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Opinion - Predicting Arts & Culture Landscape Under National/ACT

30 Oct 2023

While we wait for the new government to take shape - and find out who will take up the Arts, Culture & Heritage portfolio - Andrew Wood sifts through what we know about the likely coalition partner's creative priorities (or lack thereof).

As we wait in trepidation for the incoming government to form itself, we might as well consider what the landscape for the arts will look like under it. 

Let’s go full Nostradamus as I gaze into my crystal ball.

National has no arts policy to speak of - and much depends on who will be Minister of Arts, Culture and Heritage. 

Pre-election, National’s Arts, Culture and Heritage spokesperson was Simon O'Connor - but he hasn't made it back into parliament so it remains to be seen who will get the portfolio now. I do believe I am actually getting misty-eyed for Chris Finlayson, who - while a highbrow elitist - did care passionately about the portfolio.

National doesn’t rate the arts as a priority so they may offer it as a bauble to one of their coalition partners.

I’m not sure who the ACT spokesperson for Arts, Culture and Heritage is, as their last one - Damien Smith - chose not to run in this election. Maybe Laura Trask, because according to her bio she enjoys renovating her 1910s villa, reading, and frequenting local cafés? 

Close enough, I guess.

The portfolio is of sufficiently low value to National that they might even offer it to someone in New Zealand First.

What we know

In July, The Big Idea reported the arts, culture and heritage policy statements of the main parties.

National will still likely be calling all the policy shots even if an ACT MP has the portfolio. O’Connor stated:

"National policy will want to emphasise that the creative sector is an essential part of New Zealand; it is not simply a 'nice to have'.

"Certainly, Creative NZ (CNZ) needs to be closely looked at as, to us [National], it feels that many in the sector have lost confidence in their funding decisions and are calling for greater transparency in decision-making. There is more to add, but until the Party fully reviews and agrees its policy, I am not able to share further details."

Ideologically, both National and ACT favour greater emphasis on private patronage, which is already thin on the ground - and much as I’d like to see a review of CNZ, there’s no hope of it going in our favour.

The arts could also well look like a tempting sacrificial goat to thrust into the gaping void of National’s fiscal policies. On the other hand, the arts are one of the cheapest things in any budget that you can throw a pittance at and still look like a good guy.

CNZ have already confirmed future funding pools will be greatly reduced as the Lottery Grants Board changes its allocation to a set amount - instead of a percentage - and top-ups from government, as we saw during the pandemic, looking extremely unlikely.

Surprisingly, ACT came up with a reasonably coherent arts, culture and heritage policy - even if it does just treat the portfolio as a populist sop to their supporters. It seems very likely that ACT will have a lot of influence on the development of government arts and culture policy because National clearly doesn’t have one:

"ACT values the contribution that the arts bring to a rich and diverse New Zealand society.

"ACT would like to see arts funding invest in more diverse range of art for all New Zealanders, including recognising a variety of Asian cultures and especially those living in disadvantaged communities or isolated locations. Value will be placed on projects which allow a wide range of communities to participate in the arts.”

I can sort of get behind that, but unless ACT also supported the massive increases in funding required to pull that off (and I bet they don’t), it’s unlikely to happen. It’s also rather difficult to divine what is actually meant by “recognising a variety of Asian cultures and especially those living in disadvantaged communities or isolated locations.” Concert tours? Holiday-based festivals?

“After criteria of meeting needs of disadvantaged or isolated communities, arts funding applications should be tied to how much private philanthropy, corporate sponsorship or expected ticket sales they have, to ensure that supported arts are going to appeal to the New Zealand public as much as possible. This will have the effect of supporting increased cultural philanthropy from the private sector to bolster arts communities in New Zealand.”

Which is madness. Culture is expensive and should be a public good, because no one wants to pay for it. 

How does the New Zealand public know what appeals to it if it hasn’t really experienced it? So kiss goodbye to anything challenging or experimental.

"Creative NZ will not fund projects which promote or glorify violence or racism.”

That’s ACT-speak for anything by Māori or Pasifika that makes Pākehā feel bad about the institutionalised and casual racism of our late capitalist, late colonial society, vis a vis David Seymour having the knives out for poet Tusiata Avia.

"Government funds which currently fund large public sector payrolls for culture agencies and screen production grants for multinational corporations should instead be redirected to funding for local artists.”

Part of me kind of likes this - but as I deeply distrust ACT with every quivering fibre of my being - said “local artists” will not include anything not deemed ideologically acceptable by a certain thin-skinned demographic, said culture agencies have barely enough staff to function efficiently as it is, and binning screen production grants will be catastrophic for thousands of industry jobs.

For those reasons - and the hit our international prestige would take - I don’t see National going for it.

"We are open to reforming the way grants are run for creatives to avoid the current bureaucracy, drawing on international examples such as recent changes the Arts Council England has made to redirect funding to local projects. However, these kinds of operational changes would need to be worked through as part of the government.”

I don’t think whomever drafted this really understands how the British Arts Council actually works. 

Even under the Tories, it remains a major arm of British soft power in the world, even with some funding redirected to local projects. It’s not just a funding body for British arts, it also promotes British culture overseas. ACT saves its arse with the “these kinds of operational changes would need to be worked through as part of the government” part, because, again, I can’t see National going for it.

"ACT wants an education system that supports diverse needs of children. Under ACT’s vision for education, schools would be able to foster arts education for their students, and families can choose to enrol their children in schools with strong arts opportunities if this is something they value. This could include academies focussed on arts education.”

So, basically - the arts are for the kids whose parents can afford to send them to schools which can afford to prioritise the arts, even as National imposes all sorts of other redundant and pointless things on them.

“ACT supports students studying the arts at a tertiary level should they wish, and gives no direction to universities on funding or not funding certain subjects. Under our Student Education Account policy, students can use the funds towards course fees for arts study or their living costs while they do so.”

Which is another way of saying “user pays status quo” as Pontius Pilate washes his hands. 

ACT know full well that the present paradigm of economic prioritisation of STEM has seen numerous arts and humanities programmes shuttered at our universities - so bah humbug to that.

When push comes to shove...

I am reasonably confident that National won’t forge ahead with anything as drastic as ACT’s proposals.

They might be smug philistines, but neither are they going to rock the policy boat in such a way that they bring down the wrath of celebrity luvvies, Peter Jackson, etc, or eff around with some of our most lucrative industries.

I’m fairly sure National realise that monkeying around with the NZ Film Commission would jeopardise hundreds of businesses and thousands of jobs that depend on international productions.

I suspect what we will see is a lot less public funding available, a lot of not doing anything proactive to improve the situation, a swing in emphasis to prioritising the more populist and traditional high culture parts of the sector. 

None of which is good news for the creative precariat, but aside from some targeted and much-deserved funding injections and COVID support, not entirely dissimilar from Labour’s complete lack of arts policy – something which can be put down to both Ardern and Sepuloni both being far too busy with multiple other portfolios and crises to distinguish themselves in the role.

It’s not the end of the world – the arts have existed off the smell of a proverbial oily rag since forever, we’re tough people, survivors. 

That said, there is definitely trouble up t’mill.