Arts Makers Aotearoa: The advocacy group where artists’ voices matter most - Te Taumata Toi-a-iwi

Art Makers Aotearoa: The advocacy group where artists’ voices matter most.

Interview by Kerryanne Nelson

An edited version of this story previously appeared on The Spinoff.

Art Makers Aotearoa are a community of makers for makers jointly advocating for the arts through grassroots platforms to voice shared concerns. We sat down with founding members Judy Darragh and Richard Orjis to understand the motivation behind its formation, understand their sector vision, and why they’re calling on art makers nationwide to join them.

What is Arts Makers Aotearoa?

Richard: It's a grassroots organisation for art makers, so the people who actually make the art happen, whose whole art infrastructure is built around the art they produce, but are not catered for. We just kept seeing the deficits. It was a way to make a proactive mark on the world, where no one else was stepping up for artists.

We wanted to create a space where artists' voices could be heard. There's an optimism where we believe that the sector decision makers want to hear from them, and also that there’s strength in numbers. Artists Alliance closed down a couple of years ago, so we knew that that wasn't being catered for. Then our lived experience of doing exhibitions and receiving artists fees that we know were the same 10 years ago. We had experiences where we're working with people who are on salaries and are being taken care of, but the artist whose show was on actually had the most to risk and the least payback.

Judy: As artists, we take all the risks. We pay for materials, studio rent, we make, we talk about the work, we do everything, but we're not getting any kind of reward. There’s a perception of how artists are valued or not valued. Just look at the media. There used to be arts programmes on television, there used to be arts writing in the media and the newspapers. Art was there in front of everybody, being talked about. And now that's all gone. 

Why do you think it’s gone? 

Richard: I think it's financial. We're dealing with creativity not being valued globally. Specifically in Aotearoa, sport is valued over arts. They’re pulling arts education in schools. We had one of the best arts education programmes in the world at one point. 

There was a move for arts to be privately funded. That's really problematic on a lot of levels, as we are seeing now. 

Judy: So it's a values thing. I think that arts education was really important. Because once you take art out of the curriculum then kids aren't getting a full, exciting, rich experience. Teachers haven’t got the confidence to teach it. I went into a classroom recently and kids were just colouring in. That sort of experience isn’t enriching. 

You go to university, you get your arts degree, you come out. How do you pay debt off when there's no career pathway in the visual arts? You might get a dealer, you might sell some work, but that's sort of the icing on the cake. Most artists work in hospitality or teach. I've taught all my life, that's how I've managed to sustain my art practice. There's always another job that you have to do to be an artist. 

There's probably a handful of artists in New Zealand who can live off their work. When art is spoken about in the media, it’s usually about when a Goldie sells or a huge action price or that kind of story. We’re also seeing this strange post-COVID effect where the secondary market is going off. Those guys are doing so well. Dealers are doing really well. But no one actually really thinks about what's happening below it. We’re not all Bill Hammonds and Karl Maughans who make work that fits into the market.

Then there's another organism that if you don't fit in the market, you're relying on commissions. No one really knows how artists live. You might have a commission, you might get a sale. I earned $12,000 last year, that was just sales and commissions. People think because you're an artist, you're earning lots of money, but you're not.

Richard: It’s also thinking about art as work too. Because art is work. We do it because we're driven to do it, but it's hard work and dedication. It’s a realisation of who holds power within the system. As artists, we're doing all the work but we're not profiting from it. We're not empowered, we're not listened to. When we think about who holds power, it’s government organisations, wealthy collectors, people who run public and private galleries. There’s a major disconnect between the artists and the structures.

Judy Darragh and Richard Orjis

Are there other models internationally or in your mind of how you would like to see New Zealand’s arts sector look to?

Judy: The Netherlands is really great. I think if you work as an artist for six months, or if you can prove over six months that you have been working as an artist, then they put you on a 250 euro a week payment to be an artist for the rest of your life.

Richard: I don't know of a specific example. But we live in an environment where if Creative New Zealand wanted opinions, they could canvas artists through online surveys or hui quite easily. I also think, why aren't artists on every board? Why aren’t artists consulted when they appoint a public curator or public director? All of these things are possible, but they're not being done.

