After the hurly-burly of Budget Day died down yesterday evening I turned my attention to the Arts, Culture and Heritage aspects of the Budget. Expectantly, I looked for the media statement from the Minister Chris Finlayson extolling his government’s commitment to our cultural sector. But it was nowhere to be found. A look at the Vote Arts Culture and Heritage papers, and it was clear why. Cuts to public broadcasting, regional museums, MCH and more.
My tweet about this discovery led Chris Finlayson to respond to me that I was “tragic” because I did not realise that this was “a golden age for the Arts in New Zealand“. The reaction on Twitter soon made clear that not many people shared the Minister’s golden glow.
To be clear, the role of the Minister or the government in the lustre of any particular time for the Arts is only partial. Artists themselves will define that. It is certainly true that there is terrific creative content being produced all over the country. What the Minister has to answer for is the extent to which the government is supporting, promoting and developing that.
If we are looking for a “golden age” in that regard, Helen Clark’s cultural recovery package of the early 2000s stands out. After a decade of declining investment in the arts and culture, an $86 million jolt breathed new life into CNZ, film, music, heritage preservation and more. Michael Volkering has argued that the package was only one part of her cultural legacy that also stretched to our military heritage, pushing creative industries and regional arts.
I am not trying to make out everything was perfect in the time of the Clark government. But it did represent an injection of pride in ourselves as a nation, and of the place of the Arts in New Zealand. The Prime Minister was the Minister for Arts and that status meant something.
Chris Finlayson deserves credit for his personal contribution to various artistic endeavours, and for continuing much of the good work of the Clark government. But where he lets himself down is in his dismissal of Clark’s legacy and his vainglorious attempts to cast himself as the saviour of the Arts.
As we stand today, there are number of significant issues that require urgent attention. One issue that is raised with me often is the difficulty for artists in working with key government cultural agencies. For example, the changes made to Creative New Zealand funding over recent years by the Minister have led to a cumbersome and confused process. In sectors such as theatre there is strain, threats of court action and people simply walking away. Overall, there is an absence of regional and local understanding in funding decisions. Meanwhile legislation to reform Creative New Zealand sits moribund on the Parliamentary Order Paper.
Another example is the freeze on funding for public broadcasting is taking its toll. (This Budget funding actually drops by $3 million). New Zealand On Air has managed to fund some terrific programmes in the last few years, but budgets simply can not keep pace. Radio New Zealand in particular is struggling, and seems set to be commercialised in some way by a new Chief Executive. Public television is all but non-existent. Overall the government does not seem to see the importance of public broadcasting nor realise its significance to our cultural identity.
Despite the undoubted success of film and music, both sectors struggle to sustain artists beyond an elite few. New strategies are required for the new world of technology and distribution, but leadership and inspiration are lacking.
Now is the time for Minister Finlayson to show that leadership and inspiration. That is how a Minister can contribute to a golden age, otherwise it’s simply fool’s gold.