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Is ‘Great Resignation’ Coming for Aotearoa’s Creative Sector?

Tom Anderson. Photo: Taylor Mansfield.
NZ Opera General Director Thomas de Mallet Burgess and performers Joanna Foote and Bridget Costello at the events site at Wynyard Wharf. Photo: Greg Bowker.
Sarah Rose, Difficult Mothers, SWG3 Glasgow, (2016). Hand blown glass marbles, soluble and insoluble liquids, folded inkjet prints, roller shutter, split six channel surround sound audio, customised speakers. Image: Supplied.
Scenes from last year's NZ Young Writers Festival. Photo: Kerry Hodge.
Is the 2021 trend of seeking greener pastures a cause for concern for the arts? We speak to experts across the most impacted industries to find out.


If you want a career that is about financial fulfillment - there are plenty higher on the list than the arts.

Anyone who aims to make a living in the creative sector is there first and foremost because of passion.

But that’s not always enough. Mouths to feed, bills to pay, lives to live can weigh heavy when making job decisions. And if it’s on your mind - then you’re not alone.

The international phenomenon dubbed ‘The Great Resignation’ has gone from anecdotal to mainstream headlines in the past few months.

It’s been so coined because of a record-breaking 4.3 million Americans quitting their jobs in August alone, while in the UK job vacancies have hit an all-time high of one million. One global survey suggests 41% of all workers are considering leaving their employer in the next year.

And local research suggests it could be happening here too.

AUT’s Wellbeing@Work nationwide survey has revealed a vast drop in job satisfaction - in April 2020, 19.1% of employees weren’t considering leaving their job. As of April this year, that’s dropped to only 9.2% not considering a change.

Those eager to leave- or with high turnover intentions - have gone up from 34.7% to 46.4%.

So how concerned should the industries connected to the creative community be?

Expert opinion

AUT business school professor Dr Jarrod Haar​ oversaw the study. And while there wasn’t specific, individual analysis of the arts, there are several touchpoints that are particularly relevant.

When asked by The Lowdown how big a factor does working in industries with uncertain futures play in these decisions, Haar simply replies, “Massive!”

He breaks down the main findings from his research. “If you love your job, you want to stay but if you’re worried about security you’re more likely to be keen to leave.”

Dr Jarrod Haar. Photo: Supplied.

Haar cites the example of Amazon’s recent withdrawal of the Lord of the Rings TV series from our shores, a billion-dollar project gone after just one season. “It’s human nature to want security, people are also more encouraged to take a risk and try out new opportunities when they are so abundant.” 

Casting an eye on a new career path could also be linked to a history of being undervalued on the pay ladder, Haar states “underpaid sectors are at risk of high turnover, As are insecure industries. Those with both these issues? Twice as much!

“It might be there are more ‘dream jobs’ available and people see this as the time to grab them. I also think COVID-19 has made people reassess their job/work and go “Yeah, nah! Time for something new and better.”

Dr Jonathan Baker, AUT’s business strategy professor who earlier this year published his thoughts on how NZ needs to rethink its arts funding, speaks with more than just a commercial hat on.  He was part of the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra for 21 years as its principle Tuba player and as a board member.

He tells The Big Idea “Different artists will, no doubt, have had different experiences over the last 20 months. For performing artists, this has been a very difficult time indeed. However, if they have adopted something of a portfolio approach to earning, many will have been able to leverage things like online delivery of teaching plus government emergency payments.

“Of course, for those who had a portfolio of earnings derived from performing and, say, working in hospitality, they may very well be looking for an alternative career – much like many people working in sectors like hospitality and tourism.”

Dr Jonathan Baker. Photo: Supplied.

He speaks from personal experience, with his wife Nicola Baker walking away from nearly three decades as APO’s horn section to become a fulltime student - a decision inspired by the first lockdown.

Baker continues “considering the plight of performing artists, it’s ironic many of the major performing arts organisations are heading for another bumper year with better financial performance than they’ve had for some time! 2020 saw a big turnaround on recent years for many organisations, and 2021 is shaping up to be even better. That’s what happens when what you do is inherently loss-making. The less you do it, the less loss you make.  

“In contrast to performing artists, visual artists may well have been left largely unscathed. In fact, with more disposable cash floating around the economy, there may well be some visual artists for whom sales are better than ever.”

Impact on screen and stage

For those in front of cameras - and those behind it - there have been plenty of silver linings to the pandemic era, particularly when New Zealand got back to work while the industry ground to a halt internationally.

