The stereotype of the starving artist has been romanticised over and over again, with the implication that to make great art, the artist must first struggle. Realistically, and I’ve said this before, creative industries are easier to break into when the artist possesses some form of privilege. Whether it’s in regard to money or connections, people with higher levels of access are much more likely to succeed in an artistic career than typical ‘starving artists’ who need supplementary income just to afford food and rent.
In order to level the playing field, we need arts funding, and lots of it. Unpaid internships or creative work in exchange for ‘exposure’ simply doesn’t cut it; anyone in the field knows that creative work isn’t quick or easy, and artists need to be compensated fairly for their time. Creating art shouldn’t be a painful process, sandwiched between rigorous, part-time shifts taken just to make ends meet. It should be something joyful, cathartic and purposeful, though with the current funding options available and the normalisation of exploitative internships, this is rarely the case.
When I began writing for publication, I was sixteen years old. I knew that this was what I wanted to do with my life, and I was hungry for any kind of industry experience I could get. I accepted multiple unpaid internships where I spent hours per week churning out content with little to no recognition while staff on the payroll paraded through the office in expensive designer clothes and helped themselves to bags of gratis. Initially, it was manageable; I was a kid who lived at home with little to no outgoing expenses. However, when I began needing some form of income, problems began to arise.
By the time I was seventeen, I was working Friday nights, Saturdays and Sundays at M.A.C, spending Monday to Friday at high school and still churning out unpaid articles whenever I had a spare moment. My thought process was simple; when I graduate high school, I’ll be offered a paid position at the company through which I did my internship. Maybe I was naive, or maybe the whole system is corrupt, but needless to say, this didn’t eventuate. When I eventually applied for a vacant position in my final year, I was told that I’d still have to complete a degree first if I wanted something permanent.
These regular, unpaid gigs, framed by the companies as ‘internships,’ are supposed to be a way for young people to get their foot in the door and begin the journey towards paid work. As someone with eight years of experience in the industry, I understand the value of this. Writers often need portfolios and a history of being published to secure actual work. The real issue arises when you’re working part-time hours and receiving nothing in return bar a misspelled credit (and yes, I’m speaking from personal experience.) Oftentimes, the companies offering unpaid work have no real intention of hiring from the pool of enthusiastic interns; they’d much rather pull someone who’s already established in the industry. See the Catch-22 here? You do free work for exposure, but it doesn’t give you enough exposure to actually secure paid positions.
There’s another side to this coin, too, pertaining to the even higher-ups. With the lack of funding being funnelled into creative industries, institutions platforming creative work often can’t afford to pay contributors. Take Craccum, for example. While we’re working hard to secure future funding for contributors, we’re simply not there yet. All of the fantastic art submissions and contributor articles are still unpaid. Is this a fair system? Absolutely not, but the difficulty of securing funding makes it impossible to keep anyone besides editors on a payroll.
I want you to imagine a future in which a majority of working artists come from privileged backgrounds. What kind of content do you think you’d be met with? What kinds of social issues would be accurately represented through creative mediums? The cornerstone of good art is the representation of experience, and without supporting diverse creatives, we’re only seeing the world through one lens (the lens being that of upper-class artists who are likely a little sheltered).
If you’re reading this section of the magazine, you’re likely aware of the petition against arts funding cuts that went around at the start of the year. Those in creative communities know that it was widely supported; you could barely scroll through Instagram stories without coming across a ‘Stop The Cuts’ post popping up. Yet just as quickly as everyone rallied, arts supporters seemed to lose momentum. In reality, the work for fair pay shouldn’t stop after you sign a petition. Artists have been receiving unfair compensation since long before arts funding cuts were even on the table, and we need to do more than oppose one government spending proposition to enact any real change.
It can be tricky figuring out how to support creative industries as an individual, and truthfully, the heavy lifting needs to be done by industry giants (and the government, which desperately needs to get its shit together). With that being said, small choices do count. Need to decorate your room? Buy some prints by a local artist. Planning a night out? Book tickets to a local theatre show, comedy set or gig. Auckland’s creative community is filled with egregious amounts of pure talent, and taking time to engage means supporting creatives as a whole. \