Practising the art of salvage

File photo: Getty Images
File photo: Getty Images
The arts, and our artists, in Aotearoa, and even more so here in the South, are suffering, writes  H J Kilkelly.

H J Kilkelly
H J Kilkelly
The image of an artist is different for everyone. Tortured outsiders, committed to a life of poverty in the pursuit of beauty, mystical sorts, twirling endlessly/standing in front of a canvas whenever the mood strikes/writing flowing easily from the veins, complaining a lot, but that’s OK, coz, oh, the suffering makes for better art, doesn’t it?

Even what is art is underestimated. I challenge anyone to go a day without engaging with any kind of art; it’s the shows you might go to, yes, but it’s also the music you listen to, the design of the products you’re buying, the books, podcasts, films, TV shows you engage with ... it’s much, much more, but our artists are drowning and I can assure you, it’s not romantic in the slightest.

I, and no doubt every other human in Aotearoa who has chosen the arts as their field of practice, have heard every possible argument or sentiment possible about our careers. Couldn’t you just choose to do something else? What’s your "real" job? Yeah, but isn’t that, like, your hobby? I mean, it’s your passion - why should you be paid for it? It never gets old hearing the unsolicited suggestions of "have I considered ..?" coz yeah, I probably have, thanks.

For those who dismiss the arts’ contribution, the economics alone are pretty staggering. Figures from Manatu Taonga, the Ministry for Culture and Heritage, show that in the first month of the Delta alert level restrictions there was an estimated $466 million loss of economic activity - a daily average of $13.3 million.

Not only do we contribute to the economy, artists are consistently held up as pou for society’s greater wellbeing, the arts as fundamental to our humanity, bringing empathy and entertainment to the world, holding up a mirror to our societies. In Aotearoa, the wellbeing of our arts practitioners, ironically, is potentially the worst it has ever been.

I’m a producer. Not many people know what that actually means. Let’s just say it’s multifaceted. But Emily, the other half of my production company, recently referred to what we’ve been doing increasingly of late as salvage, an exercise becoming more common in the current durational piece, Already Stuffed Arts Ecology Meets Pandemic.

Some have coined the term "unproducing", referring specifically to when we’re undoing the months (and sometimes longer) of work that have gone into preparing for an event suddenly mothballed by a level change. Salvage, unfortunately, even more devastatingly, sees us picking through the remains of chopped contracts, unsuccessful funding applications, increasing spends with lesser resources, and deciding what projects to keep, what to postpone, who to let down and what to just give up on.

I hear you say, well, that’s every small business. And you’re right; but let’s now add to that the vulnerability of not only having your creative work out there for everyone to judge and be an expert on, to have your extremely limited resources dictated by archaic structures outside your control and to consistently be picked apart by those who consider supporting the arts a waste of money when there’s "more important" things to fund, all the while maintaining your integrity, your reputation, your track record, because did I mention, unlike the start-up sector where the expected first-year fail rate is about 90%, we get often just one chance to prove ourselves, or struggle for decades to even get on the funding hamster wheel.

As a company, we are "lucky". We sell out most events we do. By all artistic accounts, we’re considered successful. However, cultural success is not financial success. Cultural success is also not wellbeing success.

The arts, and our artists, in Aotearoa, and even more so here in the South, are suffering - contrary to how it may look - and if we don’t start acknowledging this, lifting up our artists and truly recognising the need for what we bring to a society, we’re going to face an attrition rate with unchecked momentum. Art reflects our history, documents our lives and speaks truths often too confronting to face without a fourth wall to protect us from the reality. We’ve got something to offer the world, immense skillsets and, you know what, would really appreciate it if folks would stop suggesting we get "real" jobs. #valuethearts.



Creative work is purloined: cultural appropriation and illegal use of original music in election campaigns, by the Party of Private Property Rights. 'Lord of The Rings' changed views about the mercantile value of Film, at the cost of threats by WB, and the freezing out of Related Unions.