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Rt Hon Jacinda Ardern: Wellbeing and the power to make change – what art means to me

"The arts can challenge us to reconsider how we look at the world, the assumptions we hold, who we are and who we could be."

In my office in the Beehive, there are a couple of artworks that are very special to me.

I mention this because, while it feels like the nation has been talking about nothing but a certain World Cup recently, September is Arts Month. To celebrate, people across New Zealand have shared what art means to them, and more broadly, what it means for Aotearoa. As the Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage – and as someone who is passionate about the arts and the role they play in our communities – I wanted to join the conversation.

The artworks that take pride of place in my office are there because of the story behind them. I’ve collected these works over the years when I’ve been out around New Zealand, and they have one thing in common – they were created in places dedicated to improving people’s wellbeing through art.

These are spaces that enable people with physical disabilities, people that might be dealing with anxiety or mental health issues, and people with intellectual disabilities to express themselves creatively. They’re spaces where people can come to and belong – and that’s a really important part of wellbeing.

Because for me, that’s what art is all about: wellbeing. Being able to create and access art contributes not only to our individual wellbeing, but is also an important factor in the wellbeing of our communities, and our society as a whole.

The arts can challenge us to reconsider how we look at the world, the assumptions we hold, who we are and who we could be. Art can provoke us to think about our past. It can offer a voice to marginalised groups who may otherwise struggle to be heard. Art can connect us, start conversations, and help us tell our stories.

We should not think of the arts as a “nice to have”. The arts are a fundamental part of strong communities, and local and national economies. Creative industries, and the artists that work in them, already make a significant contribution to our economy, and our Government is committed to supporting this growth.

However, we cannot say we value our art if we do not value our artists. We know our artists are often marginalised. Recent data confirms that our artists’ average earnings are well below the New Zealand average, and even the most talented and resilient can find it challenging to establish a sustainable career.

This is why I have initiated a programme of work to support sustainable careers in the arts – because all New Zealand workers deserve a fair wage, because this Government is focused on wellbeing, and because I believe in the power of art to make change.

We have made a start. For example, we are investing $8 million over four years for Creative New Zealand to pay a fairer wages to artists who receive its grants. Over $7 million is going into Creatives in Schools projects over four years, enabling artists to partner with schools and kura to share their specialist skills and knowledge with the next generation – building the foundations for cultural careers.

This is only the first step, and we are exploring what more we can do to ensure artists receive fair remuneration, and to support emerging artists to establish their careers.

The Government has work underway for New Zealand’s creative industries, including supporting the screen industry’s development of a 10-year strategy. We are exploring initiatives to enhance the international potential of contemporary popular music, and we are reviewing our copyright regime.

We also want to ensure that everyone can access the arts and take part in artistic activities. We’re looking at how we can better meet the needs of diverse communities, and help people who experience barriers to participation get involved. Because the arts are for all – and we need to make sure this is reflected in our arts and cultural organisations.

I’m really excited about the future of the arts in New Zealand. We may have different views about what art is, what it means and why it’s important, but if there’s one thing I think we can all agree on, it’s this: our arts and our artists are vital in helping us to imagine and build a better Aotearoa.

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