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Advocating for the Arts

Mark Amery on priorities for the new government from the arts sector


Silence in the media around priorities for the arts for the new Labour-led government are not a reflection of satisfaction with the state of things. They reflect artist exhaustion, a lack of advocacy and leadership, and a culture in New Zealand that has a long way to go in valuing the crucial role art (of all kinds and traditions) has in bringing together communities, skills and understandings. A crucible for discussion and the breaking down of barriers, the health of the arts may not be as pressing an issue as child poverty, but let’s stop treating something so central to our wellbeing so quietly and as a nice to have.

Our new prime minster Jacinda Ardern has taken over the Arts, Culture and Heritage portfolio and describes herself as a social democrat and progressive. Those I know in the arts who’ve spoken to her in the past feel she has an understanding of needs. But the arts needs to step up. Grant Robertson is an associate spokesperson and Carmel Sepuloni an Associate Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage and Pacific Peoples. We need to bring together a mandate for government. In advocacy, who will lead?

This column is to help get the ball rolling. Stronger measures need to follow. I put out a call through social media for thoughts on what the new government’s priorities for the arts might be. There was a quick flood of responses and conversation, public and private, largely from practitioners in the performing and visual arts. I’ve drawn comments from these below and kept them anonymous. They are noted against the Labour Party’s arts, culture and heritage published policy. I didn’t find that policy easy to find – but it is here.

First, some introductory thoughts.

We need to bring together a mandate for government. In advocacy, who will lead?

There has never been more arts activity in New Zealand and more opportunities for attendance. Casting an eye over a twenty-year period the growth has felt steady and significant. To give one concrete example to hand: New Zealand playwrights agency Playmarket’s record of professional productions of New Zealand plays alone for the period 1 August 2016 to 31 July 2017 numbers almost 300. I’ve watched this grow in leaps and bounds year after year. Yet you can almost smell the fatique in the expanded independent sector..

Across the arts these 20 years have also seen strong investment in bricks and mortar – new public galleries and theatres – as well as festivals and other platforms.Music and film received significant investment under the last Labour government. The status quo has also been maintained: under Labour and this last National government funding for the traditional arts of opera, orchestral music and ballet has been protected. Creative New Zealand meanwhile has been shouldered with looking after a growing group of established arts organisations and challenging them to better serve the wider sector. Yet beyond these are support requests from an increasing number of now established visual artists whose work is international.

If this new government really values the arts, it now needs to start acting with real vision to its potential to impact across society at every level. That requires assistance from those who know the potential of the arts - the sector itself – to shape and activate that vision.

There’s also been a significant shift in the work contemporary visual artists are interested in creating – an increased focus on projects that have social and public outcomes, or are installation based, with practices that are less easily supported by a private art market model that still deals principally with the sale of objects for homes and offices. That’s illustrated for example by the absence largely of gallery representation for contemporary Pacific Island artists creating significant installation, performance and moving image based work. Performing artists are also showing renewed interest in how their work can operate in public and other spaces and reach new communities. They need the confidence and the interest from government, local government and businesses in valuing their contribution as part of their infrastruture - that requires a sea change in public understanding of the arts potential power.

The issues are in how the needs of the actual suppliers, the artists, are considered. Conversations and surveys I’ve been involved in over the last year all suggest this build-up of stress and fatigue. Artists working freelance with no job security, limited business skills, and little collective advocacy or equity in the way they’re treated. Property affordability is also a huge issue – many artists struggle to afford the space they need to develop their work. Musicians and writers have well documented issues around income from their work in a digital age. 

The increase in arts activity reflects a huge growth in tertiary educated artists entering the professional world looking to build a career. But support and awareness of their work is fractured: encouraged to crowdfund and use social media, they are given digital tools but find wider reach and recognition increasingly difficult, with weakened philanthropy, sponsorship and mainstream media attention.

A rallying cry of Creative New Zealand can be found at the top of Labour Party’s policy: ensuring all New Zealanders have access to and can participate in the arts. Yet the basic health of those charged with developing and delivering it, our artists, is an increasing issue. The increase in activity has not been met yet with equivalent recognition within business and central and local government of the vital role artists can play in their organisation’s own development and public engagement.

If this new government really values the arts, it now needs to start acting with real vision to its potential to impact across society at every level. That requires assistance from those who know the potential of the arts - the sector itself – to shape and activate that vision.

Reinstate artists and the arts in education

Reintroducing a programme for artists in schools was the most popular call from my correspondents. To see the arts “supported as a core part of education, recognised as a valuable subject on its own and as a strategy for interdisciplinary learning.”

“Arts advisors back in schools,” calls one producer. “Art, music and drama for every child not just the "talented".”

