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OPINION: A Response To Paul Goldsmith's Creative Vision

29 Apr 2024

Veteran arts writer Andrew Wood has mulled over the Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage's call for ideas on a creative sector strategy - and has some suggestions.

As someone who has been around the Aotearoa art block a few times, I must say it is a huge relief that the Hon. Paul Goldsmith, Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage, is considering a formal arts policy.

It’s probably the single most important a government in this country can do for the arts. That was my biggest criticism of Labour in that regard, that in two terms they never thought it worthwhile to install an arts policy.

While I appreciate that Labour had a lot of things to deal with, placing the PM and one of the busiest of their Cabinet in the co-ministerial roles gave the impression that they didn’t understand how complicated and involved the portfolio really is.

That said, I’m not convinced that Goldsmith really gets it either. There is a bleak irony when, in announcing his intentions he states:

“The whole point of the arts and creativity is that people should do whatever the hell they want, unbound by the dictates of politicians in Wellington. Peter Jackson, Kiri Te Kanawa, Eleanor Catton and others who have made a global impact didn’t wait around for a glossy strategy; they just went for it.”

Firstly, they didn’t. 

Jackson - for example - benefited from the beneficent largess of the NZ Film Commission and a government willing to rewrite employment law to appease him.

Secondly, it would be awfully nice if Goldsmith could explain this theory to his colleague David Seymour the next time he goes off about Tusiata Avia

Oh, if only in this difficult economy it was as simple as just going for it. But alas, it’s generally considered poor form to let your creatives starve to death in a garret these days.

Furthermore, Goldsmith states:

“That said, we must recognise that government, on behalf of all New Zealanders, pulls many levers that can help or hinder the broader sector. It could help to articulate a vision and a strategy to get there, so long as it’s enabling and not restrictive in any way.”

Well, yes, but talk of “the sector” seems to me to ignore the grassroots of cultural participation and the precariousness of arts education, exhibition and performance venues, and the vicissitudes of contestable funding. It feels like the focus is on a particularly elitist version of cultural production that favours large, self-sustaining organisations and big, high-profile events.

Hopefully this won’t be the case, and with all of David Seymour’s frothing at the mouth whenever a brown artist expresses late colonial trauma, I certainly hope that the enabling and not being restrictive is going to apply to creatives not singing the party line.

In the words of rapper Brooke Candy, “It's real out here in the field b*tch, and I'm a f*cking scarecrow”.

Goldsmith's vision

“My vision is that New Zealand is as well known internationally for its arts and creativity as it is for its dairy products and beautiful scenery.”

There is so much to unpackage here. I think it’s unfortunately telling that Goldsmith - when reaching for something Aotearoa is internationally known for - goes for exploitable primary resources. 

Arts and creativity aren’t there to be milked or gawked at by tourists. They represent some of the added value on every New Zealand brand we export. It’s a philosophy that really ought to be applied to other parts of the economy.

It’s also a bit of an affront to say this, despite New Zealand already being well-known internationally for its arts and creativity. Much of that work has already been done - much of it 40 years ago. The international art world knows this. The movie world knows this. The gaming industry knows this. Although, if Goldsmith wants to put the government’s money where his mouth is, bringing back our full national participation in the Venice Biennale would be a good step.

“In telling our stories (in every which way) both to ourselves and to the world, we bring joy, pathos and drama, and deepen our understanding of how our unique culture and heritage fits into the wider world. And we can also make some money.”

Goldsmith isn’t wrong here, but he may be being wildly optimistic about how much money it can reasonably be expected to make. 

More to the point, it won’t make money unless the government spends money. Even then, some aspects of the art sector - a public good - will never turn a profit, and shouldn’t be expected to. 

Arguably the greatest benefits from art to society is intangible, either immanent or transcendent. 

Also, I’m not clear what, “deepen our understanding of how our unique culture and heritage fits into the wider world” means. It’s not like it’s a secret. People like me have been writing about it for decades. Creative NZ (CNZ) has produced countless reports explaining it. I can’t even begin to imagine how many theses and books have been written about it.

Breaking down the strategy

“Four pillars of a strategy to get there would be: setting an aspirational target, ensuring the regulatory environment enables success, spending government money wisely so that it leverages further input from philanthropy and commerce, and thinking in terms of sustainable creative careers.”

That would be all well and good - except that I’d argue that given the precarious financial insecurity of embarking on a creative career these days, it’s already aspirational. I’m not quite clear what Goldsmith means by a “regulatory environment”. 

The “spending government money wisely” sends a cold shiver up my spine, because it implies that Goldsmith does not believe CNZ to have been doing a good job of it. 
And frankly, I’ve tired of this centre-right libertarian notion that Aotearoa is going to magically conjure up a philanthropic patronage culture or diversified, multi-tiered culture market to sustain New Zealand arts. Off the top of my head, I can only think of maybe 20 wealthy New Zealanders who invest in a meaningful way in the arts. Perhaps not even that many. Some of whom whose money might come with strings you don’t want to be entangled in.

