The arts and culture sector is out of crisis, but it’s far from thriving

A new survey shows New Zealand creatives are starting to rebound after the shattering impact of Covid restrictions, but industry members warn the sector is not out of the woods yet and an overhaul of funding systems is needed.

The State of the Arts Survey series, conducted between April 2020 and July 2022, took the pulse on how artists, theatre makers, and other creative practitioners were surviving during the pandemic restrictions.  

The fourth, and final, poll for June and July 2022 was released this month. It had 634 respondents, most of whom are creative freelancers. 

It found artists have a relatively sunnier outlook than they did in the previous poll taken between February and March 2022, during the depths of the Covid-19 Omicron variant outbreak.

As part of the survey, respondents were asked to rate their outlook on whether their creative work would financially support them. Compared to the previous survey, feelings of pessimism decreased by 11 percentage points to 57 percent, while optimism rose from 30 to 42 percent.

Source: Te Taumata Toi-a-Iwi

More artists are expecting to increase their current staff or contractor numbers, up to 34 percent from 24 percent.

The surveys were funded by Arts Wellington, alongside Wellington City Council, Te Taumata Toi-a-Iwi, Creative Waikato, and Te Manatū Taonga Ministry for Culture and Heritage.

The respondents were also asked what changes they would advocate for if they were getting coffee with the Minister for Arts, Culture, and Heritage.

Source: Te Taumata Toi-a-Iwi

The biggest chunk of responses (40 percent) focused on changes to arts funding. This includes increasing the overall amount of funding provided to the arts, advocating for more funding for a range of roles, improving application processes so these are more transparent and user-friendly, restructuring of the arts sector and funding system, and changing how arts, culture, and heritage funding is allocated. 

Source: Te Taumata Toi-a-Iwi

Almost a fifth (18 percent) of artists advocated for initiatives to improve the financial sustainability of creatives, with the most common call being for a basic income.

While creatives might be feeling better about their situation now that Covid-19 restrictions allowed for shows to go ahead, Auckland-based theatre director Jane Yonge, who also works for Te Taumata Toi-a-Iwi, is quick to point out that this optimism is only relative.

Jane Yonge. Photo: Supplied

“We’re optimistic compared to when we were in lockdowns. It’s not an optimism that’s going to perpetuate and the sector will just flourish from now on,” she says.

“The fragility and the cracks that were emerging or had been there a long time are still there and have been exacerbated now.”

Meg Williams, the chair of Toi o Taraika Arts Wellington, is pleased to see artists are feeling more positive, but she warns the sector is not out of the woods yet.

“We’ve gone through a crisis, where you need crisis support, but now we’re into a phase that’s less about survival and more about sustainability,” she says.

The Government has provided a range of financial support for the creative sector during the pandemic, delivering a total of $495m over four years.

This includes short-term relief, such as the Cultural Sector Emergency Relief Fund, which saw self-employed or sole trader practitioners eligible for a one-off $5000 grant if they could show loss of income.

Meg Williams. Photo: Supplied

While these measures were helpful, Williams says it hasn’t been enough to keep people in the sector.  As previously reported by Newsroom, the industry is suffering from a skills shortage as a number of people have moved into other industries or headed overseas.

“If you talk to anyone in the sector, they’ll know someone for whom continuing, particularly through Covid, was just not sustainable,” she says.

The overarching theme highlighted in the surveys is the need for more robust and predictable investment in the sector, Williams says.

“It is positive to see that more than 40 percent of people surveyed within the creative sectors are feeling more optimistic about their financial position.  With a third of survey participants also expecting to take on new staff or contractors, I am encouraged by our sectors’ cautious optimism.”
– Carmel Sepuloni, Arts and Culture Minister

“The current funding models do not lend themselves to creating sustainable models of practice. There is a significant cost pressure for the sector at the moment and the baseline investment from and into Creative New Zealand is out of step with rising costs,” she says.

According to Williams, priority needs to be given to creating funding models that support creative freelancers and the independent arts sector, which make up a huge proportion of the workforce.

“It is clear throughout the reports that these practitioners have been deeply affected both by long-standing issues in the sector such as wellbeing and income insecurity, as well as the impacts of Covid-19 since 2020.”

Arts and Culture Minister Carmel Sepuloni says it’s positive to see that more than 40 percent of people surveyed are feeling more optimistic about their financial position. “With a third of survey participants also expecting to take on new staff or contractors, I am encouraged by our sectors’ cautious optimism.”

She acknowledges the past two years of the pandemic have been challenging for all New Zealanders, not least the arts, culture and heritage sectors, who rely heavily on people coming together. There have been significant investments in sector as part of Government’s Covid-19 response and recovery, she says, including $374 million in Budget 2020 and a further $121 million of funding in response to Omicron. “At nearly half a billion dollars in support, this is the largest investment in the arts, culture and heritage sectors in Aotearoa New Zealand’s history.”

The Ministry for Culture and Heritage has taken onboard feedback to make it easier to apply for Manatū Taonga-administered funds. Sepuloni cites the Regeneration Fund, set up to make it easy to apply for by streamlining a number of funds into one, and by assigning a relationship manager to each entity. 

Manatū Taonga officials will continue to work closely with creatives on how to most effectively support their future resilience and economic sustainability. “The economic sustainability of the cultural sector and availability of sustainable career opportunities is a key priority for me,” she says. “Arts and culture contributes to Aotearoa New Zealand’s identity and wellbeing, and bring excitement, joy and comfort into our lives every day.”

Jeremy Mayall, the chief executive of Creative Waikato has been putting his thinking cap on to explore ways of supporting emerging or grassroots artists in the region.

He’s been granted funding from the Ministry for Culture and Heritage to  roll out a pilot of a funding program called Whiria te Tāngata. This will see 10 local artists from 10 diverse communities paid for one year to pursue their creative activities in the community. 

Aside from receiving a stipend for the year, each artist will also be paired with a creative mentor. The idea draws on the roll out of basic income initiatives for artists overseas, such as Ireland and San Francisco.

Mayall says the pilot is in its early days, with the call for expressions of interests set to go out soon.

If successful, he’s hoping the system could show how arts could be funded in the future.

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