Art for art's sake, money for God's sake - how can Aotearoa fix its broken artist pay model?

Rachel Rouge put on the final performance of the Menagerie Variety Show this year.

Rachel Rouge is sick of fighting.

Rouge is the former producer of Wellingtons much-loved Menagerie Variety Show, which, after seven years, has given its final performance. Cause of death: lack of funding. It turned out that accessing contestable money was easier said than done.

One of her funding applications to Creative New Zealand was declined, in part because, as she planned to use emerging artists in the show, quality couldnt be guaranteed.

But when shes made funding pitches involving established professionals, shes also been declined ironically because those artists are not as desperate for support.

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Last year, Rouge applied for money before Covid-19 turned the world upside down. But after lockdown hit she was unable to amend her application or make a new pitch to take into account the changed environment.

Its absolutely heartbreaking, says Rouge.

New Zealand artists often rely on grants and other support while they establish themselves. Some of the biggest names in our arts scene got their creative starts thanks to money from community foundations, arts trusts, local council funding, business sponsorship, crowdfunding or money from government agencies like Creative New Zealand, NZ On Air or the Department of Internal Affairs.

But its not simple. The application process for arts funding is time-consuming, writ-heavy, and awkward and invasive as Rouge puts it, with little or no mechanisms in place to challenge decisions.

Applications are also highly competitive and require detailed cost breakdowns, and artists who have the means to hire grant-writers often have more success.

There is a whole art of trying to create a budget for grant funding. Its not right or healthy. Id rather be doing my job, Rouge says.

Paradox Photography
Rouge has had funding declined several times from Creative New Zealand.

But problems in the arts funding landscape run deeper than any one system or entity.

Why is funding often so difficult for artists to access?

Some might say lack of oversight results in a hodgepodge, lolly scramble for dollars, some of which may be pocketed by people looking to exploit the system.

For people like Rouge, who simply want to pay performers and put food on the table, paranoia about where money might go feels like a kick in the guts.

That money gets paid over and over taxi drivers, coffee shops, equipment, retailers ... the money doesnt stop with any object or performance. It goes on and on in the community.

Increasingly, some in the art world are wondering if the system might be exploiting the artists.

At the heart of the issue, the key question: what should an artist be paid, and what is an artist worth?

Recently, the Ministry for Culture and Heritage appeared to revive the mothballed idea of a re-sale royalty for visual artists, which would entitle them to a royalty payment each time an original artwork is resold on the secondary art market.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern visited Te Papa to announce the arts recovery package, saying the cultural sector was among the most damaged by the crisis. (Video first published May 2020).

These royalties were introduced in 1920 in France, and more than 50 countries now have such a right. But previous discussions about brharapg a re-sale royalty system to New Zealand have gone nowhere, despite the literary and music worlds having equivalent systems.

William McCahon, the son of Colin McCahon, one of Aotearoas most renowned painters, said his late-father believed in the idea of a re-sale royalty.

Colin believed in this idea and talked about it, William McCahon says.

Art dealers have raised questions about where the money would come from. Its likely the expense would fall on the buyer, which auctioneers say may dissuade them from a purchase altogether, given buyers may already pay commission.

And emerging artists wouldnt likely benefit from such a system, as for significant profit to be made the work would have to be actively trading at high prices which are essentially the 1 per cent of artists at a Messiah-like status, Ben Plumbly, director of auction house Art+Object says.

Kevin Stent/Stuff
Jo Randerson says art should not be bureaucratic, but all arts funding systems are undeniably complex.

The bureaucrat that runs it possibly gets the most benefit, William McCahon says.

He says the current funding systems are corrupt because theyre managed by an insincere literate elite who are aware of the cash-rich potential of the arts.

Another idea under discussion is having artists re-design the systems that arent working.

Jo Randerson, a writer, director and performer who founded Barbarian Productions, says artists are experts in fluidity, shape-shifting and re-thinking structures.

The culture ministry should be employing artists of all stripes as expert consultants to help design new, future-proofed support which takes into account the impact of the pandemic on the sector, she says.

Most artists I know are tired, exhausted by the insecurity, very unsure about the future, and feel undervalued despite deeply believing and seeing directly the powerful impact of their work, Randerson says.

I see more and more of us leaving the industry, becoming builders, managers or working on American television productions. This means art becomes an occupation for either the very tough or the wealthy. We don't get to celebrate and enjoy the many different talents and voices in this country because it is just so hard to make a living.

Ben Plumbly from Art Object says the idea of an art re-sale royalty will have little effect for many artists.

