Starting a national conversation about arts and creativity

1 Nov 2019

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Michael  Moynahan
Posted by Michael Moynahan

Chairman of the Arts Council of New Zealand

Art is the thikng that saved me.

Shining the spotlight on arts and creativity was the mission of Aotearoa New Zealand’s first Arts Month.

The Arts Foundation led the campaign in September to help build public understanding about arts and creativity, and open up a nationwide kōrero (conversation) about what art means to all of us. 

As a part of Arts Month, the Arts Foundation welcomed everyone around the country to respond to the prompt ‘Art is:’.

To me, the arts mean many things. As I was reading through some of the Arts Month submissions, I was heartened by the breadth and depth of contributions – illustrating the impact arts and creativity have on people’s lives and wellbeing. Many people created beautiful or humorous artworks to define what art means for them, while others chose to share insightful words. One said art is ‘our nation’s greatest taonga’, another ‘vital to the individual, vitality to the community’. Someone simply wrote art is ‘something spectacular’.

I tautoko (support) each of these definitions. To me, arts and creativity are precious taonga (treasures) because they contain the essence of who we are as a nation. In Te Ao Māori (Māori world view), people, art and culture are inseparable. Many creatives put this into practice through their work.

Arts and creativity are our nation’s greatest taonga, not only because they’re beautiful or because they contain our culture and history, but also because they improve the lives of our people. We are healthier and happier because of those things.

Our communities are also more connected, prosperous and safer because of the arts. A great example can be found in Gisborne, where Te Kuwatawata is leading the way in improving health and wellbeing through arts and creativity. At the clinic, Māori artists work alongside Māori mental health patients as part of an integrated approach that is supported by the local District Health Board. It’s projects like this that show why the arts and creativity are so very vital – because they improve our wellbeing. 

Arts and creativity are also making us into a stronger and more prosperous nation that’s prepared for the future. In 2017, the New Zealand Institute of Economic Research calculated that the creative sector contributed a massive $17.5 billion to New Zealand’s GDP. For our people this means over 130,000 jobs. That’s more than 6 percent of our workforce involved in creative activity. Of course, our economic growth is important. But what good is a higher GDP and additional jobs if we remain divided or can’t take care of our people? This is the true value of arts and creativity: to help weave all of us together. 

When I think about the future, a few examples spring to mind. The 312 Hub in Onehunga is a social enterprise that brings together artists, community groups and organisations to provide a space for rangatahi (young people) to become rangatira (leaders) through arts education and creative projects. Over in the Hawke’s Bay, Project Prima Volta works with teenagers to give them the opportunity to find their own voice, through a year-long programme of coaching and mentoring in classical opera. Projects like these give me confidence that the future of New Zealand’s arts and creativity is in very capable and talented hands.

All around the nation New Zealanders are creating amazing things. There’s a number who have become artistic trailblazers off shore, too. New Zealanders are choreographing some of the top music videos, among the finalists for international art prizes, presenting theatre productions on Broadway, and performing in some of the world’s premier concert halls and stadiums. 

Just imagine: what more could we do if we put our collective minds together, not just for a month – although the spotlight has been welcome – but all year round? We applaud The Arts Foundation for getting the ball rolling on this nationwide kōrero but how do we take it to the next level? Perhaps some kind of more structured national dialogue, action plan or strategy is in order? Something that brings all the strands together, to help us better navigate these rapidly changing times; to truly make the most of what the arts and creativity have to offer us, across so many different domains.

I’ll finish with one response to the Arts Month call that stood out to me: ‘Art is: the thing that saved me’. New Zealand faces many challenges, but this month has been a celebration of the ability of the arts and creativity to bring us together, help inspire and heal us, and to begin finding creative solutions for the future of Aotearoa New Zealand.