Monday 28 August 2017

A Policy A Day: A Vision for The Arts

In the lead-up to the election, we are examining a policy a day. We're exploring a variety of policy areas, explaining the background and analysing some of the policy options, with a mixture of technocracy and values-based approaches. Inevitably, some opinion will make its way in and we make no apology for that - after all, we're voters too. A list of all the articles is available hereEnjoy!

Today's post is by Ben Tan

The current government has placed a lot of emphasis in Science and Technology, with a clearly articulated set of aims (for example, the National Statement of Science Investment), and actions like providing increased funding for teaching/research in STEM subjects (Science. Technology, Engineering, Mathematics), or the formation of the National Science Challenges. There is a general consensus that STEM is an important part of our economy, and certainly something that needs a lot of active guidance and cultivation. The government has a vision for “a highly dynamic science system that enriches New Zealand, making a more visible, measurable contribution to our productivity and well-being through excellent science.”

In contrast, ‘the arts’ is often seen as the diametric opposite of STEM. It is not as easily defined and its impacts are hard(er) to measure. Creative arts are often seen as a hobby, recreational activity, or something nice, but not especially important overall - and in my exploration of this area for this piece, it seems to me that the arts in NZ is treated as something that seems to keep ticking away, with arty people doing whatever it is that arty people do, and not much else in terms of higher level strategic thinking or discussion, at least, from the perspective of public policy-making. At the time of writing, the only statement I could find from any political party about Arts, Culture, and Heritage was from the Green Party with a policy statement from 2014. In many ways, the arts (and culture) is an example of an area that the Government has some interest in, but as it has not been identified as the source or symptom of a “problem”, it is not really discussed. That doesn’t mean that it is all hunky-dory in the arts; at least anecdotally, funding availability is tightening, and that, unlike in other parts of the world, there is not a huge community of philanthropy for the arts (especially in terms of younger philanthropists). But while many might argue that we have far more pressing issues to address, like infrastructure and healthcare, at the very least, we should be having ongoing discussions about the arts, and where it sits in our society. I don’t get a sense that there is a big picture vision for what the arts should, or could, be.

As such, this piece will attempt to serve as a cursory discussion about the arts and associated policy in NZ generally. First, I’ll look at some of the background and context for the arts sector in New Zealand, and discuss some of the merits and attitudes around the arts generally. I’ll explore some possible policy directions for the arts, as well as implications for the arts, and its role, in the future.

The arts, and more generally, the “Cultural Sector” typically refers to a collection of industries including “film, music, broadcasting, design and digital technologies; our built heritage, libraries, literature, museums and galleries, performing and visual arts”. According to research published in 2014, New Zealanders as a whole have a positive attitude about the creative arts, recognising that “the arts are good for you (88% agree)”, and that “the arts help improve New Zealand society (82% agree)”. Economically, the arts also contributes; according to the Ministry for Culture and Heritage, “the sector is an engine of growth for the New Zealand economy.  In recent years, it has either matched or outpaced other sectors of the economy in terms of income, employment and value added”. There are numerous benefits for support and wide participation in the arts, and Creative New Zealand (the Crown Entity responsible for promoting and supporting the arts, as well as managing government funding of the arts), has a section on their website dedicated to information and research espousing myriad contributions of the arts.

Early government support for the arts was formalised in the 1940s with the establishment of the first ‘cultural office’ embedded within the Department of Internal Affairs, the creation of the New Zealand Film Unit, and the initial setup of the national orchestra. A ministerial portfolio for the arts was created in 1975, and the Ministry for Culture and Heritage (MCH) as it is today was formed in 2000. In general, the Ministry describes New Zealand as favouring an “arm’s length” model for supporting the arts, and today, one of its main institutional roles is the administration of funding for cultural statutory bodies, like Creative New Zealand (Arts Council of New Zealand Toi Aotearoa), the New Zealand Film Commission, Heritage New Zealand, the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, and Te Papa (Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa). As far as MCH is concerned, their mandate is to achieve:

The most efficient use of public resources to maximise understanding and appreciation of, access to and participation in New Zealand culture, and to promote the enhancement of New Zealand’s cultural identity

As part of the general “arm’s length” approach, government funding to creative arts organisations and projects (other than the NZSO) is managed by Creative New Zealand, where the Arts Council “makes grants to companies, individuals and national and community projects in literature, theatre, music, opera, the visual arts, crafts, dance, multi-media and experimental film and video (and combinations of these art forms)”. About ⅓ of Creative New Zealand’s funding comes from the budget, and ⅔ from the New Zealand Lottery Grants Board, where decreasing lottery revenues have caused some alarm within the arts sector. Arts endeavours are also often supported by grants from local government bodies, such as through Auckland Council’s Community Grant Policy, although the scale of funding available through these sources are lower. With this current structure, there is some uncertainty and risk for people working in the arts, as funding levels are quite volatile, and as such, planning for growth is a significant challenge.