Christian Gower is the Auckland Chair of the Screen Industry Guild of Aotearoa New Zealand that represents technicians and contractors in the New Zealand Screen industry. 

A Digital Imaging Technician himself, he tells The Lowdown “For the better part of the last 12 months - while the country has been in level 1 - this workforce has been in an expanded state, bolstered by international productions such as Amazon's Lord of the Rings and Netflix's Sweet Tooth and Cowboy Bebop

“As these productions have wrapped, the workforce has contracted slightly - mainly as crew have sought similar work overseas or temporarily taken up other work while they wait for the next cycle of increased production. This process is all part of a reasonably standard and expected pattern that this industry follows, and is not a reason for concern.

While he acknowledges job insecurity is one of the biggest catches to life as a creative sector contractor, Gower sees the biggest concern as “losing talented and experienced workers to overseas film markets where a wider production pipeline provides more consistent employment. 

“New Zealand needs a wider and more resilient production pipeline, supported by investment in critical production infrastructure like film studios. Having massive productions like Amazon's Lord of the Rings is great in that it employs a huge number of crew, but these productions also absorb a large proportion of our production resources and create a massive overflow of unemployed contractors when they finish production. For the sake of a stabilised and more retentive workforce, it would be better for 5,000 contractors to be hired by 10 productions rather than 5,000 contractors hired by 3 productions.

“The other major factor affecting the New Zealand film industry is the management of MIQ since international production in New Zealand is massively dependent on key creatives and executives being able to travel here. The implementation of home isolation/a more agile border process will unlock a significant volume of international production, which we now have increased capacity for due to the departure of Lord of the Rings.”

Denise Roche, Director of Equity New Zealand that represents actors and performers, sees the arrival of international productions as a key issue too - but with a different lens. 

Denise Roche. Photo: Supplied.

“I am concerned that our country has not done enough to support sustainable careers for our creatives,” she tells The Lowdown.   Last year we had a lot of international screen productions operating in this country, however we did not leverage those opportunities to build the careers of our local performers.  

“Our weak immigration settings that allow the easy importation of off-shore performers were further weakened by the government’s ‘critical worker’ category that saw overseas actors engaged on screen productions with locals not even getting a chance to be auditioned.”

Roche hopes for a re-jigged Screen Production Grant to incentivise the hiring of local performers, quotas for content and roles.

“Making a living as a performer in Aotearoa is notoriously difficult at the best of times and most performers have faced cancellations and lost income as a result of the pandemic over the last 12 months.  

“Most of our members (around 80%) earn less than $15,000 per year from their performing work – most generally supplement their incomes with other work and a lot of those opportunities have disappeared with the closure of hospitality and retail.

“Performers are incredibly resilient in their approach to their careers.  They are the ultimate gig economy workers and most experience periods of unemployment at some point.  Even in normal non-pandemic times we see a drop-off in mid-level performers who leave the industry because they need a more secure income stream.  I am concerned that the pandemic may have exacerbated this.”

Louise Gallagher CEO of Performing Arts Network NZ (PANNZ)  believes “the problem we have is that our sector does not generally pay as well as other industries (although I am seeing change happen, at last), so that keeps good people away/we lose these people to other industries because we cannot either meet the expectations around remuneration or there is not enough job security. 

“There is such a need for experienced producers - the skill level required to be a great producer is immense, but I rarely see this role being remunerated fairly for the level of responsibility, hours and commitment required.”

Louise Gallagher (middle in pink) with members of the PANNZ team. Photo: Dolina Wehipeihana. 

Gallagher has noticed an increase in talent coming home during the first wave of the pandemic having a positive effect (during the appropriate alert levels) but notes she expects “when our borders do open properly, then it may be true we see a lack of experienced, knowledgeable and mature production and technical managers.”

Gallagher says those departures are always a concern, “pre-pandemic, now and will be post-pandemic. Our industry needs key, skilled experts - whether they be independents or embedded in organisations. All these roles ensure the show does go on.

“Particularly for those who work from contract to contract - we need to provide more financial security between gigs. We need to ensure that our mid-late career artists, producers and crew are all looked after, so we do not lose them. Our mid-late career people have so much to offer to our industry and to the new people coming through.” 

Keeping the music alive

The handiwork of Forge Production Services. Photo: Supplied.

The genuine threat of experience leaving the music production industry is causing headaches too.

With summer on the horizon, concerts and festivals are one of the Government’s most dangled carrots to encourage vaccination. But it’s not as simple as having the big musical names like Six60 announce big stadium tours around the country.

