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Helen Clark Lecture On Art In NZ

Rt Hon Helen Clark
Prime Minister

Arts, Culture, & Public Policy

A lecture in the Winter Lecture Series
on the State of the Arts


Maidment Theatre
University of Auckland

1.00 pm
Tuesday 22 August 2000

Thank you for the opportunity to contribute to this Winter Lecture Series on the state of the arts in New Zealand.

I am conscious that my contribution comes as the last in the series, following academics, practitioners, and administrators in the arts.

I speak today as one with a lifelong love of the arts who, by choice, has assumed the portfolio of Minister of Arts and Culture. That portfolio also covers heritage issues.

My position as Prime Minister is one of leadership, and I choose to use that leadership to indicate that the government places a very high value on arts and culture for a range of reasons which I will outline today.

I also believe that the government has a duty to be supportive of the arts and culture, while absolutely respecting the right of the artist to freedom of expression. The arts have a time honoured function of serving as conscience and critic of society, and nations are the stronger for accepting and valuing that scrutiny.

In fashioning public policy on arts and culture, I have had in mind three main objectives, each of which I will now discuss in turn.

The first is the enabling of creative expression through arts and culture and the building of audiences in New Zealand which, through their support, will help sustain and nurture artistic and cultural forms.

In this sense it matters not whether the creative expression is in the traditional performing arts where our talented people present the works of others to a high standard, or whether it is in the production of new works, visual or performing, presenting fresh perspectives. It is the ability to contribute to creative expression which is important in its own right, and the ability to inspire and move others.

I place great store on the intrinsic value of the arts, on the expression of creative talent by the individual, and on the creation of a society which accepts the arts not as an optional extra but as a necessity of civilisation.

My second objective for public policy is to see arts and culture contribute to a strong assertion of New Zealand identity as a unique and creative nation.

Some will dismiss this as jingoistic nonsense, as a recent New Zealand Herald columnist in effect did. I beg to differ. Indeed in a world which has globalised so fast, I consider it vital that we move very fast to secure a stronger sense of who and what we are.

That is why the debate about the future of public television is so important. Without a strong commitment to local content, we are subjected to the cultural influences of others without sufficient reinforcement from our own. Yet we are not a suburb of Sydney, Los Angeles, or London. We are a unique nation, building a future on a foundation of biculturalism with the values and heritage of many peoples contributing to that future. We have our own stories to tell and our own perspectives on events. Our creative people across all artistic and cultural media have a big role to play in defining our nation in the twenty-first century.

My third objective is to see arts and culture contribute to the building of strong creative industries which provide rewarding employment, opportunities for creative entrepreneurs, and good economic returns. Indeed the creative sector has the potential to be among the key growth industries of the twenty first century. World wide, there is huge growth in the service sector around industries based on creative talent. New Zealand with its large pool of talented people has the potential for its creative sector to do exceptionally well, and make an even larger contribution to our economy.

Already our film and television industries are significant export dollar earners. Our popular music industry has the potential to grow enormously. The spectrum of the creative sector stretches all the way from the pure and high arts to more commercial applications in graphics, design, fashion, new technologies, the internet and new media. A nation which encourages its creative people will reap the economic and intrinsic benefits in countless ways.

The Role of Government

Thus far I have outlined my objectives for public policy for arts and culture. What then is the government's role in meeting these objectives?

I think the government's role is considerable, but it cannot be a solo act. If the arts had only government to rely on, they would be vulnerable indeed! Governments come and go – and some are more sympathetic than others. What would be gratifying over time would be to see at least the present level of government funding maintained for the long term to give the sector a viable base.

Any government which invests more in arts and culture will be subjected to small-minded and mean-minded criticism. The range of familiar arguments have been trotted out since the announcement of the government's funding arts package in May. They come from those who regard the arts as an optional extra and not a necessity for a well rounded society, and from those who don't believe in much of a role for the state in anything at all.

Then there are those who mistakenly dismiss arts and culture as elitist and an inappropriate focus for ordinary people's taxes. That argument doesn't stand up either when one examines the breadth of artistic and cultural forms supported by taxes and the wide audiences they reach. It is worth noting too that research evidence suggests that more New Zealanders participate actively and passively in arts and cultural pursuits than in sports – contrary to public perception.

Nowhere in the western world do the arts flourish without significant government support. Normally that support is at rather higher levels than we manage here. The overheads for the performance and exhibition of many art forms simply place them beyond the ability of the audience to pay for them. So, if we value the availability of these art and cultural forms, then it is inevitable that we accept some responsibility for funding them from the public purse.

