into one in the relatively near future,” Azzy O’Connor said.