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How To Deal With Disrespect

06 Mar 2023
Have you experienced disrespect in the workplace as an arts professional? Insights from those who have, and the lessons they took on board.
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Image: Shutterstock.

Today, there is no excuse for poor behaviour in the workplace. 

For decades, workers have advocated for safe working conditions, gender equity, copyright acknowledgment, and basic fair pay – and while Australia and New Zealand has pretty good standards generally – the arts regularly come up against a wall when it comes to regulated conditions and salary disparity, commensurate with professionals across other fields of expertise.

What is often forgotten, is that arts professionals are small businesses too. 

Would you ask your doctor or your lawyer to offer their services unpaid or allow them to work in an unregulated space? Would you expect your sourdough supplier to stock your local shop on consignment? 

The simple answer is no.

So why do we expect that artists and arts professional should bend to such expectations? Is it a case of sheer ignorance of our profession? Do people take advantage because they know they can – under the veil of offering artists’ opportunities – without the cost? Or is it just a case of blatant disrespect?

Artist Claire Bridge has encountered several forms of disrespect in her career. "I would categorise these broadly under three main types: ignorant, intentional and passive disrespect."

Multidisciplinary artist, designer and author Rachel Burke says that this is something she has "had to learn to deal with ongoing", but adds that the upside is that "there are lots of lessons to be learned from these experiences."

ArtsHub speaks with them and other professionals within the sector to ask how they face – and deal with – disrespect in their career journey.

On respectful working conditions

"Being a freelancer inevitably means you are the person with less status and power in any relationship with an editor," says freelance writer/author, Sian Prior

"You can’t afford to jeopardise those relationships, even if you feel like your work and/or worth are not being respected. You can’t complain if an editor takes too long to get back to you about a pitch. Complaining individually about pay rates will get you nowhere."

Prior adds that this is why being a member of Australia's MEAA (Media Entertainment Arts Alliance) is so important. "The union can – and does – help us collectively advocate for better pay and more respectful working conditions, even as vulnerable freelancers."

On respecting artists as professionals

Ngarrindjeri painter and mural artist, Thomas Readett says it is not easy being an artist and it takes an enormous amount of hard work, passion and momentum. 

"I believe anyone who judges an artist for choosing their path is someone who has never known what it’s like to live outside of their comfort zone. Also anyone who has the time to criticise someone else’s journey is not working hard enough on their own."

He continues, "I have dealt with disrespect for my career choice since a very young age, even some within my own family… It is important to always be humble and grateful for what you have worked for, but it’s like anything you truly put your mind to and master, when you reach certain levels people may try to put you down. 

"It doesn’t matter why they do this. What does matter is that you never lose focus or sight of your artistic journey and your own happiness. Creative expression is a gift – embrace it and never give up."

Readett is part of NAVA’s Art is a Real Job program

On respecting an artist’s worth

Visual artist Deborah Kelly says she has had a year of feeling "cherished" but that it has not always been the case. 

She says she will "never forget being invited to show at MoMA PS1 in New York and how excited I was, until the realities of being an unknown nobody in that art world’s prestige economy really dawned on me.

"To begin with, there was no artist fee for my labour, but then I got to the opening and they demanded US$15 to get in. I suggested a full-scale meltdown to the poor door attendants and after frantic walkie-talkie discussion they relented and let me in, but it turned out that punters at the exhibition launch were not even offered a glass of water. There was a secret reception in a cordoned-off area where patrons were mingling with high-profile artists over Prosecco and canapés. It was like a vivid 3D Venn diagram of culture intersecting with power and capital."

This is echoed in thoughts shared by Bridge: "I would say that I see disrespect essentially as not sharing the same values and showing a lack of regard for another."

Bridge believes that disrespect arises out of ignorance, disbelief or curiosity. 

"Questions from strangers responding to me saying, 'I’m an artist' might immediately elicit, 'Do you make money from that?' and 'What do you do for a job?'

"These kinds of questions overlook the actual work of an artist, are dismissive of our meaningful contributions, pretty discourteous and show a lack of understanding and respect for our work. It makes me wonder if that stranger would ask someone in another field the same kind of questions within minutes of meeting? I doubt it."

Her response is to "speak enthusiastically about what I do as an artist, and spark their curiosity to engage more with art."

Disrespect in partnerships/collaborations

Burke says she has mostly experienced disrespect in collaborations, or when people or clients in a higher position of power have sought to take advantage. 

"A key example would have been when I first started out selling my designs. When my label had some success I was approached by a business I really admired to go into a partnership on my brand. 

"After working with them for nine months, and awaiting the partnership documentation they had promised, I was finally presented with an 'employment contract', which they assured me at the time was the same thing as a partnership agreement. After thoroughly reading through the contract (and lucky that my partner is a lawyer), I exited that situation, but also had to walk away from the brand."

