Peering over the parapet

3 Feb 2021

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Stephen Wainwright
Posted by Stephen Wainwright

Chief Executive - Pou Whakahaere

Creative New Zealand Chief Executive Stephen Wainwright

Kia ora to 2021. We made it. Phew. Ngā mihi nui ki a tātou katoa.

Saying farewell to 2020 wasn’t so difficult; it was a heavy year indeed, largely because of COVID-19. The adaptability and resilience shown by our arts community was as notable as the robust response from Government.

Commonly at this time, here at Creative New Zealand and in many other offices, some mapping of the year ahead takes place. After time with friends and loved ones over the break, there’s a good bit of fuel in the tank to do this work.

This year, there’s a different feel to the work though. If there’s one thing that 2020 demonstrated, it’s that we ought to be a bit humble about the limits on our ability to assert our will on the world.

So, these comments are made with the caveat that as much as we’re delighted by the pretty normal lives we’re living currently in Aotearoa – and delighted by the fact that people can convene together and artists can present their work to large live audiences – we are enjoying a fragile calm.

The purpose of this blog is really to hold to our earlier commitment to regularly communicate the context we’re working in. This has implications for the offerings we’re able to make to the arts sector and, ultimately, the public value that we can deliver. See our Public Value Model for more (pdf 88KB)

Outside our borders and within

I was recently on a Zoom call with Magdalena Moreno Mujica, Executive Director of the International Federation of Arts Councils and Cultural Agencies. It was hard to hear about the cultural harm that is unfolding in most of the rest of the world, given people’s inability to congregate, inadequate support going to the sector and often a basic lack of will to rally around arts communities in this time of crisis.

While the arts here are now ‘working’, the broader context within which creative work is happening is quite variable.

On the one hand, there seems to be shrinkage in terms of sponsorship and philanthropy, and local authorities are signalling a tightening of their purse strings. Costs and risks have also risen as a result of COVID, and the limits on longer-term planning are manifest.

On the other hand, public interest in experience the arts seems high and the summer outdoor activities certainly help from an access perspective. The COVID context has spurred on a lot of activity as the alert levels settled, with people returning to or amping up their own creativity across a whole range of arts practices.

As much as we hope they do, it’s impossible to have any guarantee that the current benign conditions will endure. Our Arts Council has some important decisions to make over the next few months. These are focused around the kinds of assumptions we should be making about the future, with respect to our programme deliverables and the next phase of our response to COVID-19.

Talking to ‘the centre’

The full reckoning of COVID here is yet to be assessed, in no small part because we’re ‘not there yet’ (as recent COVID concerns in Northland have reminded us). Broadly though, there’s been a general invitation from Government to departments – and to Crown entities like us – to help ‘build back better’.

That makes good sense. Our Arts Council has and will continue to adapt our offering to the external circumstances. It does invite the bigger question though of building back better to ‘what ends?’.

A number of the Briefings to Incoming Ministers – including Creative New Zealand’s Incoming Ministers Briefing – point to the urgency of having much more intention around the value that public investment is creating via ‘cultural wellbeing’.

To me there’s a sense that a national arts and culture policy (or strategy) could shine a bright light on the huge contribution the cultural sector and creative workers make – in how we express ourselves, as well as to some of the pressing and enduring challenges in health, education and justice. At a practical level, a national policy would provide a map and a clear plan to guide the arts during times of crisis.

Of course, this would require both an enthusiastic commitment to the kaupapa from the top, which we’re fortunate to have, and a shared appetite to do the necessary ‘deep and wide’ thinking mahi. As the Prime Minister said pre-COVID times in this The Spinoff article, ‘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.’

A strong arts and cultural policy would also create an effective platform for targeted investment. This would enable the whole cultural system to rebuild with a clearer sense of purpose, direction and urgency.