Essentially, this model works in large, wealthy countries with lots of people with lots of liquid capital - not in a small country with a population smaller than many major cities and with a tiny pool of rich people who care about the arts. 

There is, for example, a reason why Aotearoa only sustains a handful of art dealers. There is a reason why arts festivals are shuttering, and culture programmes winding up.

“…sustainable creative careers…” [screams internally]. If sustainability is the desirable characteristic for creative careers, why bother? It’s at least 50% luck. And what of less publicly palatable practices? What of the controversial and provocative? 

“Our aspiration should be two-fold, in cultural and economic terms. It’s possible to measure and seek to grow the engagement of New Zealanders with the arts and creative sector, and we should – from kapa haka to ballet and dance, from school rock bands to the opera. Add to that a focus on excellence as well as participation. In economic terms, by one measure the arts and creative sector contributes $16.3 billion to the economy. Would it be possible to double the sector’s contribution to GDP and export revenue in seven years?”

Here we are getting to the nitty gritty. This isn’t really about expression, folks. It’s about entertainment and making things pretty. 

Yes, $16.3 billion is one figure bandied about, but wouldn’t it make more sense to invest in shoring up that already significant figure rather than eyeing pie in the sky and turning the creative sector into some kind of sweatshop?

“I was struck at a session with the music and theatre sector when one guy said the most useful thing you could do to help the music scene was sort out the impossible liquor licencing rules. Government regulation can help and hinder the creative sector, just as much as it does agriculture and housing. It’s essential to remove regulatory barriers to success, and to ensure critical enabling legislation, such as Intellectual Property and copyright laws, are up to scratch. Remember also, most artists are self-employed or small businesspeople; we want some of them to become big businesspeople.”

I’m pretty sure regulatory barriers are a lot less of an issue here than financial precarity, and while - in principle - I support greater protections to IP and copyright, part of me would like fair use to be enshrined in the system as it is in the US. 

Let us also remember that most artists are self-employed or small businesspeople because they are forced to be, when they’d rather be making art. Setting up systems to remove that burden would be of greater benefit than more paperwork to worry about.

“Third, the Government invests more than $500 million into the arts, creative, heritage and broadcasting sector. Significant sums are spent on subsidising films. Obviously, we have to ensure that money is spent wisely, to get the best results. We also need to consider the big investment across local government, and the contribution of philanthropy and corporate sponsorship. Skilful government investment will leverage the other three, so that more resources are available.”

Given that we’ve already established that the arts and creative sector contributes $16.3 billion to the economy, why begrudge a piddling $500 million of Government investment? Surely it’s already turning a profit? “Obviously, we have to ensure that money is spent wisely, to get the best results.” Sounds like a big ol’ slash and purge on the way. 

And again with the mantra of “philanthropy and corporate sponsorship”. Any organisation capable of taking advantage of that is already doing that, but culture is never going to compete with sport for sponsorship in this country. You’ll be leveraging diddly.

Let me count the ways

“Finally, any strategy worth its salt will consider how we generate and sustain a pipeline of talent. It starts with an education system that exposes all Kiwi kids to a wide range of arts and creativity, and inspires them. Māori and Pacific traditions are essential, as is Shakespeare. Skills training at the tertiary level can also include a measure of business guidance. And in our funding we need to carefully consider the balance between encouraging emerging talent, providing opportunities for mid-career professionals, recognising excellence, and supporting our key institutions that provide opportunities for the sector.”

Putting aside the dystopian vision of a “pipeline of talent”, if Goldsmith is serious about this:

1.    His government needs to stop playing culture wars with the school curriculum. 
2.    The idea of education as a pathway to employment and the emphasis on STEM subjects is going to have to be drastically broadened and modified. 
3.    Schools across the deciles and regions need funding for arts, theatre, creative writing, music and language programmes. 
4.    Keep David Seymour away from school lunches and the forms of creative expression he deems socially acceptable.
5.    Stop treating tertiary education as a way of milking foreign students and reinvest in arts and humanities departments.
6.    Ringfence New Zealand’s cultural funding bodies and leave them alone to get on with it.
7.    Sort out the lack of affordable housing/studio/workshop/performance space.
8.    Tackle the cost of living and access to social welfare so that creatives actually have the time to build creative careers.
9.    Solve the insurance crisis facing our art galleries and museums.
10.    Directly fund creative programming on our broadcast media.

And that’s just for starters. There are many other avenues to explore, such as benefits for developers who include public art in their projects, ditching secondary tax, tax breaks for art buyers, subsidising access for kids and people on low incomes, tax breaks for creatives. 

I’d better stop there because I could go on for pages.