It is a standard trope – the struggling artist, toiling away at their practice fuelled only by passion for their art and never enough actual income.
New research revealed last week proves once and for all that for many of our creative professionals this is an unfortunate reality.
The findings, from a survey commissioned by Creative New Zealand and New Zealand on Air, show that New Zealanders employed in arts and culture professions juggle multiple jobs and rely on safety nets (such as a partner's income) to ensure they put food on the table. This research was the first of its kind in over 20 years and involved 1500 people who had earned some income over the last year from their various art forms.
It shows that the median personal annual income for creative professionals is $35,800, compared to $51,800 for all New Zealanders earning a wage or salary. When you take away the non-creative extra jobs artists do to support their work, the median from creative work alone fell to $15,000. The report also demonstrates a very present gender pay gap in the sector.
The highest paid creative professions surveyed are video game developers – the lowest are dancers. Despite only 23 per cent feeling comfortable financially, artists said they are extremely committed to the sector with only three percent feeling they would leave it within the next five years.
As a result of this research, Creative New Zealand and New Zealand on Air have agreed on three joint priorities: ensuring fair reward for work, making creative careers sustainable, and finding better ways to support early-career artists.
What does this mean for Whanganui?
Whanganui & Partners, Whanganui's economic development agency, is thinking innovatively about the arts economy. It has created my role – Strategic Lead for Creative Industries and Arts – as a connection point between economic development and arts, an arrangement that we believe is a first in New Zealand.
Whanganui & Partners' chief executive Mark Ward is enthusiastic about the impact creatives have on our economy and sees Whanganui & Partners as playing a critical part in both driving growth in the creative industry and ensuring that this is a place where artistic careers are sustainable.
To make this happen, we're taking our cues from the Whanganui District Council's newly-adopted Arts and Culture Strategic Plan – a fresh 10-year vision, developed by the community, that outlines its commitments to the sector and its people. One key goal is the development of a prosperous creative economy, where creative people want to live and where there is demand for their skills and talent. It recognises that a strong arts and culture sector makes the city an attractive place to live for everyone.
Creative people are sophisticated problem solvers and there is enormous potential for us to tap into the multi-billion dollar contribution creative industries make to the New Zealand economy. What is absolutely critical to unlocking these opportunities is ensuring sustainable careers for those actually doing the work.
Our district provides cost-effective residential living and spaces to practice the arts. We have great schools and a longstanding dynamic arts community. We are perfectly primed to be the best place in the country for artists to live and have sustainable careers – if we all play our cards right.
The plan outlines actions including support for creative internships and mentoring programmes, community-initiated residences and incubators, profile-building to accelerate cultural tourism, and more. It also talks about ways we can champion our arts community. This will include advocacy to central government and other funders, showcasing our success stories, and capacity building to ensure our creative community is equipped to access funding and other support. We will be working alongside other organisations and individuals in our community to maximise what we all do.
Immediately, we are also making sure that we practice what we preach. When we work with artists (on projects such as Whanganui Walls, the conversation station, and council's redeveloped customer service space) they are paid fairly for their talent and expert work – just as we do for other skilled contractors like builders, architects, engineers and technicians.
This all ties into national shifts in attitude about the value of the arts, government priorities around sustainable creative careers, and a better understanding of what the arts contribute to our health and wellbeing. We understand better than ever that artists do important work which makes all of our lives richer. Now, let's make sure we are nation-leaders in making their lives richer too.
Riah King-Wall is Whanganui & Partners Strategic Lead – Creative Industries and Arts