Aside from funding the arts sector, the government also supports the arts through education. The New Zealand Curriculum’s vision includes creativity, and the aim to “secure a sustainable...cultural...future for our country”. In the arts specifically, the curriculum remarks on how art education “explores, challenges, affirms, and celebrates unique artistic expressions of self, community, and culture”, enhances “students’ personal well-being”, and “stimulates creative action and response by engaging and connecting thinking, imagination, senses, and feelings”, increasing their “confidence to take risks” - all good things. And yet, once students leave school, there is no real sense of that the arts might provide an important (and viable) place to contribute to NZ society. Funding for arts disciplines at the tertiary level hasn't increased since 2012. In my time looking through the websites and documents of our major political parties, as well as MCH and Creative New Zealand, vision and ambition seem to be somewhat undernourished.

Do we need more vision in policy? Does anyone have a substantial arts policy?
There’s a lot of implication that the arts are important; that the creation of new cultural repertoire and engagement in the community is worthwhile, and yet, there doesn’t seem to be any appetite for really cultivating growth in the sector. There’s a rise in the idea of spreading adoption of STEM, and with that rise, associated funding increases, but while science is science wherever you are in the world, the art and culture of NZ is distinctly our own - no doubt something to be cherished. But what do the arts really mean to us a society? I think we owe a lot to the arts for shaping and developing our sense of culture and uniqueness in the world. And as such, I wonder if it’s time now to revisit what the arts means to New Zealand, and the future of New Zealand as a whole.

For a start, maybe we need to think more carefully and articulate a vision for the arts in New Zealand. For example, take Sweden, where “Creativity, diversity and artistic quality are to be integral parts of society’s development”, and a clearly enumerated goal to “promote opportunities for everyone to experience culture, participate in educational programmes and develop their creative abilities” (emphasis mine). Singapore, in its Arts and Culture Strategic Review, lays out a goal to be achieved by 2025 of producing “A nation of cultured and gracious people, at home with our heritage, proud of our Singaporean identity” where “Arts and culture will be an integral part of our people’s lives”. Singapore’s National Arts Council also produces a 5-year Arts Master Plan. In contrast, Creative New Zealand has a Statement of Intent, with such aspirational goals as the improvement of “service delivery” alongside the refinement of “investment to ensure that the arts continue to develop in New Zealand for New Zealanders”. This level of inspiration is probably linked to our funding situation and priorities, where we need to be conservative and evidently, not too ambitious. Is this really all that arts policy in NZ has to offer us?

I think there’s an opportunity waiting for us in the arts. Norway, which has a population not too dissimilar to our own, has a fund that is entirely financed by their Ministry of Culture of about 132 million euros, and also has a fund which provides stipends to individual artists to encourage innovation. They have no need to encourage gambling or playing lotto in order to enrich their cultural treasures. Many countries fund much more money into subsets of the arts (like in music alone). Germany subsidises health insurance for independent artists so they can be more entrepreneurial. Our Green Party has even proposed reinstating a “financial support scheme for arts and cultural employment”, as well as training Work and Income staff to “recognise and respect the arts as a valid vocational choice”. There’s obviously merit and rationale for strategic fostering and support of the arts. Does a thriving society feature a strong participation and involvement in arts and culture? I certainly think so, but there just doesn’t seem to be all that much happening in the policy space in NZ right now.

I’m not advocating for a simple injection of more money into the arts in NZ (although I’m sure a less volatile funding source would be welcomed by those in the sector), especially in light of all the many pressing challenges. Instead, at the very least, I think we need to think (or at least encourage thinking) about the arts, our vision for the arts. There’s a wide community who would welcome some leadership from government.

Ben Tan is currently a PhD candidate in Engineering (yep… STEM), but also a keen art-enthusiast, largely as a participant in NZ’s world-class choral music scene, but also as an audience member of theatre, and a consumer of literature. He was also a one-time member of a political party in NZ (but then they kicked up a fuss about surnames in a bad way, so that membership lapsed, although he still gets the emails).