The appetite is there. Marc Benedict, Director and Senior Technician at Forge Production Services has been working on a case study that has shown 85% of punters who have bought tickets for cancelled or postponed shows have kept their tickets in the hope it returns.

But there is no show without the technical know-how.

“ Unfortunately, I think we will have an issue that there aren’t technical people there to support it (the return of concerts) on the largest scale,” Benedict explains to The Lowdown. “With the industry as a whole, I think there will be a massive skill shortage that does exist when things ramp up into full force.”

“A large portion of the skill is gained by experience in our sector. You can go to university, you can study courses, engineering degrees - but where people learn the most is time spent hands-on.”

Tom Anderson agrees. As a freelance production manager, tour manager, sound engineer and co-owner of music industry institution Whammy Bar - he has plenty of skin in the game.

Tom Anderson. Photo: Taylor Mansfield.

“I taught at MAINZ for 10 years - you give a foundation, but when you come out, you get that real world experience,” Anderson outlines to The Lowdown

“Most of us in high positions in the industry didn’t necessarily get a degree, we learned from the school of hard knocks and sticking with it, being able to pass on that real world experience is vital. I have mentors I have learned so much from, if we lose some of these people, we’re going to be in real trouble.

“We’re starting to see it overseas as well, with a lot of the older, experienced people who have left the industry and you end up with large amounts of keen but inexperienced practitioners.” 

Both Benedict and Anderson have noted the reverse brain drain - with talented technicians returning home when the pandemic originally hit, but as the world opens back up, their talents have been going back overseas leaving some significant holes.

Benedict supplies technical personnel and equipment for festivals and shows from the size of Auckland’s Powerstation through to Spark Arena. Companies like his rely on contractors and sole traders to make the magic happen on stage - and those who work for multiple companies find wage subsidies and resurgence support hard to tap into.

He’s noticed a worrying trend in that workforce. ’“Even in the last 6 months to a year, we’ve had people leave our team to go into other industries, using skills they’ve learnt in our industry like truck driving, forklift moving, any kind of labour for hire. 

“We’ve seen a massive growth of people moving out of the industry just for stability in uncertain times.

“The hardest part about our industry is that it is often the first to finish and the last to start. There is no curbside collection for hire equipment, we don’t do takeaway coffees. When our industry shuts down, it can’t fully function until there are large gatherings again.”

Anderson adds “There are definitely people who are questioning how long to stay in this, whether to go into more stable job positions, go overseas or draw a line in the sand and get out all together.

“In the live sector, there’s a large number of contractors and it’s a gig economy so if the work’s there, there’s potential to earn well but it can be fairly unstable. If people are paying rent, bills, mortgages, not having fixed income can be challenging.

“I think everyone’s still hanging on, at the moment. If we don’t see a summer this year, that’s when we’ll have a problem. Once everything opens up, it’s going to bonkers over here, it will be great but it’s just getting to that point - and the longer it takes, the more we will see it.”

Ségolène de Fontenay, General Manager of the New Zealand Events Association (NZEA) has been lobbying for more support and clarity for the industry.

Ségolène de Fontenay. Photo: Supplied.

She tells The Big Idea “The sector has been facing a skills shortage with many event professionals having already left the industry. More are likely to follow. This shortage is the result of Covid-related redundancies, the lack of access to international talent, and general uncertainly about the industry’s future. 

“The events eco-system is broad and the supply chain multi-faceted and as such, a number of professions from both the private and public sectors are reliant on events for their livelihood. A government-backed insurance facility for events providing a measure of protection and safety net from Covid-related impacts would ensure events continue to be delivered not having to cancelled at the last minute, incurring considerable costs.

De Fontenay speaks of a sector brought to its knees by COVID. “Event professionals are effectively faced with zero revenue from the very beginning of an outbreak, until the very end - at best. The reality is that the ongoing uncertainty, coupled with event planning lead-times, results in impacts well beyond the end of an outbreak and makes this sector potentially not attractive to workers.

“It is unclear how long we will have to stick to the current alert levels before we implement this new framework. More events professionals might decide to leave the events sector due to this uncertainty.”

Benedict wants these concerns to be heard in the corridors of power. “I do hope that at some point - whether it’s now or in the near future, that the government does see the creative industry as a super important one.

“There needs to be encouragement for new music that’s on our radios, for people to have new paintings, to create new movies. Without the industry and the backbone that creates all this stuff, all of this disappears very quickly. 

“A lot of people don’t see the perspective that there is a foundation point for all of that to be created, it does need support for that to continue.”

