Historically, the making of crafts in New Zealand has been affected by a range of both internal and external factors. The most significant of these have been wartime restrictions, government-imposed taxes and disincentives. Even so, by the late 1970's, studio pottery, this country’s most popular craft activity, was increasingly recognised as a viable career option.
By Richard Wolfe
Pioneers of Studio Pottery
When it began in the late nineteenth century, New Zealand studio pottery was largely the preserve of women, who were necessarily from families of means.  The most important of these early pioneers was Briar Gardner (1879-1968) whose family owned the Amalgamated Brick and Tile Company at Hobsonville (which later became Crown Lynn). Gardner, also had a home studio and kiln. Her work, and that of other early potters, was sold in department stores, and the demand increased during and after the Second World War when imported ceramics were largely unobtainable.
The Challenges of War
During the Second World War, import restrictions and disruptions to shipping meant irregular supplies of materials for the visual artists of New Zealand. In Christchurch it was suggested that artists would soon be obliged to ‘go surrealistic’ and compose pictures of discarded materials such as cheese-rind and bootlaces. Painters needed to adapt, as in making their own ‘canvases’ and using powder colours mixed with linseed oil in place of conventional oils. Rita Angus worked with more accessible materials, such as pencil, pen, ink and watercolour. This proved a prudent strategy for watercolours were more affordable at a time when people were experiencing financial difficulties. 
In November 1940 the New Zealand Society of Artists petitioned the Prime Minister to remove restrictions on the importation of artists’ materials. Although their demand was unsuccessful, the society was able to import a substantial quantity of materials for its members’ use, and other regional art societies followed suit. 
Pottery’s Post-war Revival
A short supply of domestic ceramics in New Zealand during the Second World War provided a boost for local potters. Pottery also enjoyed a renewal after the war when clay was found to be a suitably expressive medium. The popularity of the craft was encouraged by the availability of evening classes for beginners and the subsequent establishment of pottery clubs and galleries. 
In the 1960s the Department of Industries and Commerce took a particular interest in ceramics, as part of its policy of encouraging New Zealand industry. Departmental Secretary W. B. Sutch looked forward to local potters developing their own tradition and a significant export trade, and the prospect of every household in the country having pots handmade in New Zealand.
Whereas in its early days studio pottery had been dominated by women, in the 1960s it became a more viable career option and was increasingly taken up by men. Such was the popularity of pottery that by 1979 it was estimated that there were some 44,000 people actively engaged in the craft in New Zealand, and about 500 full time. Allegedly this represented more potters per head of population than any other country in the world. 
The Threat of Sales Tax
In 1979 the New Zealand craft community was threatened by the imposition of a sales tax, legislation which would affect not only the makers of pottery but also handmade toys, weavings, sculpture, craft jewellery and craft wooden tableware. The ill-defined and contradictory proposal caused much controversy, differentiating between functional and decorative items. Thus, a jug with a handle was exempt from the tax, while the same form without a handle would qualify as a vase and be subject to the tax. Similarly, if a decorated plate was referred to as a plaque it would be taxed at 40%; as a plate it would only attract 10%. The tax was widely seen as a disincentive to the crafts community, and a public meeting of some 900 people at the Auckland Town Hall on 28 June led to the formation of CAST – Crafts Against Sales Tax. The contentious issue was lampooned by Peter Lange, whose non-functional ceramic dartboard, Objet d’art, was sold at a CAST fundraising event.
In early November 1979 the Government responded to the crafts community’s concerns, by either removing or reducing the sales tax on all hand-made goods, and also reducing a sales tax introduced in 1975 on ornaments, vases and statuettes.
Boom, Bust and Diversification
Following the threatened sales tax, the New Zealand crafts community enjoyed a relatively buoyant market. But the 1987 share market crash and the newly deregulated economy brought new challenges in the form of a flood of mass-produced imports. If planters had previously provided a steady income, local potters were now competing with cheaper items sourced from overseas. In order to survive they needed to develop niche markets, but there was of course only so much room for specialisation. As a result, many potters either moved into other areas of employment or returned to a previous vocation. However, despite economic downturns there have been opportunities for local makers, such as the production of decorative items for the burgeoning home improvement industry, and tableware for both domestic and restaurant use.
In its early days studio pottery in New Zealand was dominated by women, but when it became a more viable career option in the 1960s it was increasingly taken over by men. As it is now considered an unreliable means of providing a livelihood, it has once again become the preserve of women, who are likely to be juggling pottery between their other commitments.
Emily Siddell and Mark Goody, collectively known as Ace Firers, make a wide range of ceramics for homes and restaurants. All Rights Reserved: Ace Firers, 2019