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Gretchen La Roche: What I've Learned At Creative NZ

04 Apr 2024

An in-depth exit interview with the popular senior arts official - why she's leaving, her time at CNZ, what type of leaders the organisation needs, funding realities and her new challenge. 

Gretchen La Roche's phone has been blowing up.

Ever since the news dropped that the respected arts leader is leaving her senior post at Creative New Zealand (CNZ) to become the new Executive Director at Christchurch's Court Theatre, the reaction has been extraordinary.

"Boy, I really wasn't expecting that," La Roche explains. "It's been really overwhelming and very humbling. I can't believe just how kind people are - we're all so busy in the arts so people taking the time with all the texts, the calls, the emails... I feel bad if I haven't managed to get to every single one yet, but I'm working through them."

Her departure has been felt acutely inside CNZ as well.

“Gretchen has been a courageous leader during a time of real change for CNZ’s funding programmes," notes CNZ Chief Executive Stephen Wainwright. "She’s led with clarity and has been determined to work alongside the arts community to get the best result for them. 

"The changes she and her team have made will have a lasting impact on our work to ensure the right balance of funding and development opportunities are available in Aotearoa. The arts world is small and interconnected, so we’ll stay in touch with Gretchen. CNZ has enjoyed a close relationship with the Court Theatre for more than 50 years and we are delighted that she remains in the industry, in a critical role, and is back serving the community in her hometown”.

The Chief Executive question

As she beavers away to her last day at CNZ in late April, La Roche has made quite the impression in her 18 months as Senior Manager of Arts Development Services - playing a crucial and public-facing role in the dismantling of the old (and universally despised) funding model for the new programme being rolled out this year after much consultation with the creative community.

With Wainwright's looming departure - a huge number of those in the sector had their fingers crossed that La Roche would step into the pivotal Chief Executive position.

When asked if the CE role was something she contemplated, La Roche explains "When I joined CNZ, I knew it was the (fixed term) contract and to do some very particular, very wonderful work

"My sense was always that I'd be heading back into the sector. I've spent a long time working in the arts - right in the thick of it - so I think that was always in my mind that would probably be the likely path to take.

"I think leading CNZ is an incredible role - incredibly demanding but I think that it is very special. I've really enjoyed my time at CNZ - I should say from both times, I’m a repeat offender (laughs) - I feel incredibly lucky to have worked here. What you learn and what you see - the unique view that you get on what's going on. 

"Obviously not this time around - but who knows what the future holds?"

When pressed on whether that meant she had considered it, La Roche clarified the driving reason for her career decision.

"In the end, the timing of the Court Theatre opportunity really took my focus. I'm a big one in believing very strongly in both timing and what you feel in your heart. 

"For me, there's been a huge amount of pride in serving the arts community on a national level. There's also a big part of me that feels a sense of symmetry about going back to Christchurch now. It was a very profound experience going through the earthquakes in Christchurch and subsequently working on the rebuild of the art scene in the city through my previous role at the Christchurch Symphony. 

"The Court is special for those of us in Ōtautahi and actually has big implications for the South Island and the theatre sector as well. It's one of those opportunities that doesn't come around that often. It spoke very strongly to me and the timing felt very right." 

While comfortable with her choice, La Roche underlines that it doesn't make leaving CNZ an easy experience.

"While I'm really looking forward to new and different challenges that will be presented at Court Theatre, that's also coupled with the sadness of leaving somewhere you've really enjoyed, where you're saying goodbye to people that you've come to know really well and you've formed close ties with, working on some amazing things and that opportunity to work so widely with so many people across the country in the sector."

Lens on leadership

CNZ will in effect be going through a sizeable leadership reset, at a time when the government's investment (or lack thereof) into the sector is of great concern to many. On top of Wainwright and La Roche, The Arts Council board - that oversees the organisation - will be deciding on the next Chair with Caren Rangi's term almost up.

"Change in leadership can be both unsettling for people but it's also a very healthy thing," La Roche opines. "It does come with possibility, different approaches and different ideas that you bring with you and that's often a very positive thing." 

When asked what type of leadership CNZ needs from here, she answers "I think the board are probably pretty clear on what they're looking for in a Chief Executive - but in a broad sense, what I'd say across the arts as a whole right now is (leaders) that are prepared to be articulate and really put the case for the importance of the arts and can really do that both from the heart and also with the head, backed up by evidence too. 

"I think you're going to have to be resilient. Because as we all know working in the sector, times are not easy and they're probably not going to get easier in the immediate future. 

"At CNZ, people actually do care very deeply in the organisation and you're often making some very tough decisions that you know are not going to be popular with everybody.  You take that heavily as well, it's something that you do take to heart. So it's also the ability to think clearly in these decisions."

No one would have thought going into CNZ to try untangle the rats nest that was the previous funding model would be easy - but was it harder than even La Roche expected?

"There are always times where you go 'Gosh, this has proven to be really challenging day or just getting this little piece over the line'. But actually, I found that incredibly enjoyable. I really mean that - most days I end up going home feeling very uplifted because the work is very stimulating and very rewarding.

"It is challenging at times, but you're working alongside great people - both inside CNZ and out in the sector. You're working alongside and with artists all the time, so it's never gonna be bad in my opinion. 

