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Do You Give A D.A.M.N.?

27 Oct 2022
A new arts activist group is finding its voice - we talk to those at the helm about what they're looking to achieve, the current state for independent artists and what they want funders to hear.

The undercurrent of frustration in the creative community is developing like a rip on a picturesque beach at the moment.


It may look like it’s calming down - but if you’re not careful, it can easily pull you in.


Finding a way to wade through it safely - with no one left behind - is crucial. So is ensuring all the voices feeling the pinch in the present climate are heard.


While there was certainly a new elevation given to the importance of supporting independent  creatives during the pandemic - those at the coalface are still adamant not enough is being done.


Established and emerging creative organisations are receiving some of the spotlight over the impact on their mahi being caused by the current lack of funding available.


Those who never got it in the first place are feeling like they’re being nudged even further into the cold.


But a quartet of independently focused advocates and creatives - Cat Ruka, Dominic Hoey, Amber Liberté and Tendai Mutambu - want to make sure those artists know they give a D.A.M.N.


Ruka, an independent performance artist as well as Executive Director of Basement Theatre, told The Big Idea “during the 2021 lockdowns, I started sharing some of the advocacy work I was doing for artist relief funding on Instagram. I remember feeling super jaded by industry advocacy at that time, and frustrated that the processes weren’t meeting the urgency of the crisis at hand.


“I was also totally buzzed out by the continual overlooking of the independent artist voice within some of the advocacy work being done. I started to wonder how artists could be placed at the centre of the conversation and the movement, in particular our most marginalised artists who may not even know how funding works let alone receive it.


“Dom reached out in support and we started to throw ideas around for how we could take a different approach. We were joined by the wonderful Tendai and Amber - and the arts activist group D.A.M.N. was born.” 


D.A.M.N. founders Cat Ruka, Tendai Mutambu, Dominic Hoey and Amber Liberté. Photo: Supplied.


She explains “D.A.M.N. stands for ‘Dignity and Money Now’. We believe deeply that Aotearoa cannot have a strong future without adequate investment in its artists. We are pressing with urgency for artists to be valued and paid what they’re worth.


“Our full call to action is not yet set in stone and that’s intentional - we don’t want to entitle ourselves into being a voice of authority nor take on a role without first putting on a kai and a kanikani for our communities. Kaupapa that aren’t steeped in the mauri and ahua of their people fall flat. So our first step is to manaaki, and go from there!”


Artists on $trike


That starts with the Artists On $trike party, an open invitation event organised for 3 November from 7pm at Auckland’s Basement Theatre. The conversation there has the potential to contain more fireworks than Guy Fawkes a few days later.


Performer and dancer Liberté outlines the party “is about everyone coming together and hanging out after a long period of fracture, hardship and disappointment. Hopefully this shared time will also be a catalyst for creating a shared kaupapa for action.


“We've seen so many amazing groups researching, collating statistics, and fighting weighty bureaucracy. While I think all of this is important and crucial, artists have had so many conversations about what's broken, and now we want to see actionable changes.”


Mutambu, a curator and editor both locally and internationally, notes the reaction to their group has been met with “a lot of interest and enthusiasm but also curiosity about what exactly it is we’re trying to achieve and how. Which is something we’re looking forward to us working out collectively, adapting where needed and making room for strategies and tactics we might not have thought about yet.”


Ruka agrees “the feedback has been pretty cool and we’re hearing that there’s heaps of peeps out there who agree it’s time to activate change in bold and radical ways. We only need to look at what’s unfolded in the arts funding sphere over the last month to know that not enough has been done to protect the interests of our independents and improve the systemic conditions around them.


“We’re not collaborating with anyone else yet but we’re open to joining forces with other rogue collectives who are fighting for the same thing.”


'Bleak' reality


The D.A.M.N.crew pull no punches when asked for their take on the current state of play for independent artists.


Hoey - a writer, poet and MC among his many skills - declares “you either have to be crazy or rich to even attempt being an independent artist in this country. I’ve been homeless, had to shoplift my food, live in people’s laundries etc... A lot of this while being a reasonably well known artist. I’m doing OK now but it looks like it’s even harder for young artists now with rent and shit.


“Artists in Aotearoa are constantly being overlooked and treated like they’re expendable.


“Also from my experience a lot of amazing creative people don’t even really consider themselves artists, or think that things like funding or other opportunities are even for them. There are really sharp class divisions within our creative industries which no one seems interested in addressing.”


Liberté adds “it's bleak. We’ve been given this old-school cultural message that 'arts is just a hobby.' But it's not. It's essential to society. We've talked so much about this and we know the issues well.


Mutambu muses that “from what I know working with freelancers of all kinds, it’s a dizzying position to be in - stuck between something that you love and feel you can’t live without doing, but something which also depletes you because there are few avenues for doing it sustainably.


“I think some of these frustrations end up channelled as petty resentments, and having to fight your neighbour for crumbs in ways that aren’t productive.”


How they achieve their goals is yet to be seen. Ruka admits "we have some bold thoughts about the actions we’d like to take over the coming months, but we’ll keep that under wraps for now coz, ya know, we’re creatives and we love a big reveal.

“We’re just focusing on gently organising our communities and getting that very important first step of connection done. For now it’s party time - no arts manager panel talks, no keynote speeches, no Q&As, no Zooms, no controlled environments that leave artists voiceless. Just fun and freedom.”

Quizzed on what they want those who hold the creative pursestrings to hear from this conversation - Hoey summarises ”most of the best, hard working, talented artists I know don’t receive funding. Think about what that means for our country as a whole."