Beyond the Stage

The idea of conducting a survey of performing artists’ salaries and working conditions in Cambodia was born of necessity, said Phloeun Prim, director of Cambodian Living Arts (CLA).

“When we began our Plae Pakaa program [of Cambodian dance performances at the National Museum in Phnom Penh], we were challenged to design a fair pay structure for the artists—more than 90 people—and we didn’t have any resource to guide us,” he said.

Performers from the touring company Reasmey Angkor Bassac Opera Company during a show in Siem Reap province last year (Charles King)
Performers from the touring company Reasmey Angkor Bassac Opera Company during a show in Siem Reap province last year (Charles King)

The program includes regular performances of Khmer classical and traditional dance and music, and salary ranges were needed not only for the artists but also for the managers and technicians for the shows, which were part of CLA’s activities to assist artists and their development in the country.

“We were really interested to try to get a sense of what are the different kinds of work artists are getting in the country especially outside of NGOs—the tourism and community employment channels—so we could get a bigger perspective on the sector,” Mr. Prim said.

And so, with funding from the European Union and the cooperation of performing-arts organizations, touring troupes and artists in the countryside, the first survey on artist wages and conditions was completed by a CLA team this year.

A total of 380 artists, along with 84 administrators, managers and technicians took part in the survey, which covered Phnom Penh and six provinces: Kampot, Takeo, Kandal, Kompong Cham, Siem Reap and Battambang. Due to resource and time constraints, only performing artists—musicians, dancers, actors and one group of circus artists—were included.

The survey was conducted between September last year and May by French sociologist Edouard Fouqueray, who had just completed a similar project in Burkina Faso, and Chhin Vanoeun, a CLA staff member who had just returned from studying economics and political science in India.

While the pair is quick to note the survey’s shortcomings—sampling too large a proportion of artist who are members of arts organizations, too few provincial artists, and the absence of circus artists bar the professional company of Phare Ponleu Selpak—they say they hope its findings reflect reality.

An audience watches a show by performers from the Reasmey Angkor Bassac Opera Company in Siem Reap province last year (Charles King)
An audience watches a show by performers from the Reasmey Angkor Bassac Opera Company in Siem Reap province last year (Charles King)

According to the survey, nearly three quarters of artists are under 30 years old, and 62 percent of them are not married.
Two artists out of three still take art classes, 39 percent of them every day and another 36 percent two to five times a week
One third of artists have jobs outside the arts. Of those, half do manual labor and 45 percent work as tradespeople, shop owners or business owners. The remaining 5 percent work for the government.

When it comes to wages, the survey reveals, women tend to earn about $2 less per hour than men, despite working 20 minutes longer during each performance. Last year, they earned an average of $75 per month, compared to $101 for men.

Additionally, artists living more than 50 km from major cities earn an average $5.60 per hour for a performance while their colleagues in urban areas make $7.40.

Those figures prompted questions when CLA presented the survey to arts organizations during a meeting at the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh.

“One hour of performance does not mean one hour of work,” said Kang Rithisal, executive director of Amrita Performing Arts, an organization that works with classically trained dancers to develop contemporary dance.

“One hour of performance means a few rehearsals of three or four hours over several days to make sure the quality is good,” Mr. Rithisal said. “It can take three, four or five hours to get themselves sewn into their costumes and remain in them…. Then with some costumes, they cannot go to the bathroom. So for hours, they don’t drink water and they don’t eat a lot.”

When men or women wear the elaborate masks, he said, “It hurts, it’s heavy. When they dance, they really need to breathe a lot, but the mask limits air access.”

“So one hour of performance means all those things,” Mr. Rithisal said. “It’s just hard for the audience to understand this because the beauty of the performance kind of blocks everything else, the hard work behind the scene.” The audience also may not realize that Khmer classical dancers must train from childhood and for at least 10 years to perform at the level they do, he added.

According to Kor Borin, who heads the cultural department at the Institut Francais, the survey should have looked at artists in Phnom Penh and those in the countryside separately.

“Artists in Phnom Penh are professionals who strictly are artists —it’s their profession,” Mr. Borin said. “Artists in the countryside will have two to three jobs to survive. An artist may be a motodop or work in the rice fields, and then get on stage when he has an opportunity to perform.”

Artists surveyed in the countryside may have submitted wages from their other jobs, skewing the data, he said. On the other hand, some professional artists make far more than the $101 monthly average reported, he added.

And a significant flaw of the survey is the omission of data from traditional circus artists and magicians who perform on a regular basis in the countryside, he said.

“It’s not a complete overview. But it’s normal, as this is the first time that such a survey has been conducted,” he said. “And to be accurate, it would need to be conducted on a regular basis and with a sample as large as possible.”

“Still, this report is already serving as a document of reference, a first step.”

Mr. Fouqueray and Mr. Vanoeun say conducting the survey, even with the support of the Ministry of Culture and provincial culture departments, was no easy task.

In the countryside, they met with company managers: artists who invest in vehicles and stage sets, and set up a company that performs whenever and wherever they are offered an engagement. Their cast and crew, many of them playing both roles, include as many as 40 people. They usually perform duirng the dry season, as they stage their shows outdoors with the audience sitting on the ground.

“I really admire the leaders of the troupes,” Mr. Vanoeun said. “They helped us a lot. They were passionate about this project, and even spent their own money calling all the artists to come and meet us. That was so nice. We could not have done it without their help no matter how hard we would have tried.”

At first, Mr. Fouqueray said, the survey was meant to focus on artists’ wages. But when the decision was made to look into their working conditions and needs as well, questions had to be added and the final version was 60 questions long. It took time and commitment to fill out, he said.

And despite explaining that the questionnaires were anonymous, questions about earnings made some artists uneasy, he said.
Differences between artists’ living conditions became obvious through questions about Facebook, YouTube and computer usage, as some artists in the countryside cannot afford computers and were unfamiliar with the Internet —unlike their counterparts in Phnom Penh or members of arts organizations.

Asked where they had performed over the past six months, 37 percent of the artists said they had done so at weddings, and 38 percent at hotels, restaurants and bars.

However, artists in Siem Reap City, whose tourism industry generates millions of dollars in government revenue every year, earn less than the country’s average, with about 55 percent of making less than $100 per month.

Hotel and restaurant owners who pay classical dance troupes poorly may force the groups to take on young dancers without the training of more experienced ones, said Mr. Rithisal of Amrita Performing Arts.

“A business does not realize it, but by doing this, they do contribute to lowering the quality of the arts in this country,” he said. “I would call it the cultural responsibility of the business manager.”

As a follow-up to the survey, CLA plans to hold a meeting between artist representatives and business leaders in January to discuss its findings and consider cooperation between the two sectors, Mr. Prim said.

Earlier this year, the Ministry of Culture released the country’s first “National Policy for Culture.” Among its goals, the policy stipulates that “promoting Cambodia…[as] a center for performing arts…[and] creating employment opportunities in the field of culture.”

“One of the most critical aspects for artists is having opportunities to perform publicly and be paid appropriately,” said Olivier Planchon, who recently stepped down as director of the Institut Francais. “This is an area where the Ministry of Culture could play a truly positive and useful role.”

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