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New Zealand Is Burning Out a Generation of Young Artists

The country is being praised for their “wellbeing” budget, which measures quality of life alongside money. But artists are still feeling the impact of funding cuts that have made it seemingly impossible to forge a fair living as a creative.

by Amanda Jane Robinson
18 June 2019, 1:28am

Images provided

This year two of New Zealand’s major arts funding bodies—Creative New Zealand and New Zealand On Air—conducted a study on the finances of the country’s artists. The findings were grim: on average Kiwi creatives earn just $15,000 a year from their artistic pursuits.

Of course, working within the arts is difficult everywhere, but it often feels like New Zealand has a specific cultural attitude that avoids investing in the arts. As a result, arts practitioners who don’t have existing financial support (AKA rich parents) are often financially and emotionally exhausted and have to move overseas to continue their practice.

In the past this issue was combated by the PACE programme (Pathway to Arts and Cultural Employment) that helped compensate artists for their efforts until they could earn enough to sustain themselves. It’s what allowed Taika Waititi to explore and experiment long before the Marvel money started flowing. But ever since that programme was scrapped in 2012, artists have had a hard time recovering.

Presently only a handful of arts grants are given out each year, creating a culture of fierce competition and compounding into a national creative burnout.

The outlook is even tougher for Māori artists, who face a whole host of further challenges within an industry that is largely run by pākehā curators, publishers, and programmers. It’s also rough for young artists who, without a history of proven success, are rarely trusted to receive more than minimal funding.

When the New Zealand government released their widely-praised “wellbeing” budget earlier this month, many held out hope that it might offer some additional support. But unfortunately the arts industry was scarcely mentioned. In a particularly ironic twist, the model and actress on the cover of the budget, Vicky Freeman, explained to the The Guardian that she and her daughter decided to move to Australia over Auckland’s exorbitant living costs. The creative serving as the literal face of the budget wasn’t able to earn enough to pay her rent.

“We moved to Auckland to do the TV thing but I couldn’t pay the rent... Sometimes I would have to hire a sitter to look after my girl while I went and did some TV work, and I was paying the sitter more than I was coming home with because I was passionate,” she explained.

VICE spoke to a number of young New Zealand creatives to see how these budget and policy decisions are impacting their lives and work every day.

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Hana Pera Aoake, writer and artist

How do you feel about Aotearoa New Zealand's current artistic climate?
The nature of being an artist in Aotearoa makes me feel insistently like I am regurgitating work for hardly any money, and not even to the benefit of my practice, because I’m not working within a system that’s centred around building meaningful long-term relationships with people, based around say whanaungatanga.

I resent that I’ve never met a pākehā curator capable of pronouncing my name properly, which may give you an indication of how alienated I feel. The thing though that frustrates me the most about existing within this arts ecology is that institutions run by pākehā and/or tauiwi people are really out here using concepts like aroha, manaakitanga, and whanaungatanga as ‘curatorial’ concepts, but don’t hire any Māori or put us in positions where we have meaningful influence or enough support. It's so lonely and draining to be the only Māori person in an organisation. It feels so performative and transactional.

new zealand young creative burnout Nahyeon-Lee
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Nahyeon Lee, filmmaker interested in identity and femininity

How do you sustain yourself financially while maintaining the energy to make work?
Recently I’ve found myself having to work in the performing arts industry to sustain myself financially, which is outside but tangential to my field. Luckily, I’ve had the incredible privilege to work for companies and artists with value systems that align with mine. But I feel burnt out a lot of the time. Film is kind of unsustainable in New Zealand for emerging filmmakers.

What’s something you miss out on that artists overseas have access to?
Boring financial stuff: artists overseas have access to a lot more funding from private investors, whereas in New Zealand we have a funding body that supports New Zealand film. It really limits the funding available and how your priorities have to align with the only funding body.

new zealand creative burn out Tayi Tibble
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Tayi Tibble, poet writing on the intersection of indigeneity and pop culture

How do you sustain yourself financially while maintaining the energy to write?
Honestly, it’s hard, and I don’t think I’ve found a good balance yet. I’m always kind of focused on one at the expense of the other. Poetry doesn’t pay well, which is a shame, because I get a lot of opportunities in my Gmail but I have to be really selective about what I take on. I get upset sometimes because I’m like, wow if I was working this much and this hard in any other vocation I’d probably have mad bank. I work at Toi Māori Aotearoa, so I’m fortunate in the sense that my day job has creative elements, though some days I have wild and inaccurate fantasies about working a dumb job of no consequence so I can mentally and emotionally clock off at the end of the day. It doesn’t really work that way working in Māori arts because it's so inherent to who I am.

