One Question Quiz

PartnersMay 31, 2023

Art is work: A look inside the engine of our creative sector


Introducing a new editorial series produced by The Spinoff with Creative New Zealand exploring the practical working lives of eight New Zealand artists.

I’d like you to think of a painting in a gallery for a moment – it could be any painting in almost any gallery in the world. Now, I’d like you to think about every bit of work, from a real-life human being, that led to you being able to see that painting in that gallery. 

There’s the obvious work: the fact right in front of your face, that it was painted by an artist.

There’s the slightly less obvious work: the artist needed to purchase the materials required to paint it, set aside time to paint it, and more than likely source a space to paint it in. 

Then there’s the even less obvious work: the months and years that go into honing a craft, the many hours that go into planning and carrying out an exhibition, the emails and phone calls to publicise it and make sure that people actually get to the exhibition, the upkeep of the gallery space required to actually show that work.

All of that work to experience one painting. Now, multiply that many times to get an exhibition. Or, take that painting out of the gallery space – it could be a mural, or the cover of your favourite album. Perhaps it’s the painting you see every morning when you wake up, and before you go to sleep. It’s all art, and it all takes work – a lot of it – to get made.

(Illustration: Ezra Whittaker)

Art is a passion, and for many, it can be a hobby that brings plenty of joy, whether it is to an artist making it, or an audience engaging with it. It enriches our communities, and is a conduit for the country to participate not just in culture, but in engaging their own creative minds. But for those who have devoted their lives to it, it’s work. Like many jobs, the amount of labour, time and energy needed to even get to the point where a creative can make that work is huge. That’s true of all art forms – whether it’s a painting, a live performance, a video game, a musical composition, a sculpture or a book. 

What comes out at the end of a process is barely representative of the work that went into making it; it’s the tip of the iceberg made up of blood, sweat, tears and, probably, lots of emails. It’s the bottom of the iceberg that shows how resilient our arts sector is. Our artists overachieve internationally, our art is a crucial part of our country’s heritage and culture, and our communities rally for more support from the powers that be.

A survey released last week by Kantar Public on behalf of Creative New Zealand and NZ on Air estimated that just over half of creative professionals are satisfied with their career, and the same amount have experienced burnout in the past year. The main reason given for that burnout is a low and inconsistent income, with just a quarter of all creatives being able to live comfortably on their present earnings.

The research paints a starker image when it comes to the actual dollar amount – what artists are paid for the work they do. The surveys found the median total income for creative workers, across all artforms and practices, was $37,000 (although creative work only makes up $19,500). Compare that to the median total income of the average New Zealander, which sits at $61,000. Only 35% of those professionals believe they are fairly compensated, with a full 33% outright believing they are not fairly compensated.

Furthermore, this survey found that nearly half (44%) of creative workers had to find work outside the sector. That doesn’t even count the multiple hats that many in the sector wear to make ends meet, simply to stay afloat: 71% consider themselves to be active participants in the gig economy, working job to job, paycheque to paycheque. 

When those disparities are broken down by demographic they become even more clear. On average, men in the sector get paid 32% more than women, a much more extreme disparity than at the national level (9.2%). Deaf and disabled creative professionals are also paid much less than the median for both their total and creative income, as are people aged 60 or over.

“We know that New Zealanders support arts, culture and creativity more than ever, and the value of artists’ work is felt and seen by communities across Aotearoa every day,” says Stephen Wainwright, chief executive of Creative New Zealand Toi Aotearoa. 

(Image: Creative Professionals research)

“However, the Creative Professionals research shows us that artists continue to earn significantly less than the median salary for their creative work, painting a bleak picture in terms of career sustainability for people working as creative leaders, innovators and storytellers in our community,” he says. “We want to make real progress towards fairer remuneration and conditions for artists, but this will require fresh, collective thinking and action. We can make changes to the way we support our artists so they can do what they do best – create art that challenges, inspires and connects us.”

“A key part of this is helping to build New Zealanders’ understanding about the reality of artists’ lives and everything that goes into making their valuable work happen.”  

It isn’t just the lack of financial compensation that exists as a barrier for creative professionals to work, however. Professionals cited issues both expected (commitments in other work roles, domestic responsibilities, a small market) and unexpected (lack of work due to Covid-19, insufficient capital to invest in tools, and the lack of a career path). Those are huge barriers to overcome for a professional before they even get into the room to actually make the work.

While it’s the end result that gets applauded, the actual work that goes into the art can be invisible. Creative work in New Zealand is a swan, serene and beautiful above the pond surface, while its little webbed feet paddle furiously to keep itself afloat.

Our sector doesn’t have to be resilient, though. You can look overseas and see how systems can work for artists, and the audiences they create work for. There is Ireland’s basic income scheme for artists, New York’s project to rebuild the city for artists, and closer to home, the new Australian cultural policy that centres the rights of artists. These pathways help carry artists, and the entire sector, over the roadblocks into that beautiful thing: sustainable careers.

A step towards art, and therefore our artists, being valued is for the amount of work that they do to be fully appreciated. It’s difficult to appreciate something without understanding it. That’s where our new series, Art Work comes in.

Art Work aims to demystify the work that an artist does in their average week. Eight of New Zealand’s leading artists, including visual arts, literature and dance, will tell us what their workweek looks like. 

These are artists from a range of backgrounds – these are emerging artists, established artists, artists working in urban centres, artists working rurally, artists with jobs outside the arts, artists with families to support, artists who just have to support themselves. They’re artists at the forefront of fields ranging from poetry to theatre, award-winners and agenda-setters among them.

The one thing they share in common? They all work, and ultimately, the work they make is for us. They enrich our communities, open windows to stories and experiences, and bring us all that little bit closer together. We want to let them tell you how they get it done.

Keep going!