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uncertain times: canberra art economics or: why i’m going to sell bread

March 21, 2015

Uncertain Times was conceived and curated by Grace Blake with contributions from Kate Murphy, Martyn Jolly, Robert Guth, Louise Curham and Oscar Capezio.

I think I may have made peace with being a creative producer in Canberra. It has taken two decades and three university degrees. Finally, I have the tools to understand what seemed to me an unbalanced economy. I now rejoice in the rich diversity of incredible talent that is shared by amateurs in all fields. This is a turnaround from when I saw these generous individuals as ruining the market for emerging professionals by being able to ruthlessly undercut people trying to make a living.

I now see the production of art in an expanded field that allows for more diverse exchanges. As creative producers we choose to participate in an economy in which money is only a small part of what is exchanged between members. Value is placed on the exchange and accumulation of such abstract concepts as: self worth, exposure, future opportunity, mutual support, purity of intent, ideas and the common good. While the values placed on these forms of social capital make it a fluid, fast and fun economy it also makes it damn hard place to make a living.

Canberra is a particularly good place for this sort of economy to develop. There is a backbone of work ethic and employment that values security, personal comfort and independence while supporting a separation between an individual’s job and their identity. This is commonly expressed as; “I work in the Public Service but my passion is: (insert time/money expensive enthusiasm here).” This is an environment that encourages the development of self images that are in contrast to the everyday realities people are bound by. It is admirable that individuals choose to take their profit in time developing skills and engaging with their community, perhaps this group should be named the “Clark Kents” – mild mannered public servants by day, raging writers, actors, musicians, event organisers, painters, photographers and models by night.

The only question that remains for me is how to navigate this externally financially funded ecology in a way to make a living? I have only tried a few ways in the past: being an exhibiting and commissioned photographer, a community engaged artist, part time university lecturer and the most financially successful – a scholarship supported graduate student. One solid option for the future is providing services for the Clark Kents. No one hesitates at hiring a sound system, paying for safety equipment or buying a coffee to rent hang-out space in a café. The future is unknown but reasonably you can expect to find closer co-productions between commercial and creative outputs. These projects would bridge the gap by allowing Clark Kents to financially support emerging artists while continuing to create social capital by their involvement.

As an example, I might choose to set up a bakery/restaurant/gallery that trades on my identity as a community engaged participatory artist and integrates my artworks, examining exchange and value via the interactions with patrons. The customers/participants could be given a choice of how they pay, combining cash and social community actions. These payments in social capital are recorded and disseminated as part of the projects ongoing nature as an artwork. At the same time enough cash should change hands that I can have a reasonable middle class life.

[This is an infomercial, YAH could only afford to pay a small honorarium so I have taken payment by promoting my upcoming commercial venture Doktor’s Kitchen – follow us on Facebook or send an email to]

Robert Guth

Dr Robert Guth is a sessional lecturer at the ANU School of Art and a participatory artist. His community artworks deal with engagement, value and exchange.