The public purse, however, cannot meet the full cost, nor should it. Support for arts and culture is best developed these days as a partnership. In that partnership, the state will be dominant in some areas, particularly in the support of the national institutions and organisations, but in others private philanthropy and patronage, and increasingly corporate sponsorship, will play a big role. The loyal, ticket-buying audiences are also essential, both financially and in demonstrating an on-going public demand for the art and cultural form.

What state have the arts and cultural infrastructure been in?

Prior to the election I rather optimistically announced that the new government would increase public spending on the arts, culture, and heritage by twenty-five million dollars over three years. We had envisaged that the extra funding would go primarily into supporting Creative New Zealand which allocates funding over many arts and cultural activities on behalf of government. It was also evident that the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra was struggling to keep within budget, having accumulated a deficit when corporate sponsorship and audience receipts dropped off during the period the economy was in recession.

My heart sank as I read the arts briefing papers prepared for the incoming government. It became clear that it was not only the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra which had financial problems. Across the arts and cultural infrastructure there was considerable fragility. The reasons for that could be debated at length, but in the end cash had to be injected if significant national institutions were to be kept afloat.

The National Museum and Gallery, Te Papa, for example, had been built on a grand scale with high operating and capital costs. Those costs were not being covered by the government grant, corporate sponsorship, and receipts from the museum's revenue earning activities. The last government bluffed its way through Te Papa's financial problems by providing the museum with a letter of comfort from the Minister of Finance, Mr Birch. The incoming government was left to come up with the cash to keep Te Papa financially viable. That has meant an extra nine million dollars per annum in capital and an extra two million dollars per annum in operating expenditure, as well as the government continuing to fund some of the depreciation costs on its own books.

The Cultural Recovery Package I announced in May also dealt with the financial problems of New Zealand on Air, the Historic Places Trust, and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. The most severely financially stressed was New Zealand on Air which required a cash injection of just under $28 million. Unfortunately many of our fellow citizens had stopped paying their broadcasting fee after its abolition was announced in the 1999 Budget but before its phase-out was completed.

The Historic Places Trust budget had been slashed to the point where it was unable to maintain a satisfactory level of heritage site preservation and advocacy. The previous government was also in the process of making the Trust's funding contestable which would have further undermined its viability. That policy has been reversed and the Trust has received extra operating and capital funding to carry out its statutory functions.

For the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, a decision was made to eliminate its deficit by injecting three million dollars on capital, and to increase its operating budget by $1.4 million per annum. The Royal New Zealand Ballet's deficit was also eliminated, as I understand was that of another major performing arts organisation which is funded by Creative New Zealand.

For the timebeing therefore, we have acted to shore up the arts and cultural sector's viability. But our action in doing that again raises the issue of what is the government's role. When money is short, many will question the priority given to some areas and projects over others. Yet the reality is that we do not start with a blank sheet of paper on arts funding. We start with a lot of established infrastructure and national institutions. Major changes in priorities would lead to the demolition of much of that, and those are not decisions I am prepared to take.

The Government's Responsibility for Funding National Organisations and Infrastructure

Part of the funding tension relates to the fact that the national institutions and organisations tend to be located in the capital city, Wellington, whose total metropolitan population is scarcely ten per cent of the New Zealand population. Auckland with around one third of the nation's people sees proportionately far less of the state's cultural expenditure, along with other regions. This is a dilemma which is not readily resolved without more funding increases, or without the downsizing of national organisations and infrastructure which I am not prepared to deliver.

This year I have given a lot of thought to what central government should fund and what it should leave to regional and local initiative.

For me, there is no escaping the responsibility for funding the national infrastructure. But that does place an obligation on the national infrastructure to be national in its reach. The amount of money spent on it cannot be justified if the benefit is largely confined to the small population of Wellington. With national funding goes an obligation for national services, leadership, and excellence in the field. The government as the funder will make and is entitled to make its expectations known in this regard – and we have.

This is especially critical with respect to Te Papa and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, both of which cost us greatly and both of which have articulate regional rivals. The need for excellence in what they do is paramount in order to justify their national funding status.

In the case of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, the excellence of their performance is not in doubt. It is a fine, international standard orchestra, and I am determined to see it stay that way. I want New Zealanders to have access in our own country to an outstanding orchestra which plays with distinction. Ideally the orchestra would travel more widely than it does within New Zealand, and ideally its full complement of musicians would be larger. Achieving those goals, however, will take time, and would be helped by more corporate support and growing audiences complementing the government's contribution.

