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Aotearoa. What are the arts worth?


Image credit: Strasbourg 1518 dancers Lucy Marinkovich and Michael Parmenter rehearse. Photo: Jocelyn Janon.

A fact of life and of Richard Curtis’s film anthology: No one likes being rejected. As a professional artist, it is inevitable that you will cultivate an intimate relationship with the feeling of rejection. I recently received an email that translated as the ultimate of all break up lines: “It’s not you, it’s me”. I’m usually quick to self-deprecate, but for once I believed them.

I am a Pōneke based dance artist and choreographer and am one of the many prolific artists and high-profile independent companies that has been swept into the maelstrom of Aotearoa’s arts funding crisis, a storm of neglect that has been brewing for decades and whose waves of reckoning started to crest long before the pandemic hit in early 2020.

Recently I applied to Creative New Zealand for an Annual Arts Grant on behalf Borderline Arts Ensemble, my dance-theatre company. We’ve presented the sell-out shows Strasbourg 1518 and Lobsters at New Zealand’s most prestigious festivals, as well as undertaking multiple artistic commissions and international residencies. Having been previously successful recipients of this fund, we were proposing a bold new programme of work including three multi-city theatre seasons alongside business mentoring support. The works featured artists such as Borderline co-director and award winning composer Lucien Johnson, as well as dance luminary Michael Parmenter, MNZM.

Our proposal was rejected, which stung in the way any “no” will do when your heart hoped to hear “yes”. Our feedback and marking from the peer assessors broke our hearts in a different way, however. They spoke of the excellence of our previous and proposed work and of the thoroughness of our budgets, timeframes, business and contingency plans. We were told we were not going to receive funding because Creative NZ simply did not have the money to distribute. With an operating budget of less than 0.01% of the Crown’s core expenses, Creative NZ is not being credibly financed by the government’s Ministry of Culture and Heritage to support the professional arts sector and our story is identical to many other established and highly-esteemed arts professionals. To be clear - Creative New Zealand do not fund hobbyists. Their system for distributing public funding is highly competitive, with rigorous systems of accountability, peer reviewing, and reporting. But ultimately, their teeny tiny pie can only be cut into so many slices. Why then, is the arts portfolio so consistently on the New Zealand budgetary margins?

There are two loud popular arguments against public funding for the arts, and it appears to be political fear from these small but vocal factions that impedes any significant progress for advocating for increased support for the arts sector at a government policy and strategy level. There exists an opinion that publicly funded arts is somehow an exercise in grand larceny. I can only assume this position is held by those who fundamentally misunderstand the professionalism of professional artists. The economic and societal benefits of the arts, as comprehensive data from countless international studies elucidates, places art firmly in the centre of a Venn diagram that supports improved outcomes and growth across the economy as well as the health, education, and social wellbeing sectors.

The arts are a skill building laboratory for the vital attributes of innovation, collaboration, conflict resolution, and emotional intelligence. Artists are expert communicators and we need visionary thinkers to help us make sense of the contemporary world, now more than ever. Considering the known economic benefits of the arts for contributing to profit and employment (an Australian study found that each artist had the impact of creating 6 other jobs in other industries https://www.artshub.com.au/new...) in adjacent sectors of health, education, hospitality, and tourism, financially there is a stronger case for increasing arts funding rather than abolishing it. Currently the No-Strategy Strategy is to leave the arts to starve on the bare minimum of Crown investment, which itself is being eaten away by inflation.

The second oft-touted argument against publicly funded art is expressed as a form of Darwinian economics, which sounds something like “I pay for the music, TV and films I want to stream, so if your performance isn’t commercially viable then it’s because no one wants it”. Imposing a Hunger Games-esque consumer theory onto art and performance in New Zealand is problematic. This is not only because of the issue of subjectivity but because the true value of art isn’t able to be quantified on a profit and loss sheet. Good things take time, and time requires investment and a creator’s deep engagement with their craft. Without a rich ecology of creative voices feeding in from multiple disciplines, diverse backgrounds and wide-ranging influences, we will be left perusing an uncomfortably narrow bric-a-brac like display of commercially successful pop songs and endless prequels of movie franchises through which to perceive and relate to the ever-changing modern world.

Creation is a natural impulse for humans, so while I don’t expect a creative black hole to emerge because of the current dire state of arts resourcing in Aotearoa, I do want to ask why our creative visionaries and future arts leaders who have achieved excellence and acclaim shouldn’t expect to have thriving careers as is expected by those who enter the public sector, or the fields of science, or sports.

Attending a recent hui on arts funding recently, I was asked by a public official (who didn’t seem to reflect on their own, taxpayer funded salary as an administrator of culture) why I thought the government should pay people to make art. The idea of salaried artists is anathema to some, and our government, politicians and policy makers tend to dance an awkward tango with such incendiary issues rather than embrace positions and actions that are possibly unpopular. This may explain how Creative NZ received more funding (adjusted for inflation) in 2006/2007 than in 2022, and why not a single current New Zealand political party has a robust, articulate arts policy on their website. Maybe, like a pile of laundry you’ve been contemplating washing for too long, creating a national arts policy for Aotearoa seems like too daunting a task at this late hour.

The ultimate opportunity cost of this is that without increased funding for our brilliant, visionary artists they will leave the sector or move overseas. Artists pay tax from our fees, have student loans to repay, childcare costs and grocery bills, and our rent or mortgage payments are due every week too. We love living in Aotearoa and hope to create and share beauty through provocative new ideas. Artists aren’t entitled, we consider it a privilege to be supported to contribute our work to enhancing the vibrancy and wellbeing of our communities. But at 0.01%, we need some more of the love returned to us.

– Lucy Marinkovich

17 Strasbourg 1518 Borderline Arts Ensemble Photo Jocelyn Janon