With the general election now set for 17 October – just two months away – it’s time to look back over the past three years and consider how well the country’s done in terms of improving access to the arts for everyone in Aotearoa New Zealand.
There have been some huge tragedies over the past three years: the Christchurch mosque attacks, the Whakaari White Island eruption and now COVID-19. Events that have caused and continue to cause sorrow, mental stress and fear.
However, I am convinced – and research shows us – that the arts and creativity can play a valuable role in helping us cope with such events. When we come together to create, as people do when they attend creative spaces, we reduce our stress, find an outlet for our emotions, and feel a sense of connection and belonging.
I’ve written a lot about the importance of creative spaces and the need for them to be consistently and adequately funded. The number of people attending creative spaces is expected to rise in the COVID-19 recovery era of increased unemployment, economic hardship and mental distress.
I think the Government and its agencies have yet to understand the opportunity that creative spaces present for reducing mental distress while increasing wellbeing,
Despite the survey on the value of creative spaces, requested by Minister Sepuloni and conducted by the Ministry for Culture and Heritage in late 2018 and early 2019, there has been no action from the Government on advancing this long-standing issue. It feels like the findings, published in Understanding the value of creative spaces, have been shelved and are gathering dust.
This Government has put a lot of focus on mental wellbeing and even made it integral to its annual Budget.
And in April 2019, Minister Sepuloni launched the Te Ora Auaha website and spoke of “the importance of the arts to our individual and collective wellbeing … Not only do arts initiatives contribute to our personal health and happiness in myriad ways, they also help foster tolerance and understanding, building a more inclusive and cohesive society – the kind of society we want our tamariki to grow up in.”
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has also written and spoken about the importance of access to the arts for everyone.
But these are all empty words if there is no action. We need a government to work with Arts Access Aotearoa, Creative New Zealand, the Ministry for Culture and Heritage, the Ministry of Social Development and the Ministry of Health to develop and implement a strategy that will result in consistent, adequate core funding for creative spaces across the country so they can meet the increasing demand for their services.
A second issue that needs addressing is equitable arts funding and opportunities for Deaf and disabled artists and writers. The arts are the place where we explore possibilities, challenge stereotypes and offer diverse perspectives.
If the arts don’t provide a space for Deaf and disabled artists to tell their own stories, where else will they be told?
The impact of equitable funding and opportunities would be two-fold. Firstly, it means Deaf and disabled people would be reflected from stage, page and screen. And secondly, non-disabled people would gain rich insights into different human experiences.
Creative New Zealand has a pathway for Māori and Pasifika artists, which is as it should be. But one in four people (24%) of people in New Zealand has a disability that affects their daily lives. We believe there needs to be a similar funding pathway for Deaf and disabled artists to create equity.
The final area I want to address in this blog is the companion card – or the lack of one. Arts Access Aotearoa has been advocating for this since 2010. Australia has a National Companion Card Scheme, which means eligible people with lifelong disability can participate at venues and activities without having to pay for a second ticket for their companion or carer.
Slow progress on a companion card scheme for New Zealand
In 2014, the Ministry for Culture and Heritage investigated the feasibility of introducing a similar scheme to New Zealand. After consultation, a comprehensive and convincing feasibility report was prepared and submitted to relevant ministers in October 2016. It was consigned to the too hard, too costly basket.
Progress has been slow since then, which is disappointing and means that people who have to pay for two tickets (one for their companion carer) continue to be discriminated against.
I know 2020 has been an extremely difficult year for us all. I hope the next three years brings immunisation and recovery from COVID-19. Let’s also see action from the new government and its agencies to ensure the arts and creativity are recognised and available for all as a valuable path to participation and wellbeing.