BATS Theatre director Jonathon Hendry says while many artists put in the mahi and feed societys collective wairua (spirit), they are unable to live sustainably and struggle to even pay rent.

Covid-19 has impacted the arts community hugely, but the truth is it was never easy to be an artist, he says.

BATS is rolling out a co-production model to try to support its artists more.

Audience members who can afford to pay more, and want more money to go directly to artists, will now be able to choose to pay more for difference tickets. The Wellington-based theatre will also offer a stipend this year for its artist studio residency, and increase its fundraising.

Together, the changes should allow artists more space and time to create, and then to be able to put on longer seasons.

This is a start and there is still so much more work to do, Hendry says.

A survey in 2019, commissioned by Creative New Zealand and NZ On Air, found the median income for creative professionals in Aotearoa was about $35,800 lower than the living wage, and considerably less than the median income for regular wage-earning Kiwis of $51,800.

Sixty-three per cent of creative professionals felt their pay was unfair, and 55 per cent worked outside the sector in addition to their creative job out of necessity, rather than choice, the survey found.

Actors, theatre producers, musicians, object artists and craft artists had the lowest sustainability out of all creative careers, the report found.

They are the least satisfied with their career, and are more likely than average to feel there are insufficient opportunities in New Zealand for them to sustain a career, and to feel they need to go overseas to develop their career, it said.

Covid-19 has made the situation even more precarious.

A report from the culture ministry in April last year forecast potential loss of 16.4 per cent of GDP for the sector, compared to 8 per cent for New Zealand as a whole.

It also forecast the potential loss of 11,000 jobs, with contractors, casual workers, freelancers and those working in live performance especially affected.

Organisations, workers and audiences continue to be affected by restrictions on gatherings and international travel, along with widespread uncertainty about the future.

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That report noted that in a post-Covid world, audiences were still hesitant to gather, and there was still significant job insecurity and risk for those working in the sector. Forecasts showed the greatest job losses were still to come.

So how do we move away from dinner-party fundraisers so artists are able, and have the time, to do their jobs?

Actor, writer and director Miriama McDowell (Ngti Hune, Ngpuhi) reckons it would be a good idea to bring the artists wage back on the table.

While artists are resilient by nature, she fears talented people will escape en masse overseas or to other sectors where they feel more valued.

De-valuing art can also be seen in the issue of inadequate arts infrastructure. Several recent reports in Wellington, as one example, have highlighted the dire state of the citys cultural venues, particularly the lack of a mid-size location which would have suited an event like Rouges Menagerie.

We dont ever rely on anything, McDowell says. We dont get the job most of the time. We invest completely 100 per cent in something that might not happen. Its quite an incredible state to be in as a human being. People love security and routine, people dont like to sit and doubt. But thats where we live all the time.

Shes hopeful the sector can come up with solutions together. But it also needs more support from the top politicians, authorities, ministries as the current environment discourages emerging artists from considering art as a career altogether.

David White/Stuff
Miriama McDowell says artists dont rely on anything.

That's despite the sectors growing economic and wellbeing impact for wider society.

According to the Government, New Zealands arts and creative sectors contribute nearly $11b per year to the GDP, with the sectors employing about 90,000 people. This covers everything from music to screen, performance and visual arts right through to museum, heritage and cultural work.

The culture ministry says the sector is an engine for growth for the economy, in recent years matching or outpacing others in terms of income, employment and value added.

That contribution can be seen in things like streaming service subscriptions skyrocketing, and physical art sales booming.

The Government is reassessing how it supports the arts.

At a recent select committee, heads of the culture ministry told politicians they were evaluating the ministry's landmark $175m Covid-19 recovery package, which its helping divvy up among its sub-agencies like Creative New Zealand.

The aim is to provide insight to whats working well, highlight areas for improvement, and see whether the funding achieved expected outcomes, a spokesman for the ministry says.

Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden has defended the UK government's record of providing support for the arts and creative industries.

Presently, any Crown entity funded by the ministry must develop a statement of intent and statement of performance expectations, and regularly report on progress.

Meanwhile, each non-government organisation funded by the ministry must develop an outcome agreement which contains performance measures, and report on those as well.

But Randerson says art should not be bureaucratic.

It can posit alternatives, it can also point out sore or uncomfortable spots in our being. It comforts us and offers us release and recognition. It is totally natural and normal. Humans have always been singers, dancers, poets and illustrators.

The world would ground to a halt pretty quickly if there was no music. Well, there would be a lot of fighting first. Art is not a bureaucratic structure. It is people, in connection with each other, recognising the spiritual or soul component of our being.


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