Stigmas in the sector

John Reynolds, and his work 'I want you to panic'. Supplied.
Otis Frizzell and Jaguar print. Supplied.
L-R: Otis Frizzell, John Reynolds (images supplied), Ayesha Green (image by Gregor Richardson)
Verity Johnson speaks to three prolific NZ artists about how the sector has changed, and the future climate of art in NZ. [In partnership with the Arts Foundation].


In celebration of New Zealand Arts Month, we speak to three generations of renowned Kiwi artists. The ever-inspiring John Reynolds, Otis Frizzell and Ayesha Green reflect on their whakapapa’s relationships with art, growing up in creative families, what’s changed in the sector and what’s next for the scene’s future.

John Reynolds reflects 

“You know in McCahon’s days,” says John Reynolds, “kids were bullied at school with, “oh your Dad’s an artist, he must be a poof!” Now with my kids, the others are like, “oh your Dad’s an artist, that’s cool!” 

In that anecdote, the celebrated Kiwi artist sums up a lifetime of shifts in New Zealand’s attitude towards the arts. It’s a long way from the stoic, anti-intellectualism and sports-over-pretty-much-everything-but-especially-the-arts national attitude of the 60s and 70s, to today where our national participation rate in the arts sits at 80%.

Reynolds remembers the anti-art stigma of the 70s well; he began his professional painting career when the proudly anti-intellectual Muldoon was in power. “It was an ugly era of aggressive, bellicose machismo...and that bled into everything in society.” And as the anecdote about McCahon’s kids shows, the aggressive, rural machismo mindset often sneered at artists as being ‘gay’. Ironically though, it was Muldoon himself that thawed the anti-cultural freeze. “I think the defining moment in changing the public’s attitude was when Muldoon gifted Australia a McCahon, as a national joke, and the Australians were overjoyed,” says Reynolds. “Inadvertently, he made the whole of mainstream New Zealand sit up and take notice of our contemporary art.” 

John Reynolds, and his work 'I want you to panic'. Supplied.

New respect for the arts 

Iconic pop and graffiti artist Otis Frizzell agrees we’ve moved on. “I think that attitude has really changed.” In an irrefutable sign of different times, Otis has recently finished a series of pop art sheep portraits on the side of a building in the gum-boot tossing Taihape. “All the farmers thought I was nuts and didn’t like the pink background on the mock up, but once I was finished, they loved it.” 

And for rising star, visual artist Ayesha Green, being born in the late 80s it seems she’s never encountered the stigma. “Do we have that stereotype?” she muses. Perhaps she is in a bubble she admits, but “I’ve never had anyone say like, go and get a real job!” 

We’ve also come far in how mainstream society values and respects the arts. “In comparison to when I was starting out, the arts in New Zealand are now hugely valued,” says Reynolds citing both increasing business interest in contemporary art and huge demand for public art. The research agrees with him, showing over 60% of the public value the arts as integral to understanding our own identity and that of other cultures. 

Centering Māori art

All three also agree that New Zealand has a renowned international reputation as an intelligent and provocative scene, especially known for centering Māori art and voices. “We’re lucky,” says Green, “that we have a community of Māori and Pākehā arts practitioners who support, want to understand, and be knowledgeable in this.” 

Frizzell agrees, “the arts are thriving and Māori art and culture are recognised and sought after now. By elevating our indigenous culture, it’s given us a unique space in the art world.”

It’s an approach that’s set to grow stronger with time and is what Green is most excited about for the future. “I think Māori and indigenous ways of being and acting in the world are going to play an important role in how we structure and run our galleries. I can’t wait.” 

“I think Māori and indigenous ways of being and acting in the world are going to play an important role in how we structure and run our galleries. I can’t wait.” 

Intergenerational hustle

But if we’ve come so far in prizing our arts, why are we still underpaying artists? 

All three artists admit that while much has changed over the years in terms of stigma, perception and value, the fact remains it’s a constant hustle to maintain an arts practice. “It’s a job if you want it.” says Frizzell, “But you have to work. Hard. All the time…” 

The stats agree. In 2019, 63% of creative practitioners felt their remuneration was unfair, with the median income from creative pursuits sitting at $15,000. However, there’s a certain inter-generational acceptance that this is how it will always be. “Even though we now enjoy a much more arts-sympathetic Government,” notes Reynolds, “the under-resourced nature of the sector seems somehow structural.” Or as Green puts it, “there’s never enough money in the arts, and there never will be.” 

Another reason for this, argues Reynolds, besides systemic underfunding, is our  population size. All artists he knows have a side hustle. “This is not a complaint, rather a bare statement of the realities of nurturing and sustaining artistic ambition within a very small nation.” That and the inevitable fact that people expect artists to work for free. It’s only after 30, high profile years this has just stopped happening for Frizzell. “I think I’ve finally done enough so people don’t try and bullshit me about those ‘great exposure’ jobs, but it used to happen A LOT.”

Otis Frizzell and Jaguar print - image supplied.

Kids and mortgages 

It’s the unpredictable nature of the artist’s lifestyle that highlights the ongoing challenges and need for more support for artists, especially those with families. Green acknowledges the innate stress of “being constantly poor while also not being willing to succumb and quit for a full time and well-paying job.” She notes that many artists eke out a precarious living by living off canned tuna and spending the rest on art supplies. However, it’s a shaky strategy for artists who have families to support and mortgages to pay. “If you’ve got kids you have them just eat noodles all week!” 

She also points out that it highlights the great need artists who are parents, and particularly single mothers, have for more support from art institutions. “I see this with my colleagues, especially mothers, they aren’t getting the support they need from institutions to be able to work, because the institution expects them to act like they don’t have kids.” The changes could be small, such as not having mid-week 6pm openings, but are so necessary to support working mothers in the arts.

L-R: Otis Frizzell, John Reynolds (images supplied), Ayesha Green (image by Gregor Richardson)

The future beckons

“The arts talk. And art moves people. Our future depends absolutely on growing the arts.”

So while we seem to have come a long way from gruff disinterest to passionate enthusiasm, there is still much further to go in the journey of paying and supporting our artists and their contributions to civic society. We can’t afford to be lazy about this, given the vital role the arts play in our world - and future. The arts lie in a unique space of being able to reach, influence and facilitate societal conversation on pressing issues. “Right now and in the future, there’s a huge role in the arts examining issues such as climate change and mental health,” enthuses Reynolds, “The arts talk. And art moves people. Our future depends absolutely on growing the arts.” 

Written by Verity Johnson.

This September is New Zealand Arts Month! You can read more and join the kōrero on

Written by

The Big Idea Editor

23 Sep 2019

The Big Idea Editor

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