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An Essential Debate

09 Mar 2021
The word 'essential' has been at the midst of many heated discussions recently - but few will be as lively as this upcoming debate, focused on the role of the arts.

The Auckland Arts Festival’s 2021 incarnation has seen its first week ravaged by the fluctuating Alert Levels in Tāmaki Makaurau. 

But like much of the arts industry it works so hard to spotlight, it’s getting back on its feet - operating with great dexterity to adjust to audience conditions of Level 2 and ready to pull the ripcord to go full noise as soon as Level 1 returns to the City of Sails.

With the scene being updated daily on the AAF website and an eager public champing at the bit to get their cultural fix after last week’s restrictions, the festival’s theme of Aroha is needed by all parts now more than ever.

It begs the question - what do we as a society deem important, and has it shifted over the last year?

Undeniable impact

Has the darkness of a global pandemic caused us to shine a spotlight into the parts of our lives that we as individuals - or a collective society - either took for granted or the structures of a pre-COVID world made it easier to ignore?

How we travel, buy toilet paper, hug our friends and do our jobs have all been altered in the last 12 months. 

But what work is essential?

In Aotearoa and around the world, supermarket workers, hospital cleaners and delivery drivers put their health on the line for others to live. Yet living in low wage economies barely allow them the same right. 

Nowadays, they’re called essential workers, but they always have been. It’s just we’ve been too caught up in ourselves to notice the unglamorous yet vital work they do every day. 

So what about the work of an artist, of the arts sector at large?

Have all those hours during multiple lockdowns spent watching Tiger King, re/discovering albums, traipsing virtual exhibitions, theatre and dance finally caused us to deem the arts – a notoriously underfunded sector that contributes millions to economies around the world - as essential?

Image: Sam Orchard.

That is the topic up for debate as part of the Auckland Arts Festival on 16 March, simply dubbed Are the Arts Essential? Featuring six Kiwi comedians, actors and journalists, there is a serious undertone to the event. 

“Of course we believe that the arts, culture, and creativity play an essential role in our lives, but we also understand that often people don’t think of it in this way,” says Alison Taylor, Chief Executive of Te Taumata Toi-a-Iwi, one of the partners for the event alongside Auckland Live.

“Creativity weaves its way into so many different areas - from education to business to science to wellbeing. It's around us at all times,” she continues. “Our creative community is struggling with the long term effects of COVID-19 related lockdowns and we have the ability right now to change the system that we are working and creating within - to rebuild it from the ground up. 

“But before we do this, we need to agree on the value that arts, culture, and creativity play in our lives. Those are the discussions that we want this debate to spark. We’d like to create a space to come together and consider the future of our sector and its sustainability. 

“There is a perception that the arts, culture and creativity are a “nice to have”, but let’s really think about what we would do without them. We’d like to imagine a world in which they are truly valued and thriving. What would this do for our collective wellbeing and economy?”

Creative debate

And who better to leave such an important conversation in the hands of than creatives themselves? With a panel featuring Madeleine Chapman, Toby Manhire, James Nokise, Alice Canton, Amber Curreen and Eli Matthewson, artist voices across multiple genres and backgrounds will be heard loud and clear. 

Taylor’s also excited to have the commanding presence of Tanea Heke, Director of Toi Whakaari as moderator.” Her incredible background in the arts and heritage sector, specifically with a kaupapa Māori lens, will bring further perspective - and we can count on her to make sure the debaters stick to their time slots!”

The debaters didn’t choose their sides or teammates, but given they will have a chance to meet with their teams beforehand and decide on their tactics, Taylor expects “both sides of the argument will be creative and convincing.”

Tough assignment

As part of the negative team, theatre-maker Canton will ironically use her finely tuned and unique creative brain to battle such an argument. With her tongue very firmly in cheek, she bemoans the fact that “the arts are just everywhere. Like the black mold in my overpriced Kingsland rental. Can't escape it. Every time I listen to music, watch a film, graze a novel, or put together an elaborately constructed garment to wear to work....the arts are just there. Just conceptually, aesthetically and meaningfully holding my life together. Can't stand it. Insidious.”

Alice Canton. Photo: Supplied.

As well as being “an expenditure of my time, money and Airpoints”, Canton describes the arts as being “so inconvenient to collectively release into all the books, films, music, magazines, architecture, fashion, ceramics and poetry (ugh, the poetry) during lockdown? It's like gosh, can't I have some peace and quiet from "art" for just a moment so I can stare directly and uninterruptedly into the relentless chaos of a global pandemic?”

Taylor hopes that the audience will “leave with a renewed perspective of what the arts and culture sector provides, delivered with intelligence, humour and wit. We’d encourage anyone to come along - no matter what side of the fence they sit on. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”


This story is written in partnership with Auckland Arts Festival. For tickets to “Are the Arts Essential?” click here.