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What it Means to be a Laureate

28 Sep 2020
It's one of the arts most exclusive clubs - and it's invitation only. With the unveiling of this year's Arts Laureates, we look at how the award impacts the chosen artists.

By now, it goes without saying that we will look back on 2020 as a watershed year for the arts in Aotearoa.

It has been filled with livelihoods lost and calls to dismantle a system that was already broken. For everyone in the arts sector, it has been a time to pause, time to create and time to be exhausted. 

There is a sense of the world at large finally waking up to the vital role that the arts plays in our day to day existence, into our wellbeing, into our identity – and that that art in all its forms needs to be uplifted and recompensed.

Years like 2020 throw the importance of art into sharp focus, giving honours like the recently announced Arts Foundation Laureate Awards a further sense of urgency. This year’s recipients include FAFSWAG, the first collective honoured in its 20-year history, bringing the total number of Laureates to 107.

In the wake of these accolades, The Big Idea spoke to past and present recipients about the significance of the award on their work, the impact it has had on careers and hopes for the future.


Dame Gaylene Preston DNZM – received her Arts Laureate in 2001

In 2001, Preston received “the most amazing phone call of my life,” from fellow filmmaker Shirley Horrocks. She was ringing to tell Preston that she was the first filmmaker to receive an Arts Laureate Award. 

“I said ‘what do I have to do for it?’ and she said ‘you’ve already done it – it’s a reward to reward your past work in order to encourage any future work,’” she recalls. “I was imagining a statuette, but then she said ‘you get money’ and I suddenly found myself standing up and crying. 

“It’s such a validation. You’re used to handling quite a lot of money for projects, but not for yourself. Having money to do your work is one thing. But having money to further your own artform is quite different. It’s an amazing concept.”

At the time, Preston was looking to film Perfect Strangers and readying herself to begin location hunting down in the South Island.  She had had a lifetime of “second-hand cars – complete lemons- and my car was leaking. Filmmakers need to be mobile and film companies need a car, so I was able to go down the road and buy one – it’s still going strong to this day,” she says. 

“The value system of the society we live in - whether we like it or not - is money. It’s not the only one but it’s important and it can’t be overlooked when you are an artist. Because when you become an artist, you take on a life of not having much money, so [with the Laureate] it’s unusual to have money for you – it gives you the strength to carry on,” she says drily.

For Preston, it also opened a unique opportunity to network across the arts sector.

“Receiving the award is a huge boost to your confidence but I don’t think you can truly qualify what being an Arts Laureate means,” she says. “Once you receive the award, you are one for life and it plugs you into a network of other Laureates working in different disciplines and you’re much more aware of giving back.”

Preston “wouldn’t be as presumptuous to give [the 2020 recipients] advice, because I think they are doing a great job. But I would encourage them to treasure this multi-arts moment and the opportunity to be amongst your true peers…. It’s a true validation from your own community and one that you don’t ask for.”


Yvonne Todd – Received her Arts Laureate in 2019

Artist Yvonne Todd recalls that she “felt really happy after receiving a phone call on a winter’s evening in 2019 to say I was an Arts Foundation Laureate. It was totally unexpected and a really nice surprise.”

Todd “[tries] to focus [her] attention and energy on making art. I’m not much of a networker or strategic player, although sometimes I wish I had more of an ability to operate in that way. When things just happen without trying too hard, it’s worth celebrating.”

Although she does not have any advice for this year’s recipients, Todd acknowledges that for her “the laureate award provided an affirmation to me, my collectors and supporters that I’m doing something right.  Most artists strive for recognition, usually on their own terms, and it’s reassuring when there is some.”


Tusiata Avia, MNZM – Recipient of The Theresa Gattung Female Arts Practitioners Award, 2020

“I’m thrilled that the Laureates are a clean sweep of people of colour and not in any kind of tick boxy way,” Avia says. “Tick boxes do my head in, but we got [the Laureates] because of our art practice. We often get ‘oh you only got that award because you tick the box’. As artists of colour, we all worry that’s why we are getting an award and it’s a horrible, nasty undermining thing that we can digest. But [with these awards] I was really thrilled – we are mainstream.”

An acclaimed writer, poet and performer, Avia has been honing her craft for two decades, including travelling the world with her one-woman poetry show Wild Dogs Under My Skirt, four critically acclaimed books of poetry, and a swag of awards and accolades. In 2020 alone, she has been appointed a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit along with her Arts Laureate title.

“Having that acknowledgement [of the Laureate] is really great but kind of strange,” she says. “It’s funny being a writer – it’s such a solo thing – I do it at my kitchen table or in my bed or in a café. This has been a big, hyped thing, but I’ll come home and be at my kitchen table again. It’s wonderful to be acknowledged in that way.”

When she got the phone call about her win, Avia was working with Th’Orchard, a grassroots Pacific artistic company in Christchurch. “One of the first things I thought when I put the phone down was that I would like to find ways of giving back to young Pacific artists by mentoring them.” In terms of financial practicalities, it was a close friend who suggested that Avia use her windfall for something that might last. “I’ve lived hand to mouth for two decades. They had to remind me what I could do with it in a lasting way, rather than just buying time to write, which is thinking like a poor artist. I am still waiting to see what [that lasting way] is.”

“I love that there is acknowledgement for the arts in New Zealand,” she continues, “because we live in a society where the arts isn’t the Top of the Pops. Rugby is our national religion and I get that it is a niche amongst normal people. But in my dream country, I’d love to see the arts and creativity become normal across all levels, especially the way we bring our children up and the way creativity is taught in schools.”

With strong mentors, both newly minted and established, there are plenty of voices to help push Aotearoa’s arts sector to new heights.

A full list and biographies of the 2020 Arts Foundation Laureates can be found here.