The tough business of being an artist

By Peter Feeney

Young artists who want to make a living from their passion have a champion in Antony Deaker.
Antony Deaker has been an artists' mentor for many years. Pic by Thomas Lord.
Antony Deaker has been an artists' mentor for many years. Pic by Thomas Lord.

In his office in Dunedin's historic Carnegie Centre, Antony Deaker sits for the photographer. To one side there is a dying pot plant. Clearly the man is no botanist, but he is adept at turning unemployed creatives - actors, visual artists, musicians, film-makers, designers, jewellers - into viable entrepreneurs. He flips me his business card. "Time for a REAL job," it reads: "Be an ARTIST."

Today he's meeting Julia Palm as she works to turn her dream - to be a fashion designer - into reality.

Six months out of fashion school at Otago Polytechnic, Palm had been struggling to find a job in her chosen field. Deaker agreed to mentor her while Winz keeps paying her benefit. As one of the top three students in her final year, Palm is showcasing a collection in August at New Zealand Fashion Week. With Deaker's help she's figured out strategies to make the most of the opportunity, creating a range of clothing and accessories she can market to buyers during NZFW and establishing and stocking her own online store.

"Antony is great at pointing out goals in a practical and achievable way," Palm says. "He gets me excited about the future of my brand and makes me appreciate my strengths and how they can work in a business sense."

If the Ministry of Social Development give her business plan the tick, Palm could receive grants of up to $16,000 for set-up costs and to support her through her first six months of trading. If everything goes well after that she'll be off the unemployment benefit for good. At any time Deaker may work with up to 15 people like Palm, meeting them once or twice a week for about four months.

The process appears straight forward but what is surprising is that Deaker is the last man standing - the only artists' mentor still working this way in New Zealand. Since 2001 and through successive governments he's quietly carried on despite, in 2011, the axing of Pace (Pathways to Arts and Cultural Employment) -- the original government scheme that started his work. The proof is in the results: recent research by Impact Consulting found 90 per cent of his clients from the previous four years were employed and that more than 75 per cent had successfully started their own businesses. He's helped launch the careers of, among others, singer/songwriter Anthonie Tonnon, now resident in Auckland; Emily Hlavac-Green, a photographer and art director based in New York City; Kate Brown, a Sydney-based visual artist.

Deaker's been at various times a writer, sculptor, performance artist, musician and DJ. Ngai Tahu from Kati Huirapa (one of the local runanga), he manages Dunedin's annual Puaka Matariki Festival, and since February he's also been working for Dunedin city in a newly created role integrating the arts and cultural sector into overall economic development planning. His multiple perspectives have grown his understanding of how artists grow proficiency and become financially viable.

Creative people, Deaker says, typically work project to project. "When I visit schools I tell young people: if you can write a song, paint a picture, make a hoodie, if you can pull off one project - you can run a business. Embodied in the process of getting an idea out of your head and into a finished product is the whole skill set you need to run a professional career," he says. "Artists just need a project management model, so that while they're finishing a project they're mapping out the next."

He holds that his "Dunedin model" is utterly transferable: the structures and grants he employs from Winz and the Ministry of Social Development, such as the flexi-wage, all exist nationally. Despite the demise of Pace he hasn't needed to argue a special case for artists or run separate programmes for them.

Deaker was part of the research team that developed the Pace policy prior to its adoption by the Labour Government in 2001. The acronym may have a familiar ring: Pace allowed beneficiaries to tell the truth and list the arts as their preferred job field. "Prior to that," says Deaker, "artists had to choose hospitality, retail or construction as their job preference."

The 1998 Dunedin research found that existing practice focused on helping beneficiaries into paid employment, an approach unhelpful for artists as most would become self-employed.

The National Government axed the scheme in 2011 but not before Pace had helped launch careers: prominent Pace alumni include film-maker Taika Waititi; Luke Buda, of the acclaimed Wellington band Phoenix Foundation; and M Fabulous of the Black Seeds.

A FEW days after the interview with Deaker my wife and I join him for a dinner involving rather too much wine, pizza and children. We have three, but Deaker and his partner Mikaela (a primary school teacher) have a blended family of six - if you count the German international student. Their rambling property near Waitati boasts free-range chickens, vege gardens and a rusty trampoline with plenty of bounce left in it. Incredibly, in case they're not already busy enough, they're talking with Cyfs about taking in a 12-year-old boy for a few months.

Over dinner Deaker breaks some unexpected news. The contracts manager at Dunedin Winz has just informed him that their budget had been cut: Deaker's position as a contractor with them ends in July. A life's work (or at least a sizeable chunk of it) has been curtailed. He's remarkably sanguine.

"I'm worried, of course, about the people coming into the system now who will again be directed to unrelated, low-paid and non-useful work in anything except what they trained for, skilled in and passionate about," he tells me.

He's also bleak on the big picture. "We are potentially back at the same point in the political cycle as we were in 1998: a retrenching conservative government and a culture within the social welfare system that treats people abysmally." Yet he's characteristically bullish as well, confident that one way or another he can fit his process around some other scheme or agency, determined to "build this into something that is transferable."

He was there when mentoring for artists began and he's ready to do a few more rounds. I'm left with the feeling he's not quite ready yet to hang from the ropes.

- NZ Herald

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