Let’s demand then that the current Labour party arts policy is implemented. As well looking to develop and resource the arts curriculum in schools and support a network of “children’s’ art houses” Labour say they wish to “reinstate the Artists in Schools Programme. This programme gives Kiwi primary and secondary school students the opportunity to learn from professional New Zealand artists in the fields of dance, drama, music, and visual arts.”

Arts front and centre

Following this education discussion many contributors went further.  A curator and musician puts it simply: “Place it, art, front and centre of all policy.”

“Much, much more incentives to experiment in the arts,” says another artist, “and for it not to be valued simply for its touristic or economic benefits, which the previous Labour government failed at.”

Part of this is a call for ensuring artists are more involved in decision-making. A senior visual artist comments: “from Government to CNZ to education, [we should] get paid to do this... we are the experts”

Labour’s current policy is toStructure Creative New Zealand to ensure that it is practitioner led, that Maori and Pacific Arts have independent top level representation, and that spending is focussed on supporting artists.” Information on this is light - beyond external assessment by practitioners of arts grants as it currently stands at Creative New Zealand, what might ‘practitioner led’ look like? What does independent top level representation for Maori and Pacific artists mean?

Many correspondents spoke to the need for more than project-based funding opportunities for artists to develop their practice and more investment in artist run spaces and arts centres – spaces where decisions can be practitioner led.

“Developing creative thinkers, makers and industries are the sign of a mature culture,” writes one regional gallery director. Meaning: “art education starting in early schooling, employing artists, arts and humanities continuing to be valued at tertiary level, [and] offered again through community colleges for lifelong learning and community wellbeing, supported by arts-focused national and local media and arts-centred policy, staff and dedicated budget in every local body, [and a] living wage paid to artists - after basic needs are met.”

Making a living

Ah, a living wage. It’s not surprising that one of the most popular pieces of feedback is for schemes for artists to have some security beyond a reliance on the lottery of getting project-based work. A number of correspondents recalled positively previous government schemes as paid development mechanisms for building professional careers in the arts.

 “The PEP thing [Project Employment Programme] under Muldoon was pretty cool,” says one writer. “Everything from Warwick Broadhead to People in Parks to Big Sideways Band ... vibrant high quality community stuff with jobs for professional artists as managers.”

Another programme championed from that time is the Temporary Employment Programme (TEP) implemented in 1979, by the then Labour Department. As Ian McMillan chronicles in Art New Zealand in 1983 it “gave recognition to the fact that art is work, and initiated a series of projects around New Zealand providing employment opportunities for artists. As art projects were outside the usual scope of Labour Department activity, an organisation which could propose and operate work programme schemes specifically for artists was required.”

A number of correspondents called for a return of the PACE (Pathways to Arts and Community Employment) scheme. Indeed, it is current Labour policy to reinstate PACE (as well as working to develop other measures to “support early career cultural Workers” and establish an “Apprenticeship option for the creative industries”).

We can however do much better. PACE was introduced under the last Labour government in 2001, and counts the likes of then Wellington based artists Taiki Waititi and Phoenix Foundation as beneficiaries, but within ten years it was pretty much dead, left to “languish and disappear” (as this Dominion Post 2011 article recounts) 

“If they bring back PACE, they need to make sure WINZ know about it this time,” writes one artist. “Last time around it was pretty hard to find anyone at WINZ that knew anything about it or at least admit that it existed - they certainly didn't offer it as an option.”

“While it was kept up for some arts peeps in Wellington central and Ponsonby WINZ for some years it was dropped from all other branches very very quickly and what was left was kept under the radar by Labour as though it didn’t exist.”

A number of correspondents emphasise however that a living wage is far preferable to a “dole grant”.

“The tertiary sector is training huge numbers of students,” writes an artist and academic, “mostly young people, at great personal expense to each and every one of them to enter a sector where there are very few ways of maintaining a viable income.”

"Opportunities are much thinner on the ground than they were ten years ago."

She continues that her friends and herself having spent 15 to 20 years working in the art and, when talking, “the common theme was that we are extremely stressed about money and have no idea how we're going to continue to survive as artists or find future employment. To me, this indicates that we have a huge problem…. Opportunities are much thinner on the ground than they were ten years ago - not just because of our mid-career status and the lack of shiny newness around us, but because the arts are so depleted, and the number of practitioners easily exceeds the available financing. It's a mess that is going to take a long time to sort out.”

There’s also a growing rumble out there from those I talk to about the exponential growth in reliance on crowdfunding for projects. One arts manager had this to say:

“I want to shoot down this appalling concept of raising funding through Boosted campaigns. Again, this is another instance of people who ought to be advocates not owning their failure to protect the sector and articulate its value and shunting the buck elsewhere. But worse, it is elitist and borderline racist; what if, as an arts practitioner, your forte is not making friends in social media but making work? And what if you're not friends with a horde of unattached white urbanites with disposable income?” 


