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"Like A Blunt Axe" - More Budget Cuts Blowback For Creatives

13 Jun 2024

After surveying the initial reaction to the Government's Budget, Andrew Wood looks at what the slashed funding to creative projects means to arts education and professional development.

In the last instalment of analysis of what this Budget means for the New Zealand creative sector, we focussed mainly on the Ministry of Arts, Culture and Heritage and the things it funds, but there are serious impacts for other Ministries and their projects.

One such programme affected is Creatives in Schools, which has been cancelled. 

Creatives in Schools was established to “Provide creative learning experiences that enhance the well-being of students and ākonga and develop their knowledge and skills in communication, collaboration, and creative thinking and practice.” The programme supported years 1 to 13.

Ellen MacGregor-Reid, Hautū (leader) Curriculum Centre, speaking for the Ministry, told The Big Idea:

“The decision to discontinue the Creatives in Schools programme was made as part of the savings within Budget 24. This decision is part of a broader reallocation of funds to support current priorities. 

"The Creatives in Schools programme for the current financial year (FY23/24) had approved 175 creative projects of those, about 160 are underway or completed. The remaining few schools whose projects were not due to start until the coming financial year (FY 24/25) were aware that this funding was being reviewed as part of the budget savings initiative.” 

Reaction from the frontline

Students at Waikowhai Intermediate getting the benefits of their Creatives in Schools project. Photo: Supplied.

One creative involved in the programme, responding to our earlier Budget report, emailed The Big Idea to say:

“The funding cuts by their name imply painful but tidy, paper-edged injuries. But in reality, a blunt axe has been used. 

"Case in point the ‘discontinuing of funding’ for Creatives in Schools. As one of those creatives, my gut reaction on hearing that announcement was akin to the feelings I experienced in February 2011 during the second big earthquake in Ōtautahi. Disbelief, shock, anger, much swearing and tears, as the realisation dawned that I’ve been through this before with the National Govts stripping creativity away from our country’s youth and future.

"Currently I’m working in a Kura with 500+ students on a collaborative mural project. I see the immense benefits of this programme on a daily basis and although heartened by the incredible work that our teachers are doing, I know only too well how insidious the reach of this reduction of creativity plays out. 

"This coalition govt, amongst its many other failings and distortion of what’s ’best for all NZers’, plants seeds of mediocrity for the masses. The privileged elite will be the ones to experience ‘fine’ art and culture, whilst keeping the creators and artists grateful for scraps.

"The good news is that the robust education opportunities that the vast majority our youth are currently receiving, will hopefully play out in a few years time. Underestimating this generation will be at a politician’s peril.”

Development stunted

Of course, the impact of this Budget is also being felt in tertiary education. 

The subsidy the Budget provides our universities isn’t commensurate with inflation in the face of increasing tuition fees. The humanities and university art schools increasingly struggle in a system that prioritises a user pays/bums on seats model. 

As tuition fees increase, prospective students are less likely to want to take the risk of a course of study without a guaranteed high income at the end of it – ie. STEM.

This has a two-fold negative effect. It reduces the number of highly trained creatives going into the sector and the community in general, but it also makes it increasingly difficult for tertiary institutions to justify having those departments and sustaining those education paths.

So, not only does Budget 2024 have a negative effect on creatives already creating in our communities, it has a chilling effect on creating new generations of creatives and new generations of receptive audiences.

Other creative-focused offerings have fallen by the wayside, including the MSD/MCH joint-funded Creative Careers Service that provided hundreds of creatives the opportunity for career development and networking opportunities through the likes of Toipoto (The Big Idea),  Wayfind Creative (Depot Artspace), Tukua (Ngahere Communities), Elevate (Creative Waikato) and Art/Work (Nelson Chamber of Commerce).

What steps now?

What, then, is this Government trying to tell the creative sector?

Accountant Robert Westall of Naked Accounting specialises in the creative sector had this to say to The Big Idea:

“This budget combined with inflation and the end of the COVID money means that the arts is getting less financial support from government than they have had in recent years. The cuts to regional arts funding shows that the desire to fund capital budgets is low. 

"In reality, this is a clear sign from government that artists and the creative sector need to look elsewhere for investment. For some, this may mean relying more on commercial and philanthropic models of fundraising. For others, the sad truth is that they will need to seriously look at their costs vs income and make some tough decisions in order to become sustainable.   

"My advice - see this as an opportunity to build a professional, robust, and sustainable model and then you will become more investable in the medium and long term. 

"It will be hard, and some decisions will be hard, but every downturn has its opportunities. Remain open-minded, weather the storm, understand your position, and trust your intuition. The trick is to build a model that is positioned well to quickly take up the opportunities when they make themselves known.”

Brace yourself

Whether the private sector and the limited supply of philanthropists in Aotearoa rise to this challenge remains to be seen. Australia is in a similar situation. Their Federal Cultural Polity Revive emphasises access to culture as a right with reference to the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

There are very real, pragmatic reasons why everyone in Aotearoa - not just creatives - should be concerned about this. Access to culture is an important contributor to individual and community well-being and an indexical signifier of community prosperity and functionality.

Perhaps the answer is to acknowledge this, and rather than categorise culture as a “nice to have”, we should ringfence it as part of the foundational economy.

Although Winston Churchill never, in fact, said it (though he certainly advocated similar sentences and would probably approve of the false attribution), the much-repeated story goes that when Churchill was asked to cut funding to the arts in order to support the war effort in World War II, he responded “Then what would we be fighting for?”

The creative sector is currently at war with unfavourable global economic circumstances. It seems a shame that our own government should declare war on us as well.