Te Papa's case is more complex. More than a decade ago a decision was taken to build a new national museum and gallery on the Wellington foreshore. But the move from the Buckle Street site of the old Dominion Museum involved more than a change in physical location. It also involved a merger of the museum and art gallery functions and administration which has led to ongoing controversy about the place and treatment of art works within Te Papa, a matter on which I have been moved to speak myself.

This year a review of Te Papa was commissioned by the Ministry of Culture and Heritage. Its outcome and findings were in my view fair. It is clear that the museum's non-traditional approach to its displays and its marketing has succeeded in attracting huge numbers of visitors, many of them not traditional museum and gallery goers. But the manner of display of the artworks in particular did lead to the alienation of significant constituencies among the art patrons and art-appreciating audiences. Now, with a new chair at Te Papa and a new statement of intent agreed with the government as the predominant funder, these issues are being addressed and I believe can be addressed satisfactorily.

In addition it is hoped that Te Papa can increase its focus on scholarship and research, and provide over time more national services and co-ordination for the regional museums and galleries.

One enduring problem, however, remains. The museums and galleries of Auckland, Christchurch, and Dunedin have collections which rival Te Papa's and which many will argue are superior to Te Papa's. Yet those museums and galleries receive but a tiny fraction of the taxpayer funded support which Te Papa does. Central government has contributed to the capital costs of museum redevelopment in Auckland and Otago in recent years and is now contributing to the cost of the new Christchurch art gallery. Inevitably these contributions, however, are seen as petty cash alongside those available to Te Papa which is designated as the national institution.

The question is now arising as to whether government should play a role in the redevelopment of regional museums and galleries in the secondary centres, both for their aesthetic and intrinsic benefits and for their ability to contribute to economic development. New Plymouth has approached government for support with a proposal for a new purpose-built museum which would be an outstanding asset for Taranaki. Coupled with the city's fine art gallery, the Govett-Brewster, the development would put New Plymouth on the map as a centre of excellence in arts, culture, and heritage presentation. As yet we have no policy or budget to cover contributions to such projects, but we are examining whether and if so to what extent we should have. In my view, however, any such contribution would need to be confined to capital, as central government cannot afford to pick up the ongoing operating costs of regional museums and galleries.

The other national arts, cultural, and heritage organisations for which we accept responsibility are the aforementioned New Zealand on Air and Historic Places Trust, along with the Film Commission, the National Library, and the National Archives. The latter two were also under very great pressure in the 1990s from philistines who wished to narrow their collections and functions. At one stage the Treasury wanted the National Library to cash up its collection of early printed works by Milton. At the time many of us protested that Milton was part of our heritage and his works had a place in our national library.

The Royal New Zealand Ballet is not a government organisation, but enjoys special status as a directly funded body because of its national status and reach, and also because it performs to international standards.

All the above-mentioned organisations receive funding at levels directly determined by government. While public funding also goes to many other arts and creative activities, decisions about those grants are made at arms length from the political arm of government. Creative New Zealand and its council have that responsibility. In my view they have constructed a strong system for peer review and decision-making on applications. I hear little, if any, criticism of the fairness of their decisions, although there is of course never enough money to meet all the requests made for support.

This year the government has supported two new arts and cultural initiatives, both of which contribute to all three of our objectives for public policy in this area. The new initiatives are the Film Production Fund and the Music Commission. They will support the expression of creative talent, they will contribute to the development of New Zealand identity, and they have significant economic development spin-offs.

The film industry is a New Zealand success story, but it has as yet untapped potential. For it to develop to its full cultural and economic potential, more investment was required. For that reason the government committed $22 million to the establishment of the Film Production Fund.

The objective of the Fund is to support film-makers to produce second and subsequent films with larger budgets and higher production values. It will provide a bridge between the subsidised, low budget first films which the Film Commission has traditionally backed, and fully commercial productions.

The Fund is a non-government body. That allows the more commercial side of the development of the New Zealand film industry to be undertaken by a specialist organisation, and will maximise the economic advantages of the industry. The Fund is expected to attract significant private investment.

Film is a very powerful medium. It is able to influence the way we see ourselves and our country – and the way the rest of the world sees us too. The government continues to support the New Zealand Film Commission and the work it does towards a mix of cultural and commercial objectives.