"If anybody has the opportunity to come in and do this type of work, I’d thoroughly recommend it. I think it's great - what you learn, what you gather through doing this work here."

When quizzed what she learned in this stint, La Roche muses "A far greater national perspective of how the parts of the arts ecosystem work together. 

"I've been able to reconnect a lot more with the regional voice around New Zealand. Growing my understanding of Ngā Toi as well, which I hope is a continuing journey. Getting an understanding of the way the authorising environment works - on a government level as well. That's not something that I was having a day-to-day connection with, understanding that process a lot more and actually the function of a crown entity as well."

Agent of change

Gretchen La Roche at the 2022 PANNZ Arts Market. Photo: Ralph Brown.

Of all the skills creatives who have spoken to The Big Idea feel La Roche has, the one that stands out is the ability to listen and show compassion. Travelling the country and fronting the feedback on what artists need gave her a strong insight into where the creative community was at.

She notes her arrival came off the back of the height of COVID's impact on the industry.

"There was a bit more space, I think, for the organisation to contemplate (change) and I've never encountered any reluctance to get stuck into the work that we've undertaken over the past 18 months or so. 

"There has been a change. I think that was inevitable anyway because the nature of the work would change. It's been a terrific experience, I hope for all involved to actually more collectively find some better ways of doing things together and for each other. 

"I think that's a special moment. You don't get to do that in every job. That's been very interesting to see. It will continue to evolve as well - the philosophy of the way we're looking at the funding in the contestable space has changed a lot in the process too, which we very much hope will be much more people-centred with much more of a heart in it. But we will still need to tweak and adjust because - even with the best will in the world - we won't have landed it perfectly from the absolute get-go. I'm delighted that that is well embraced by the organisation too."

Issue of money

The real fear amongst the creative community though, is that new and improved funding models don't mean much if there's still not enough money to go around.

La Roche responds "I think the two things are slightly separate. There is an interdependency but I think the initiation of All For Arts and the new funding approach was never about addressing the pressure on the funding. The issue was really about actually the how, the why - is there a better way of doing this? Is there a more humane way of doing this? Are we getting it right for what the artists, the creators, the practitioners are telling us they need? Making changes to actually do it better for people because the previous way wasn't working any longer. And I think we all agreed on that. 

"However, what I'm absolutely in agreement with is it's going to be tough for people because we have been in a time where there's been a substantial additional investment that's come through the COVID recovery funds. Stepping to what we had before those additional recovery funds is going to be confronting, there isn't as much as there was and that is a very difficult thing. 

"On top of that fact, there just needs to be more funding for the arts. We do so much with relatively little and that's a bigger challenge. 

"One of the other key pillars of the change in these funding programmes is that we are doing it in a way where we have much stronger evidence of the change and impact through that investment. So the story that can be told to the authorising environment can be even more compelling around the evidence of 'this is what happens' and 'this is the return, this is what you will see if you invest in this way' and 'this is what would happen if we had three times the amount to do that with'."

The homecoming

La Roche outside the Court Theatre's new location. Photo: Supplied.

While there's been an outpouring of disappointment La Roche won't be part of CNZ's decision-making team beyond this month, those in the Ōtautahi creative community are thrilled at regaining such a respected figure.

But she's not walking into a cushy gig - Court Theatre's in desperate need of strong and assured leadership after last year's allegations of bullying and financial issues, as they complete a move into the city centre with its new premises.

La Roche acknowledges "Certainly the Court has had some big challenges over the past while, in a variety of different areas. And also it's a testament to the board for really digging in over the last number of months. But yes, there are some big challenges ahead, some things that we do need to really delve into. 

"It's a challenge for me personally, you know, obviously worked in the performing arts for a very long time, but not specifically in theatre. So I have some learning to do but I love the community. The Court Theatre is something that's been very significant for me personally, as a person living in Christchurch and I think you could see by the level of response through these challenging times just how dear many people hold it to be.

"With these fantastic things coming down the pipeline - this new home and new facility - it's really important that we’re clear in its direction, its purpose for the community of Christchurch, for the South Island, for the theatre community of New Zealand as well. 

"We've got some good, hard work ahead of us to really clarify that and think what the new home also will allow for. There are some very smart and very caring people around the Court, I'm sure they're going to have some really good ideas that they'd like to see come to life as well."

She's not the only  La Roche on the move - husband Mark has left his post as Jolt Dance's General Manager to take up a new role as Manager of Artistic Planning with Chamber Music New Zealand.

One leaving a Christchurch-based arts role to work in the capital, the other going the other direction.

La Roche laughs "We are really supportive of each other and what they doing - we believe quite strongly in the importance of going where the opportunity opens up. You do your best, make your contribution in the best way you can and then comes the right time to move on - to face new challenges and to stimulate yourself. 

"It's probably fair to say that we're not great at aligning our working calendars geographically but that's okay - we still get to see a lot more of each other I think with me working in Christchurch permanently now."

On those who have been in her corner both in the move and during her time at CNZ, La Roche states "I've really been grateful for the support that I've had, particularly as we've gone through this work of developing these new programmes, but also just being out and about.

"I really want to say that I've hugely valued the warm welcome, the openness that people have shown me as they've spoken about their situations and the encouragement over the past months as we've all been doing this work together. It's been a terrific time."