PartnersJune 19, 2024

Art is everywhere: A closer look at the creativity around us


The second series of Art Work produced by The Spinoff with Creative New Zealand launches tomorrow and will continue to explore the practical working lives of New Zealand artists, and what it takes to bring their art to an audience.

Imagine for a moment, that you’re standing in a town square. On one side of the square you might see the town hall, which regularly hosts performances from local orchestras, and writers festivals. On another, you might see a public art installation, a sculpture or a piece of visual art made specifically for the space. On special days, there might be a group performance – a circus act or a kapa haka group – to entertain people of all ages. 

All of this is art. Even the town square and its layout, intended to connect people with each other, is its own kind of art. All of these things are the results of the skill, vision and time of many artists. The investment of these artists. Art is, ultimately, the result of their work. This art creates culture. It comes from a deep understanding and embracing of creativity.

It is also the result of investment from others. That could be investment from the government on a national or local level, investment from a business perhaps, but ultimately, it relies on investment – be it time, be it attention, be it actual money – from an audience to really thrive. Art without audience has value, but art with an audience? That’s the dream. That’s what connects us. Ultimately, that’s where the magic happens.

That magic doesn’t happen without work, though. In a recent piece for The Conversation, David Throsby and Katya Petetskaya wrote that artists in Australia only earn $23K on average from their art, and are essentially primary investors in the sector. “Artists such as writers, actors, visual artists, musicians, dancers and others effectively make a personal financial contribution to supporting cultural activity through their willingness to accept a lower reward for their work than they could earn elsewhere,” they write.

“Their subsidy to the arts helps to sustain artistic practice and represents a significant personal investment in the future of the cultural life of this country.”

The case is unfortunately often the same for New Zealand artists. When only creative work is taken into account, our artists’ median salary is only $19.5K, as reported in research last year from Creative New Zealand and NZ on Air (and it’s barely more – $37K – when other work is accounted for). That is well below the reported median for other New Zealanders of $61K. Too often, New Zealand artists work long hours, far below the living wage or even for free, to bring audiences – and the general public – the art they truly value. Despite this, our artists are producing work and achieving on a scale that far outstrips their compensation. We’ve seen this recently with the likes of Mataaho Collective being awarded the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale (the art world’s Olympic gold), and director Josephine Stewart-Tewhiu’s film We Were Dangerous winning the Special Jury Award at the 2024 SXSW Film Festival.

The subsidisation by proxy is also wildly out of step with audience appreciation for the work of New Zealand artists. In April, Creative New Zealand released the most recent “New Zealanders and the Arts Ko Aotearoa me ōna Toi” report, which detailed how New Zealanders engage with – and appreciate – the arts. Of the respondents, 78% reported “engagement” with the arts, while 72% reported that they attended the arts. This is in step with previous reporting dating back to 2005.

This appreciation isn’t limited to audiences. Remarkably, 54% of respondents said they participated in the arts, with visual arts and Ngā toi Māori being especially well represented. This means that New Zealanders aren’t just going to art, they’re creating it themselves. 

The arts also give New Zealanders who have often been excluded – or pushed to the fringes – the opportunity to engage fully with society, with Young people, Deaf and disabled, Māori and Pacific peoples participating in the arts most frequently. Where structures and prejudices can exclude, the arts can include.

If we zoom out from individual appreciation, the research also shows there is clear public understanding that the arts make up a crucial part of the economy, and that they require public investment. Art doesn’t happen because an artist simply wills it or an audience demands it, it needs investment to build the bridge between the two. Moreover, beyond being a vital part of the economy, it is also a well-established public good. It contributes to our wellbeing, our self-worth and our sense of identity.

So: we know that New Zealanders value the arts. But do our artists feel that value? And does that value translate to their lived experience of making work?

In the first season of this series, we learned from nine of our leading artists about what it takes to make work. We learned about their day-to-day lives, the reality of keeping multiple plates spinning, and how much effort it takes to even get to a place where they can do the work. 

"A collage of nine individual artists, each featuring a different person in various settings. The people are diverse in terms of gender, age, and ethnicity, and they are depicted in casual or work attire. The backgrounds range from outdoor scenes to indoor environments, reflecting a variety of personal and professional contexts."
The 10 artists featured in the first season of Art Work.

The second season of this series will continue that kōrero, with an added focus on value. Most New Zealanders participate in the arts in some way, as an audience or creator in their own rights. If you’re one of those New Zealanders, understanding the work it takes to build – and sustain – a career can only heighten your appreciation of the creative process.

The range of artists from across the motu that have been interviewed for this series make work that encompasses many of the artforms that entertain and inspire New Zealanders, including theatre, literature, music, sculpture, Ngā toi Māori and visual art. These artists include an Arts Laureate, an Ockham Book Award winner, a doctor of philosophy and an emerging composer. You will understand what their lived experience is, what it takes to bring their art to an audience and what it actually means for them to do it.

Also? You will understand that, fundamentally, art is work. And, like all work, it deserves to be fairly compensated. 

That town square is made up of art, artists and audiences. They exist in an ecosystem with each other. All value each other, all are improved by proximity to each other. We value art. We value audiences. It’s time to show how we value artists.