Young and free

Scenes from last year's NZ Young Writers Festival. Photo: Kerry Hodge.

We’re about to hit a hot streak of literary festivals over the next few weeks, with Wellington’s Verb Festival and Word Christchurch among the biggest cultural events in November.

But Dunedin gets the ball rolling from today - with the New Zealand Young Writers Festival (NZYWF) running through until Sunday.

Now in its seventh year, the four-day, free-to-attend programme has the usual literary festival food groups like poetry, playwriting and performance.

So what exactly is the difference between a youth writers festival and the open age counterparts? Festival Director Gareth McMillan explains to The Lowdown “our demographic for presenters is 15-35, and many of our previous guests have used the NZYWF as a stepping stone towards the more established literary festival circuit.

“That said, the Festival is open to attendees of all ages.

“We are also a little different in celebrating a wide variety of wordsmithing: lyricists, slam poets, columnists, Zine creators and other more niche styles of writing take place alongside more traditional creators of theatre and prose.” 

“Our programme and workshops are designed to help people develop their own creative skills, whether through new creative tools, such as Rushi Vyas's workshop on somatic writing rituals; new styles, such as Jordan Hamels spoken word workshop; or new ideas, such as the conversation/workshop on climate change.  

“Our kaupapa is to empower the community of young writers across Aotearoa - recent initiatives include residencies and a call for content creators to ensure the festival programme stays fresh.”

Alert Level two means the doors can open in Dunedin - an under-rated source of creativity in the motu - but one of the artists, Dan Goodwin will be joining remotely as they are stranded in Auckland.

McMillan adds “the last couple of years have also been a time of heightened emotions and anxieties and the creative arts are a great way to explore and process these. The New Zealand Young Writers Festival is all about providing people with the tools, inspiration, support and collaborative space to do that.”

You can check out the full programme here, including free registrations.

Harbouring grand ambitions

NZ Opera General Director Thomas de Mallet Burgess and performers Joanna Foote and Bridget Costello at the events site at Wynyard Wharf. Photo: Greg Bowker.

It may be hard to fathom for those living in Tāmaki Makaurau as lockdown drags into months instead of weeks, but New Zealand Opera’s trying to give them something to look forward to.

They’ve announced they're putting on the first-ever Opera in the Harbour at Wynard Wharf, but it won’t be opera as you’d expect it.

They’re putting on  Rodgers & Hammerstein’s classic musical Carousel on Valentine’s Weekend next year, promising to include “ some of New Zealand’s best operatic talent alongside and household names in music and entertainment.” Already they’ve named Christian Thurston and Joanna Foote in some of the key roles - both of whom would be overseas in non-pandemic times.

When asked why musical theatre rather than traditional opera, NZO’s Marketing and Development Director Terri Cumiskey told The Lowdown “opera companies around the world are looking for new ways to engage audiences, and presenting repertoire from the musical theatre canon has been one approach successful in developing audiences that later go on to engage with opera.  

“The team are excited about creating an offering that is engaging and interesting for a wide audience including, but not limited to, a traditional opera-going audience and this show really delivers that.” 

It kicks off NZO's 2022 season that's just been released, which includes two newly commissioned opera - among them the polarising Unruly Tourists that has been linked to the departure of three board members and vocal opposition of the organisation's direction.  That work will run in March at Takapuna's Bruce Mason Theatre.  You can check the full programme here.

London calling

Sarah Rose, Difficult Mothers, SWG3 Glasgow, (2016). Hand blown glass marbles, soluble and insoluble liquids, folded inkjet prints, roller shutter, split six channel surround sound audio, customised speakers. Image: Supplied.

The re-opening of arts institutions in London has come at the perfect time for Kiwi creative Sarah Rose.

She’s been awarded the Gasworks 2021 Residency for an artist from Aotearoa New Zealand, where she’ll live and work until December, spending time with the curators and conservators of the Palentology collection at the Natural History Museum and materially experiment with the processes of NewspaperWood - where newspaper is glued together to re-form solid blocks so that it can be worked similarly to lumber.

Rose says “a residency at Gasworks would be significant to my development at this moment as I would have time and support to connect to significant areas of study and research that are specific to London. 

"While I have lived in Scotland for some time, I am rarely able to visit London due to economic and time constraints. Covid 19 has made this even harder. I would also appreciate being able to share my practice and ideas within a larger NZ/UK artistic framework.”


Written by

The Big Idea Editor

28 Oct 2021

The Big Idea Editor