Burke says it taught her a valuable lesson. "It is always best practice to get legal documentation and terms in order prior to commencing a project – no matter how exciting it seems. You need to protect your work and yourself, because unfortunately people can seek to take advantage of inexperience, naivety and your success (sad, but true)."

Bridge details "(Within collaborations) being chronically late, showing up to meetings late and unprepared, saying they will do tasks and not following through, or not in timely way, fudging and making excuses, procrastinating, delaying, stalling, not completing tasks or rushing tasks in a frenzy, not doing tasks well and putting it on the team to complete things for them - is passive disrespect."

She adds, "Not all parties come to the table with the same level of skills and capacities. It’s important to acknowledge this. 

"In collaborations, I find that discussing these aspects of disrespectful behaviour as they come up, one on one, is helpful. It can bring awareness to those behaviours and an understanding of the impact and consequences to the team and project."

Disrespect of intellectual property

Sadly, this is a story too often shared in the arts, the infringement of copyright and intellectual property.

"This has been a little more difficult to navigate, as stopping this theft can be very frustrating and extremely expensive once you get lawyers involved," says Burke. 

"I tend to pick my battles here – sometimes I will DM (direct message) or email the infringing party directly and confront the issue head on, but other times I honestly just block the account because I know that the battle is pointless … and, at the end of the day, I would rather not see it (hence the blocking) as it really can take a toll on my mental health."

She says of a current situation she is dealing with: "A stylist DM’d me on Instagram and totally misrepresented the usage of one of my wearable artworks, resulting in a breach of my copyright. After requesting that I send the garment in (and cover the express postage) for an Instagram photoshoot with a popular musician (which, at the time, I was keen to be a part of), I next see that the images of my work have been used as the musician’s album art/internal artwork/and are the basis of the entire global campaign. 

"Was I credited in any of the material? No! When the musician was interviewed about who made the piece, she acted like it had appeared out of thin air – it was as if I’d been totally wiped from my connection with my own work. 

"When I realised what was happening I felt sick and, honestly … disrespected was totally the feeling.  Not only had the work been used massively outside of the scope of what was agreed, but to then have it done without any credit and on such a huge scale felt awful."

Burke is currently managing this situation with legal representation, but again stresses the importance of getting such agreements and expectations in writing.

Kelly says that she often comes up against misuse of her images. "Images of my work have often been used to promote the exhibitions I’m part of, and so often they are used unattributed."

She continues, "This should be so simple! Here’s something else that should be axiomatic: when you show an artist’s work, even if it comes from a collection, tell the artist. Come on! How is this even hard? 

"A few times I’ve only found out by sheer luck that my work was in important exhibitions. Like, people see the works and tag me on social media and that’s the first I hear of it. This is rubbish."

Disrespect in business relationships

Visual artist Abdul Abdullah says he hasn’t "ever felt disrespected in any business sense, apart from the often challenging aspects of being a sole trader in a largely unregulated industry," but he speaks of a passive kind of disrespect that is common.

"I have at times dealt with impolite or inconsiderate individuals, but in those situations I have taken it as a good indication that I shouldn’t pursue business relationships with that person," he tells ArtsHub.

Scott Chaseling and ArtsHub‘s Visual Arts Editor Gina Fairley run a sustainable glass studio. As a new business they have been growing their stockists. 

"One of the hardest business lessons has been negotiating the minefield of consignment,’ says Fairley. "A lot of business will only take your stock on consignment, and then fail to tell you when it has sold, or send you monthly remittances. It is impossible to 'see' stock levels when you are not on the ground, especially when you are managing 20 to 30 stockists. 

"As a business of small makers you have invested time and materials in the production of that stock. Simple respect through a wholesale agreement should be mandatory."

On gender and sexual disrespect

Global campaigns such as #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter have brought into the headlights inequality and disrespectful behaviour. In Australia, many arts organsiations are implementing gender equity statements and reconciliation plans.

Bridge says that sometimes this kind of disrespect is "intentional and mean-spirited disrespect." She continues that this can range from "being asked about whether you currently have or plan to have children by a gallerist or being made to feel uncomfortable during a private studio visit through innuendo, suggestive comments and sexual harassment." 

She recalls a situation where she was delivering a lecture, when "a senior, male lecturer interrupted my talk loudly from the audience with a derisory sexist comment insinuating that my mentor was having an inappropriate relationship with me and that was why he was supporting me. I was shocked. I could sense he was attempting to shame me as a young woman."

There is no appropriate situation for such behaviour, regardless of career advancement, gender or discipline. And yet we more than often don’t speak out.

"In a sector where relationships are critical, it takes courage to speak up," Bridge concludes.


This article was originally published by our friends at ArtsHub Australia.