An essay titled "Why We Are Burning Out in the Arts" circulated through my feed this week, and the timing couldn't be more apropos. It seems a lot of art professionals are burning out after a very busy two month starting the autumn exhibition season.
The article itself, written by Madeleine Dore for the Australian publication Performing ArtsHub, is an interesting read. She speculates that a special mixture of FOMO, financial precarity, and overwork due to a post-Fordist work/life play blurring is responsible for the lightspeed burnount many artists and professionals are experiencing. I'm not terribly sure I learned anything from reading the article, but I'm glad Dore is getting the conversation started. (Or keeping it alive!)
Even by arts industry standards, poet, playwright, fantasy novelist, columnist, librettist and performance critic Alison Croggon has a lot to juggle.
She admits she has ‘flirted with burnout' for years.
‘Burnout is an occupational hazard in the arts,’ said Croggon. ‘There's no doubt that artists face particular issues, which are largely to do with the fact that so many work outside institutions, often alone, and have no structures to assist them or any kind of financial stability.’
Burnout is a challenge for anyone who works hard in a competitive and unrelenting profession. But there are particular issues for those in the arts industries.
‘I'd say a major pressure in the arts comes from living a life of constant financial insecurity. Artists work very hard, usually in multiple ways on several different projects, but this labour seldom gives you a regular income, so you're coping with stresses that don't have to do with your work, but are a result of it.
As Croggon progresses in her career, such stress has become harder to handle. ‘A life in the arts is rewarding in so many ways, but you have to be very lucky just to make a living wage. When I see stuff about superannuation, I just laugh. What superannuation?’
With a career spanning finance, human rights, academia and the arts, Head of the Academy at UWS James Arvanitakis is in a position to observe that people in the arts are particularly prone to burnout.
Working in a field which can not only a passion but also provide a sense of identity for many, means there are tendencies for arts workers to never switch off, and accept any work including low paid and sometimes unpaid opportunities.
‘Combined, this means working for a lot of hours for not much pay... people tend to live quite precariously in the arts and can burn out,’ said Arvanitakis.
Josephine Ridge, Artistic Director, Melbourne Festival said the under-resourcing of arts organisations may also contribute to the problem. ‘People somehow expect that they work long hours and accept it as normal that we are often working during what other people call weekends,’ she said.
‘I think the level of resourcing in most arts companies would not be acceptable in the corporate sector.’
The pressure to do more, more, more
In an industry where we are constantly reminded of how difficult it is to break into, when opportunities do arise it can feel as if there is a pressure to say yes, or you will get left behind.
But for Arvanitakis, taking on more than he could manage wasn’t doing anyone any favours. ‘I was producing substandard work that I didn’t think was up to scratch. I thought I’d rather do less stuff and do it better, than continue to just do more and more with the fear that I’d be left behind.’
‘It’s really important that we confront the fear of missing out and recognise that it is okay to say no to things, those opportunities will come back again. I think we do need to accept the fact that we can’t do everything,’ said Arvanitakis.
When being ‘busy’ is mistaken as a badge of honour, there can be a stigma in admitting you are suffering from burnout that only exacerbates its symptoms.