Our colleagues in Ireland have recently completed their own version of work. Having turned the cultural policy stone over and looked underneath, they’ve seen the public benefits and have committed to a much more ambitious agenda. Have a look at Culture 2025: A National Cultural Policy Framework to 2025 if you’re interested in the kind of ground a national policy might cover.

The shifting sands of resourcing the arts

As mentioned in our Annual Report 2019/20 (pdf 5.8MB), the year ended 30 June 2020 was a record year of investment for Creative New Zealand.

This was a year in which the Arts Council chose to make an operating loss of $15 million; maximising our investment in the arts during the greatest national crisis we can recall. It’s a truism that financial reserves are there to be used for a ‘rainy day’, and these vital reserves were put to work to weather an unheralded storm at very short notice.

Of course, you can only use the reserves you have once. So, our future ability to call on our rainy-day pot is modest, as we’re now close to the minimum level under our equity policy. Ideally, we’d be working towards rebuilding those depleted reserves; as sure as eggs, there’ll be another storm at some point in the future.

In the current financial year, to 30 June 2021, we’re pleased to be investing a range of new one-off money from the Crown. You can see this in the chart below as ‘COVID funds’. The Government has itself, via Manatū Taonga Ministry for Culture & Heritage, opened some significant COVID-oriented funds directly.

As is the norm for us, the Arts Council will settle on our budget over April and June this year as our funding picture gets clearer.

Navigating the COVID waters

We’re currently in the second phase of our COVID response, following the emergency-oriented first phase.

Over the course of 2020 we’ve altered our funding opportunities to be more responsive (eg, two-monthly Arts Grants rounds and the new Annual Arts Grants programme). As mentioned earlier, the context the arts are operating in now includes an increased focus on health and safety, additional risks around staging work and expectations that practitioners should receive fairer compensation.

These extra costs, and the fact that other avenues of support are generally shrinking, are all contributing to heightened levels of demand for Creative New Zealand support. As a result, our funding rounds are becoming increasingly competitive.

To illustrate this, we received 792 Arts Grants proposals over the July–December 2019 period. Over the same period in 2020, we got 1395. Need is certainly growing.

Of course, it’s great that creativity is thriving and, with public money, we want to be supporting the most compelling proposals. Even with the much-welcomed COVID-specific resources we’ve received, for that final six-month period of 2020 we were only able to fund one in every five proposals. We understand the frustration this creates for those who miss out, as it does too for our external assessors who are seeing the growing number of very good proposals coming in that just can’t be supported within the pūtea we have.

Given the increase in quality and volume, in the short-term it’s difficult to see how we can arrest or even reverse this unwelcome trend. This is a very inconvenient truth and an issue the Arts Council will look at very hard in coming months as the budget for 2021/22 is arrived at.

Of course, the Arts Council, and many in the arts community too, think that the volatility and level of Creative New Zealand’s resourcing mix is not the soundest basis on which to grow a thriving arts ecology. The solution is in the hands of many and whilst that presents its challenges, we will play our important role to influence the best possible support we know our sector needs ... all of us working together.

Eyes to the horizon

While the hard mahi of planning and budgeting lies ahead, the Arts Council is resolutely committed to following through on its published intentions. These include the Statement of Intent, the Investment Strategy, Te Hā o ngā Toi—Māori Arts Strategy and the Pacific Arts Strategy.

Within the next couple of months, we’ll also be publishing fresh insights into New Zealanders attitudes towards, and engagement with, the arts. These look to be showing largely positive trends since we last carried out the research in 2017, which is heartening and a testament to the amazing mahi our arts community does every day. See the 2017 New Zealanders and the Arts research

In addition to any updates on our programmes that we’ll keep proactively communicating, I’ll send out a blog update at least once a quarter, or if there’s fresh news from our end.

All the best for a creative and arts-filled 2021.

E huri tō aroaro ki te rā, tukuna tō ataarangi ki muri i a koe
Turn and face the sun and let your shadow fall behind you