What’s something you have access to that artists overseas miss out on?
Community. We’re little and tight AF, but there are certain detriments to this, such as everyone knowing your personal business because we’re all wordy people, AKA gossips. But I reckon creative friendships is the most important factor in sustaining an artistic career—though that said I am a Libra.

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Hannah Davis-Gray, jeweller exploring ethical and sustainable materials and processes

How do you sustain yourself financially while maintaining the energy to make work?
I work four days a week as a paralegal and make jewellery on my days off, weekends, and evenings. Sustaining yourself financially in Auckland is incredibly hard. I love making, but sometimes it can be physically exhausting—it especially strains my hands and eyes. At the moment I’m fortunate to have found a flat with very cheap rent that also accommodates a home studio and is within walking distance to my casters, and to have a job and employer that supports my practice.

What’s something you miss out on that artists overseas have access to?
Currently there is a crisis in arts education in New Zealand. Tertiary institutions are neglecting to support arts and creative industries in favour of STEM subjects. If institutions continue to cut funding and reduce resources in art and creative fields then these degrees will be severely compromised.

new zealand creatives Sharon-Lam
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Sharon Lam, writer

How do you sustain yourself financially while maintaining the energy to write?
It’s very, very hard. When I was finishing my manuscript after uni, at first I was on the benefit, but I was also depressed so it was really hard to write even though I had all this free time. Then I was part-timing as a waitress and a tutor, and even though physically I would be very tired, it was also easy to romanticise. My writing output was on the up and I was able to complete it, send it to publishers. But now I’m working a nine-to-six job with an hour on the subway each side in Hong Kong, and while I’m grateful to have full-time employment I have been truly struggling to write anything at all.

new zealand -Jahra-Rager-Wasasala
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Jahra Wasasala, performer working across contemporary dance, poetry and vocal soundscapes

How do you feel about Aotearoa New Zealand's current artistic climate?
Artistically, it's amazing. No matter where I am working in the world, most of my favourite artists across most artistic industries are based in or have trained in Aotearoa or the wider South Pasifika. But there are a few reasons that New Zealand’s current artistic climate isn’t sustainable—one of the big ones being the attitude towards the arts. Of course it is financially difficult, as it is everywhere for creative industries, but what’s specific in New Zealand’s culture is this engrained conservative mentality that does not see value in investing in the arts across numerous spheres, and this has a real effect on the a whole industry’s well-being and humanity, our sustainability, and our creative capacity to be exceptional full-time artists contributing to our home while at home. So most have to leave. And it’s frustrating to see that gap continue.

new zealand creative Ruby-Porter
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Ruby Porter, artist and writer

How do you feel the place you grew up has affected your practice?
I remember trying to write a short story as a kid set on a double-decker in London (and failing, obviously). I always felt like ‘real’ stories happened elsewhere. Now, I feel the exact opposite. Aotearoa has so many stories, and so many of them are yet to be told—that’s exciting as a writer.

How do you sustain yourself financially while maintaining the energy to write?
I’m lucky to have a great relationship with my mum, Linley, so I live at home with her. I tutor creative writing and teach occasionally. I love that all my work revolves around writing, but sometimes emails and marking and lesson plans do deplete my time and energy to write. The stipend from my PhD, when I eventually start it, will be more money than I’ve ever seen in my life. It amazes me that I’ll be paid to write.

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Vanessa Crofskey, artist interrogating intimacy, social structures, and language.

How do you sustain yourself financially while maintaining the energy to make work?
In all honesty, I have not figured this out. I owe a lot of my successes to family support, especially financially getting through uni. I’m on the benefit (Government welfare payments) now and although navigating that is a total mindfuck, it’s also put the pressure off to constantly be searching for money. Most people I know are still tired all the time, not taking proper weekends and burning out fast.

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