Jacinda Ardern on art for wellbeing

NZ Prime Minister champions the role of wellbeing through the arts, and the role we can all play in valuing, and sustaining, the careers of our artists.

Most Australians are like a deer caught in headlights when it comes to New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern – possessing a kind of awe for her refreshing decisions.

Recently Ardern embraced Art Month, celebrated across Aotearoa in September, and used the moment to pen an open letter about the value of the arts – how we can better support artists, and build a better future.

Actions speak more than words

Ardern says that the artworks that grace her office are works that she has collected over the years.  They are ‘there because of the story behind them,’ says Ardern, ‘…and they have one thing in common – they were created in places dedicated to improving people’s wellbeing through art.’

Her actions speak not only of recognising the value the arts play in wellbeing, but also the valuable role collecting the work of artists has in supporting and sustaining their careers.

‘We can’t say we value our art if we don’t value our artists.’

Jacinda Ardern

Ardern continued: ‘…for me, that’s what art is all about: wellbeing. Being able to create and access art contributes not only to our individual wellbeing, but is also an important factor in the wellbeing of our communities, and our society as a whole.’

In contrast to Ardern’s choice, when Australian politicians enter office they have the opportunity to select work from the national collection, whether held by our state institutions or by the Parliament House Art Collection.

Not all choose to take up the offer, and few of those works are by artists living with disability.

Next week Mental Health Week (6-12 October) in Australia. Perhaps Arden’s lesson is a good one to follow should the desire be to truly impact the lives of artists.

Read: Jacinda Ardern on why the arts need to be universally accessible

Ardern’s letter comes after the launch of the National Association for Visual Artists (NAVA) ongoing campaign for fair pay for artists. Similarly Creative NZ data reports that New Zealand artists on average earn well below the New Zealand average.

Four in ten creative professionals surveyed (43%) earn a total income (including non-creative income) of $30,000 (AUD$27,912.38) or less annually.

Comparatively, the average income for Australian artists is $48,400.

‘On the latest figures, artists are earning 16% less than in 2000-01 and 19% less than in 2007-08 from their creative work alone,’ said NAVA. ‘As for average income from all sources, it’s been static: $48,400 on the latest figures compared to $48,600 in 2000-01.’

The past three Throsby reports for the Australia Council – Making Art Work (2017), Do You Really Expect to Get Paid? (2010), and Don’t Give Up Your Day Job (2003) – show that artist incomes remain low and, worse, are not growing to reflect inflating costs of living.

While NAVA is pushing for a standard charter of fees to be introduced nationally, in New Zealand Ardern has taken the reins herself and creating change

Initiated under Ardern’s Government in response to the 2018 report, the NZ Government is investing $8 million over four years for Creative New Zealand to pay fairer wages to artists who receive its grants under the sustainable careers in the arts program.

Ardern believes, ‘all New Zealand workers deserve a fair wage, because this government is focused on wellbeing, and because I believe in the power of art to make change.’

She concluded in her letter to The Spinoff: ‘We should not think of the arts as a “nice to have”. The arts are a fundamental part of strong communities, and local and national economies. Creative industries, and the artists that work in them, already make a significant contribution to our economy, and our government is committed to supporting this growth.’

Gina Fairley is ArtsHub's National Visual Arts Editor. For a decade she worked as a freelance writer and curator across Southeast Asia and was previously the Regional Contributing Editor for Hong Kong based magazines Asian Art News and World Sculpture News. Prior to writing she worked as an arts manager in America and Australia for 14 years, including the regional gallery, biennale and commercial sectors. She is based in Mittagong, regional NSW. Twitter: @ginafairley Instagram: fairleygina