But we believe that if we really want to grow this industry, and we do, we need to be hard-nosed about the kinds of productions which will attract off-shore support. The Film Production Fund will not be constrained, as the Film Commission is, by the need to balance commercial and cultural imperatives. It can focus on the commercial objectives – and we can all reap the benefits in terms of greater economic activity and jobs.

For similar reasons we have also invested $2 million in the establishment of the Music Industry Commission. It is a non-governmental body. Its activities include fostering the composition, performance, recording, and marketing of New Zealand popular music, development and promoting of New Zealand popular music nationally and inter-nationally, advocating for the industry, and playing an educational role.

Popular music has a key role in our culture. We want young New Zealanders to be able to hear more of their country in their music, and for us all to experience the cultural and economic advantages that brings. The Music Commission can help make that happen. We also believe there is huge commercial potential in New Zealand's contemporary popular music industry.

The decision to broaden the government's funding into what are clearly popular cultural forms in film and music indicates that we are determined to see a broader range of New Zealanders share in and benefit from public spending on cultural pursuits.

These initiatives in film and music are also being backed up by other policy and funding changes. We have committed to establishing quotas for local content on television and radio so that we New Zealanders are able to see and hear more of our stories, music, and perspectives. A charter is being written for Television New Zealand so that it is given clear responsibility to broadcast local programming of quality which reflects the diversity of New Zealand life. More funding has gone to New Zealand on Air to enable it to boost local production with a particular emphasis this year on music and children's television.

Today I have endeavoured to give a broad overview of the responsibilities the government is accepting in the arts, culture, and related heritage fields.

There has been a legacy of underfunding and of undervaluing these aspects of our national life, which we are doing our best to address. We act in the belief that these activities are vital to our national life and the health of our society. In addition we see significant economic benefits flowing from a commitment to the development of New Zealand as a creative nation.

If I have a dream, it is to see more of our stories told and our aspirations reflected through our creative people. So much remains to be explored, and on the basis of what has been achieved we know the potential to do that well exists. Let me comment briefly on some of the highlights for me of exploration of New Zealand themes through our arts and culture.

In the dance field, I think of the recent performance in this theatre by Black Grace. One of the works portrayed the experience of young Maori and Pacific Island men growing up in Cannons Creek. The audience present was enthusiastic about the art form, the professionalism of the dancers, and the concept. I would hope, however, that that wonderful production can find its way out to the suburbs whose experiences it reflects.

New Zealand's playwrights have made an outstanding contribution to our understanding of the forces which have shaped our society. I think particularly of Renee's plays on the depression and the waterfront strike, and of how she portrays the burden carried by women trying to hold home and family together under the intolerable pressures of those events.

I think of the chilling theme of Foreskin's Lament, staged around the time of apartheid sport's last engagement with New Zealand when the country was polarised over the Rugby Union's determination to persist with the contact.

I think of Gliding On and the abrupt change in Market Forces, charting New Zealand's transition from one era to another.

I think of the pain in Waiora, as it tells the story of the East Coast Maori family trying to get ahead in the South Island.

In film there is much that is memorable. Once Were Warriors exposed New Zealand to a side of our national life which we can no longer ignore if we care about social cohesion and inclusion.

Gaylene Preston's work on Bread and Roses, An Angel at My Table, and on women and World War Two literally moved me to tears.

One could go on and on, in documenting the outstanding literary, musical, visual, and other creative contributions to our understanding of ourselves. Much of this work questions our experiences and challenges us to see them in new ways. That is fundamental to that role of the artist as critic and conscience of society.

In the twenty first century we are challenged to build a nation which acknowledges and values the contribution of citizens drawn from a wide range of cultures and of heritage. In this nation and by right of the Treaty of Waitangi, Maori have a special place. Their contribution to the arts, culture, and heritage of New Zealand is unique, and must be nurtured and sustained. Whether we yet have the most appropriate organisational forms to do that remains a subject for debate.

In this current three year parliamentary term I hope that as Minister for Arts and Culture I will have contributed to achieving the following:

 ensuring that arts, culture, and heritage have a higher profile and are more widely valued for their contribution to New Zealand

 raising morale across the creative sector as a result both of the greater tangible and intangible support for it

 seeing more talented New Zealanders supported to express their creativity

 seeing a more stable infrastructure develop for the sector

 seeing fast growth in employment, opportunities, and revenue in the whole creative and heritage sector

 seeing a stronger sense of New Zealand identity develop from the flowering of New Zealand's creative talent.

Any and all moves in these directions will convince me that my time as Minister for Arts and Culture has been well spent.

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