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Is art the antidote to a divided world?

27 Jul 2017

This content is tagged as All Artforms .

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Michael  Moynahan
Posted by Michael Moynahan

Chairman of the Arts Council of New Zealand

New Arts Council Chairman Michael Moynahan says in today’s divided world the arts can help us overcome fear and intolerance by sharing stories that inspire understanding, tolerance and connections across our communities.

In New Zealand we have observed, from a distance, deepening divisions involving race, religion, gender, age and sexuality in the United States (US), Europe and the United Kingdom (UK).

Under pressure to save money some governments have cut or are planning to cut funding for the arts. In doing so they are undermining their ability to foster the understanding that will make their communities stronger and more prosperous.

After a 30 per cent cut in funding in 2010, Arts Council England is now facing the further impact of reduced arts spending by local authorities and in the US a proposal to eliminate public funding for the arts is before Congress.

In reality, I believe investing in the arts delivers social and economic dividends that improve the health, wealth, cohesion and well-being of our society. One federal estimate put the contribution of America’s creative industries at US$504 billion annually. This equates to 3.2 per cent of GDP – well ahead of tourism at 2.8 per cent.

Studies here have shown similar results. According to lobby group WeCreate, our creative industries generate billions in GDP and employ more than 100,000 people. This is backed up by the likes of economic consultants BERL, which estimated the 2016 New Zealand Festival and Edinburgh Military Tattoo generated more than $100 million for the Wellington economy.

Economic benefits are just part of the story.

As part of its advocacy work Creative New Zealand has collated research – mostly international– which supports what many of us already know. Engagement in the arts improves quality of life, and leads to better educational and vocational outcomes, improved health and wellbeing, and stronger, more resilient communities.  But that’s not all – by encouraging freedom of expression, the arts help to support a healthy, vibrant democracy.

Various clinical studies have found engagement in the arts has wide-ranging health and wellbeing benefits including improved patient recovery, and a reduction in anxiety and depression. Art therapy is a recognised and widely used counselling technique for treating a range of mental health issues.

All this was borne out with tangible examples at the recent (4 July) Arts Access Aotearoa Awards which celebrate initiatives that provide arts opportunities for people who might normally have none, eg due to physical disability, mental health issues or because they are in prison.

Christchurch Men’s Prison is using art as a therapeutic and rehabilitative tool. The men involved are learning skills, such as problem solving, team work, adaptability, all of which supports their reintegration to the community.

The prison says the response from young men (17-20 years-old) has been outstanding with a marked improvement in their motivation and engagement, a greater respect for themselves and others, and pride in the success of their projects.

The arts build social cohesion and community resilience. The likes of interactive public art project Gap Filler has been hugely successful in giving Christchurch residents a sense of community while providing welcome diversion from the day-to-day difficulties of living in the earthquake damaged city.

In the UK, Arts Council England is making a strong case for the value of the arts. In a recent address to Creative New Zealand’s annual hui Nui te Kōrero, its Director of Diversity Abid Hussain outlined a vision for the arts as a forum which valued and celebrated difference as much as what is held in common.

The arts give people a voice. An opportunity to talk about the things they fear as well as an opportunity to challenge, provoke and question. In a polarised society it is one of the few platforms where people can genuinely get access to a different point-of-view.

In New Zealand we have a great deal to be positive about. As a country we value the arts and recognise their power.

Creative New Zealand’s most recent New Zealanders and the Arts survey found nearly 90 percent of Kiwis think the arts are good for us, 86 percent learn about different cultures through the arts, and more than 80 percent think the arts help improve society. 

We have an opportunity to collectively use the arts to promote understanding and tolerance as an antidote for division.  

This article first appeared as an opinion piece by Michael Moynahan in the New Zealand Herald. The Arts Council is the governance body of the Creative New Zealand.