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"We Are All Accountable" - Confronting Art's Demise in NZ Schools

06 Oct 2021
A leading art educator delivers a coalface response to the new NCEA subject list - and poses some important questions for creatives and education hierarchy.

Written by

Dagmar Dyck

First-generation New Zealander Dagmar Dyck is an artist, researcher, art educator, and social justice advocate. Her navigation in and around different worldviews is at the heart of her identity, arts, and teaching practice. 

Dyck has been teaching arts at Sylvia Park School for the last 10 years, is on the Executive Committee of Aotearoa New Zealand Art Association of Art Educators (ANZAAE) and was part of the small contingent that fronted the Ministry of Education to present the case for saving all the NCEA art subjects. 

She’s shared her passionate views on the current state - and future concerns - for arts in schools with The Big Idea.


Late last week the Government released the new NCEA subject lists. The Stuff article I read described a “controversial merging of painting, printmaking and sculpture into a single subject left painting in the clear, but saw the latter merge into one ‘visual arts’ subject.” Following directly on was the response of a well-known arts academic declaring the arts have been “thrashed”, “decimated” and “gutted” by the Ministry of Education (MoE). 

Whilst there is some truth to the choice of his adjectives, my lens and experience begs a wider narrative. 

Don’t get me wrong, as someone who majored in Printmaking during my undergrad years, I am disappointed to see the collapse of Printmaking and Sculpture into the new subject of Visual Arts. However I'm sadly not surprised - peek inside most tertiary art institutes in Aotearoa and you will realise the slow decline of printmaking has been going on for years. 

From where I sit, we can not continue to solely point the finger and berate the MoE for the state we now find ourselves in. 

This isn’t just about them.

It’s about every single one of us involved in the arts and education. We are all accountable, the entire NZ arts community and education sector, for this demise. 

30 years ago, my art teachers encouraged me to follow my dream and become an artist. But how exactly has that dream turned out? I’m 30 years down the track in my career and as a brown female and a mother, I have struggled to secure dealer representation. 

Take a deep dive into any of our dealer galleries and consider the diversity within their stables. How many Māori and Moana Oceania artists are they representing? And if you’re up for it, break that data down one more layer and ask how many of them are women? Truly sobering. 

The stark reality is the numbers of students taking arts over the years have been in steady decline. Yet the ever-changing world we live in is in desperate need for the cognitive skills and dispositions that creativity produces. 

So where is the disconnect? Shouldn’t we see art rooms, dark rooms, music suites, dance studios and stages brimming over with our rangatahi? 

As a primary school art teacher I can say, with hand on heart, not one child I have taught has ever said they don’t want to do art. The complete freedom, fearlessness and joy expressed in my art classes reiterates that it’s not the children with the issues. 

Dagmar Dyck (second from left) with other Members of ANZAAE Exec Committee outside the Ministry of Education earlier this year. Photo: Supplied.

I believe it's a combination of leadership, Initial Teacher Training (ITE) and pedagogical (theories of how we teach) issues within education. It’s a complete system and industry failure and it’s been going on for years. 

Where has the strategic clear line of sight been? Who has been at these important decision making tables? Certainly very few, if any, of us from the Moana, that is most evident.

Undertaking my literature review for my masters research* backs up the notion that pedagogical approaches in the arts are predominantly framed within a euro-centric lens. The need for critical culturally sustaining pedagogies is to address issues of power and social justice, and centre students’ cultural identities. 

What is heartening is the potential to apply strength-based pedagogies to arts education via levers such as the mandated MoE cultural framework, Tapasā.

Leadership in this instance reflects Principals, Senior Leadership teams and, importantly, School Boards. A unified vision from this trifecta of parties sets the platform for the arts to be valued in any school context. 

Art departments and art teachers undoubtedly thrive in these environments. The New Zealand Curriculum is permissive and responsive, allowing full scope and opportunity for the arts.

However, for this to be actualised in our classrooms, the recurring comment I hear from primary teachers is reflective of inadequate arts provision in our ITE programmes. 

The 6 hours of contact time I had for teaching the Arts when I undertook my Grad Dip Teaching was woeful and a slap in the face to the mana of our Arts Community. Literally a morning spent working on creating some resources was all I received. Little wonder so many teachers lack confidence when it comes to teaching the Arts in our classrooms. 

We need to rebuild the value of the Arts into our ITE programmes. 

Looking at our educational pipeline, the critical year 9 and 10 years witnesses the most dramatic decline in engagement in the arts. Why is this so? Because it becomes an option in an already crowded subject list. 

Speaking to my ex-students, I always ask if they have taken arts at high school. Sadly I can count on one hand those that have. For the others, they tell me how boring art is as a subject. Don’t shoot the messenger.

Take for example my 19-year-old son, Ercan. He is about to embark on his seventh solo show since leaving high school 3 years ago. His experience left him feeling disillusioned, disappointed and angry. 

Ercan Cairns working in studio. Photo: Supplied.

In his words; “Year 9, I gave art another go and it finished that year. The first thing I did that I felt looked good was slammed as wrong and I was very confused. Being told what to do and having someone else's idea of good and bad art in your head sucked. 

“How could there ever be a sense of right and wrong. From that point I knew art was going to be a shit subject. I hated painting. School taught me how to hate using my brain. A fall in line, meaningless environment.” 

Heartbreak is my response as a mother, unacceptable is my response as an art educator. I too, struggled with conformity, nearly failing year 13 painting. 

Beyond our schooling years, we must also recognise that being an artist is tough. Creative New Zealand is doing commendable work to ensure better circumstances for our arts industry but let’s be real - making it in this country is for the few and far between. 

The Year 12 and 13 student participants from my research all displayed a talent and love for their art subjects, yet not one was choosing it as a career choice. For many of our Pacific students, their biggest barrier is convincing their families of the arts as a viable career. 

And can I blame them? At times I feel irresponsible to encourage our children into the arts. What are we actually setting them up for? What does the future really look like for them? 

Our arts community is small. My response today involves people that I know, work alongside and respect. We are on the same team. My intention is to open up the conversation further by offering another perspective and critique of the system and environment that involves all of us asking questions and demanding answers. 

I simply know that it belongs in a much bigger space than MoE. 

Through my research, I have realised that there is still important work to be done by us all to challenge institutionalised racism and all other forms of discrimination embedded in national educational policies, practices and pedagogies. 

The more of us agitating is a start. I don't want to imagine that in another 30 years, we are no less better off than now. Their voices are often unheard but Ercan, and the thousands of children behind him, deserve better. 

After all, that is their absolute right.


*Dagmar Dyck’s research article ‘See me, know me, believe in me: Reimagining Pasifika student success as Pasifika in visual arts’ will soon be published by Set: Research Information for Teachers, Te Takere I NZCER Press

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