So AMA is about trying to give artists a voice?

Judy: Exactly. Then there's language, we call it the ‘arts industry’. But in an industry, the worker gets paid. We don't get paid. So there's a sort of strange language around discussing how artists work. A lot of people also think that artists are a bit infantile.

Richard: There is a culture of treating artists like children. 

So even if we did have the overall funding for the sector that we have now, you are advocating for a different way of distributing that?

Richard: This has been going on in my head for a while. What would an art world look like that was actually for artists? That put artists at its very core in everything it did. It would look extremely different than what it looks like now. 

There would be an ongoing dialogue about what artists need. Do we need another show of dead artists that we roll out every five years? Do we need competitions where we give a pocket of money to one artist? Or is it more collectively about building the art infrastructure that we have into something that's more equitable. Are curators and galleries representing the true diversity of artists that exist? Simple things like that. There's all these power plays that happen, and often they're geared towards people who already have money and power. 

You say you’re “trying to change the culture of gatekeeping then only supports a few.”  

Richard: That’s definitely part of it. There's a drive to structure the art calendar around these like pivotal competitions. The Wallace competition, the Walters prize or the Venice Biennale. That's a whole lot of money that could be distributed, that might pay for an art centre or a studio programme or actually help something that's more sustainable for many. There’s real elitism there.

Judy: We all hate competitions. They’re so dumb and embarrassing and infantilising. 

Richard: They’re also antiquated in terms of saying that this art is better than that art, when they’re so different. It’s an outmoded way of thinking. 

Judy: That's then reflected in the competitive funding system. To fill in one of those forms drives you balmy. For a lot of artists, if you're not English speaking, or you’re a visual communicator, you’re very disadvantaged. I know that a lot of institutions now employ people just to look after funding applications. How can we compete in that sort of environment? A lot of it just seems archaic and like it’s just never been revised or looked at.

So Art Makers Aotearoa is about saying, 'Hey, we’re the people that make the art in this country, that work in this system, let’s korero. Let's have a conversation.'

Judy: Yes, we're on the factory floor. Come down and talk to us. I'd love to see studio spaces, cheap studio spaces for artists. Then you get these communities of artists working together, and that's really important. What we haven’t had for nine years governmentally is leadership and advocacy in the arts. No one has put their head up and you know, banged the table. Jacinda’s just been too busy. She’s had a bit to do.

There’s this hierarchy where you have the ballet and the NZSO and the Opera. All of the people working there are all being paid. That's a big lot of money that's going into paying artist’s wages. It is a model that we could use. What we're seeing as a result of so much change happening in university infrastructures is that teaching jobs are changing too. There's no more part time teaching jobs. All of those positions were quite fluid, and now they’re gone. What's happening in Wellington with council’s restructuring, means the arts are seen as a low hanging fruit. If you want to save money, that’s where you save it. It's easy money to pick off. 

Can we go back to your thoughts on arts education and what’s happening there? 

Richard: Primary, secondary schools are moving towards STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths). Then with art schools, universities became a business model, which means students have to fit into a kind of scientifically designed system. They also take on huge amounts of debt, for jobs that are not there. So in terms of redesigning the art world, I would actually redesign education. You would be led by artists themselves, not fit into other systems or other sorts of qualifications. I'm an educator, so I see the problems with arts. At AUT in the 90s, they were a separate society, right? 

Judy: Yes, Auckland Society of Arts.

Richard: Then they moved into the university, which seems prestigious and it gives lecturers handsome pay packages, but it doesn't actually serve artists. 

Judy: There's not a holistic, kind of plan or strategy, overlooking the arts in Aotearoa. 

Richard: It fits into what we need the government to do, or say. We don't value arts, culturally, as a whole across the board. I think we're good at certain things like film or music. But there’s other forms and if it’s a slow news day, it’s an easy place to ridicule the arts, which I see happening with the visual arts all the time.