There’s a strong call for more leadership and advocacy.

“Jacinda will do that,” writes a senior artist, “but it needs to be in our state funded universities... people on wages in galleries and arts institutions need to model these roles. Artists don't get paid, they do. CNZ could also pick up this role.”

“I agree more advocacy,” a senior performing arts producer says. “I realise local government is autonomous but we still have many councils with no defined arts or cultural plans or funding (the funding CNZ provides councils to distribute through the Creative Communities Scheme excepted) and national government can advocate for and incentivise that.”

Two experienced arts managers look to the responsibilities of Creative New Zealand, councils and ministeries.

“Are CNZ merely a government department or are they an advocate for the arts? If they are an advocate, then how can it be that the arts is still tied to a floating gambling fund after all this time? And yes, I know this is a 'top up' on a base level amount but compared to sport it is still pathetic.” 

On Creative New Zealand, another manager with experience in this area:

“In 1998-9 working from Creative New Zealand our advocacy team developed a multi-stakeholder strategy that was enhanced by the incoming Labour government with Helen Clark at the helm and an extra $20 million to the sector. It was not about fiddling with arts grants but instead included the idea of outreach/enhancement of artist opportunities in other sectors: DOC residencies for artists, the Creative Foresight scheme - MORST funding for Arts (Smash Palace came out of this), developing the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) calendar of internationally touring artists, the 'I'm an artist don't force me to do unskilled work' PACE benefit scheme, plus a big boost to music and film artists and techies which fed a surge in the skill base of those industries.

“What I'd like to see is a 1) refreshment of some of these outreach programmes within other Ministries (requires firm advocacy) 2) a roll out of Local Government Dunedin City Council-style 'artists in infrastructure' all over the country 3) an education policy that is aligned with industry demand or is free for artists (rather than based on the desire of the tertiary institutes to get more students which tends to outrageous debt with dubious career options) and 4) a re-instatement of Cultural Diplomacy positions with MFAT. That's just for starters.”


Part of the leadership challenge for the sector for a few correspondents is more championing of equity for artists working in the sector in terms of minimum standards and rates and sharing equitably in the profits from their work. There is wild variance in how artists get treated. 

“Sometimes,” writes one curator, “it seems as if the role of arts professionals (as in administrators) is to coordinate artists into volunteer activities (whereas the academic now combines crowd management with debtor servitude).”

A few pointers are given to advocacy organisations we lack. Australia Council provides links to the relevant organisations in Australia here, and others noted are Canada’s national association of professional visual and media artists CARFAC and a New York-based activist organization founded in 2008 W.A.G.E.? Working Artists and the Greater Economy. 

“Artists are seen as valid way of community contribution,” says one artist and musician. “I think the definitions of 'Art' and what it is, what it looks like need to be therefore a lot of community development could be given more 'worth'.”


One of the popular calls is for more attention to the arts by the media. Decried generally is how a commitment to arts editorial across major news media and in programming has been decimated. Particularly popular was the old familiar cry for art like sport to be given a five-minute space after the broadcast news.

“I like the way that The Guardian Online has arts/culture directly below the news” writes one artist. Taking a look, I like the fact that it’s called ‘culture’ rather than ‘entertainment’ or ‘lifestyle’ and sits in the menu between ‘opinion’ and ‘business’


A few other thoughts gathered:

“More arts access for regional New Zealand and low income areas, not just subsidised art for the wealthy.”

“Policies to incentivise philanthropy”

“I think arts budget finding should be seriously looked at. Time should be budgeted and paid for, for practitioners - not the expectation of large amount of "in kind" contribution just to get a project green lit.”

 “More residencies... THIS IS A REAL GIFT for artists, and also valid. Just to reclaim time and space.”

“Address the inequitable distribution of lottery and pub charity funding”

“Policies to incentivize philanthropy would be top of my list. The Americans do this best; despite the limitations (and uh, imminent dismantling) of the NEA, well-established US arts organizations can at least rely on a strong existing network of supporters who can offer more than the price of a ticket. I used to work at a major arts org in the States and about 60% of their revenue came from private giving. Box office, by contrast, was about 15%. We need to try and cultivate the culture of giving to the arts in NZ, and it needs to be driven by policy.”

But perhaps the most important message right now is a call for all who care about the role of the arts in our society to find their own role in advocacy: 

“May I suggest to all the people who are interested in this conversation to form loose associations and keep talking with one another - and look for the MPs/civil servants who will take appropriate action.”

Written by

Mark Amery

1 Nov 2017

Mark Amery has worked as an art critic, writer, editor and broadcaster for many years across the arts and media.