untangling the awkward relationship between art and money

“Fair Crack of the Whip, Sport!”


AIS alumnus Lleyton Hewitt (image via heraldsun.com.au)


AIS alumnus Michael Clarke (image via adelaidenow.com.au)

Interesting opinion piece in The Age today by Australian artist Ben Quilty (link… here). In response to the recent raft of sporting-world scandals, he raises the question of why it is that sportsmen and women at the Australian Institute of Sport are exempt from the Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS) that applies to tertiary education in Australia (note: a couple of alumni pictured above).

The refreshing angle in Ben’s article is that he isn’t whingeing about how hard-up the visual arts are in terms of public funding. Nor does he suggest that artists should be exempt from the HECS fees they accumulate while studying, or from paying taxes on the windfalls that occasionally come their way during the course of their career (prizes, bursaries, scholarships). But he does challenge the fact that, unlike any other students, the privileged few who make it into Australia’s elite sporting academy are exempt from HECS fees.

Now, the argument of course is that people who commit their lives to amateur sport rarely if ever generate huge sums of money through their chosen discipline, and that there are tangible benefits to the Australian community when they achieve sporting greatness (think national pride, international profile, etc.) If there’s a benefit to us, the argument is that we should pay. And so we do – as taxpayers we fund the Institute of Sport, and those who attend it do so at the taxpayers’ expense.

But as Ben points out, should we treat the contributions made to our society by our petulant and ill-disciplined men’s swimming team any differently from the contributions made by everybody from nurses to teachers, paramedics and police officers? Not to mention artists of all ilk? Because they all had to pay for their education. And in all instances, if their post-graduation salaries do not lift above a pre-ordained level, the debt they accumulate while studying is deferred until such time as graduates are generating enough income to repay the debt.

Let’s face it. No doubt at all, it must be financially challenging for hurdlers and hammer-throwers after they retire. But not all the AIS graduates are in penury (witness: images above).

The exemption granted to our elite athletes just doesn’t seem fair. Interestingly (depressingly?) enough, the only politician Ben mentions as entertaining the idea about the need for HECS equity is Malcolm Turnbull.

Besides which, amateur sportsmen and women don’t have the corner on the “oh, poor me – we don’t make any money out of what we do for a living” schtick. David Throsby’s review of the economic circumstances of practising artists was called Don’t Give Up Your Day Job for a reason.

Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t a ‘down on sport’ spiel. Some of my best friends are sports-people. Heh.

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