There are a lot of power dynamics at play too, because we’re relying on people with money. So you get those certain patrons who have power. The patrons buy some work from a dealer, and then the patron would like that work they bought from the dealer to be in an institution. There's that little world up there. It’s self serving. 

Richard: Hence the amount of McCahon exhibitions we have. 

Judy: Then you look at gender. Where are the women, LGBT, BIPOC communities. It's not diverse.

Richard: Then you have complications about patrons. How have they made their money ethically? That's been a huge problem internationally. We should look at this here in terms of asking if this person’s wealth is tied up with colonial land theft. The move for artists to find private sponsorship can end really dangerously. You're taking a vulnerable community, and you're making them ask for money. The power and balance are so huge. There’s so many ways that the government could step in and create safety nets around it.

What's your vision for the collective?

Richard: Right now, it’s about growing our membership. 

Judy: And getting ourselves more organised, being able to fund someone to help us with administration or an artist come in and fill a leadership role. Because we don't want to do it for nothing. If we do it for nothing, what are we changing? You go and do an artist talk at the moment and you get given a food or petrol voucher. What is the value there? You can’t even pay me money when I come and talk to your students for three hours. Even the universities are slightly shafting us, keeping us in our place.

Richard: It’s across the board, because I was talking to an artist friend recently who was asked by the council to use her video work in a new library space. They said “Oh, there’s no artist fee. But it’s very close to the art gallery”. These are really fundamental issues that we're all dealing with. 

I just read this piece recently about why western culture doesn't value creativity historically. They believed that art wasn't from you, it was a gift from God and you were just the conduit. So to profit from it would be incorrect. And the idea that maybe creativity is like a fun hobby. So if you're having fun making it, why would you need to be paid for it? So I think culturally, it plays out in all these other ways where artists don't get paid. 

Why should people join Art Makers Aotearoa?

Judy: To get information, because we hope to get online resources together as we go through our programme. Connecting with people, how to go about networking, how to work as a collective. To work through issues around wellbeing, equitable representation, discussions around universal basic income, having a voice within the structures, consultation with art makers on decisions that affect us. 

Richard: People should join because we can have strength from numbers. We’re more likely to be listened to if we come en masse, with a clear directive.

Judy: It's important now more than ever, because the arts are getting hammered. And it's not over. We're seeing a lot of arts infrastructure council-wise shrinking, institution-wise shrinking. Budgets are being cut. I think we need to look at our leadership in particular at the moment. I think COVID has put a big spotlight on our institutions in particular, and the people in these leadership roles suddenly look out of place. We keep on focusing on bringing in overseas experts. But that's all over now. We're in a whole new reality where we are just looking around at ourselves all the time. 

Richard: There’s an urgency too, because it feels like we have a government that is sympathetic to the arts at this moment. COVID showed that new normals can be made overnight. This is the time to rebuild the art world in a better way. 

And anyone across the country is welcome to join you?

Judy: Yes. We've got ceramicists, lots of educators, jewellers, choreographers. Arts Makers – anyone who’s involved with making.

Richard: Radically inclusive. And it doesn't cost anything to join.

Judy: How can we talk about art, without being elitist or threatening. It needs to just be part of everyday life. 

Richard: Yes, it’s about acknowledging that art is already part of everybody's life. We sit down to Netflix, we listen to music, we look at public art all the time. So we want to remind people that there is someone behind it, that made it. Making it is the action. It’s work. 

To join Art Makers Aotearoa or learn more about their mahi, head to www.artsmakersaotearoa.nz

Judy Darragh ONZM is a New Zealand artist who uses found objects to create sculptural assemblages. She has also worked in paint and film. Darragh is represented in a number of public collections in New Zealand. In 2004, The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa held a major retrospective of her work titled Judy Darragh: So… You Made It?

Richard Orjis is an artist, educator and curator from Tāmaki Makaurau and completed his PhD from AUT in 2021. He has exhibited extensively within local and international artist-run spaces, private galleries and public institutions.

Kerryanne Nelson is a member of the Te Taumata Toi-a-Iwi creative connections network.