Jacinda Ardern’s big DJ arts-culture-heritage role

Colin James for Arts Wellington, 23 November 2017

The arts are icing on the cake, not the cake? Not for the new Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage. “A strong cultural and creative sector is vital to our national identity and economic development,” she laid down in Labour’s election manifesto.

And that economic development is not just brand and tourism and a contribution to regional development and the like. It is the way people live their lives and make their living, from their start in school.

Nor is culture just the high arts, the new minister says. Its role is “to make us feel whole and enhance our wellbeing” through creativity.

Tying it to her child poverty reduction portfolio, she told the Screen Production and Development Association’s conference on November 23 that eradicating “poverty is as much about enabling creativity to flourish” as meeting basic needs.

The new minister is Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Alongside her as an associate arts-culture-heritage minister is Finance Minister Grant Robertson, MP for Wellington Central, the self-proclaimed arts capital of Aotearoa/New Zealand.

Ardern set out her credo in her Peter Fraser lecture on July 24 when deputy Labour leader. She emphasised that “artistic life must start with the child”.

So, she said in an interview on November 19, she wants to rebuild music in schools and artists in schools because true equality includes “access to the things that feed the soul”, not just the body.

And she wants to strengthen career opportunities, by building the Pathways to Arts and Cultural Employment which Labour initiated in 2001 to help young people “monetise their ambition”. “We shouldn’t treat people as lucky to work in that sector.”

More generally, Ardern says the different “work” world of the 2020s requires “imagination, human creativity and problem solving” missed by the “standards” focus on reading, writing and basic skills.

Ardern has the Greens onside. In their manifesto they put “economic wellbeing” alongside the arts’ “inherent value” and devoted a whole section to economic development, including an arts and cultural promotion unit in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

The Greens see the arts as empowering people and included long sections on communication and coordination, platforms to nurture talent, including in “alternative/new media”, education and heritage protection.

Labour’s manifesto had sections on community access and participation, careers, education, intellectual property, screen production, support for writers and musicians and galleries, libraries and museums including specifically regional museums.

There was a long section on funding, including specifically for Creative New Zealand, the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, Auckland Philharmonia, Royal New Zealand Ballet, Te Matatini, Te Papa, the New Zealand Film Commission and the Film Archive and the galleries, libraries, archives and museums sector.

Ardern insists these organisations must have “consistent funding at agreed levels”. They must not be reliant on Lotto and other gambling sources, which fluctuate. She says that will translate into a floor in bad years and a bonus in good years.

Quoting Fraser, she says: “Creativity cannot flourish in a garret.”

For Ardern, creativity is cross-cultural.

Tongan Carmel Sepuloni is an associate arts-culture-heritage minister. Her job, the manifesto said, is to “promote the richness and diversity of our Pacific cultures”.

No Maori associate minister? Ardern points to four with relevant portfolios (in addition to Andrew Little’s Treaty of Waitangi negotiations and Peeni Henare’s whanau ora roles): Kelvin Davis (Crown/Maori relations), Nanaia Mahuta (Maori development), Willie Jackson (associate Maori development) and Meka Whaitiri (associate Crown/Maori relations).

Mahuta and Henare come from heavweight Tainui and Ngapuhi whanau respectively and Whaitiri was Kahungunu CEO. Jackson descends from radicals who demanded equality for Maori culture long before it emerged from tokenism and has promoted music on radio.

The manifesto declared Labour to be a “strong supporter of Maori traditional and contemporary art and artists” — through Toi Iho branding, export, Te Matatini, kapa haka and investigating “how best to support national Maori theatre initiatives”.

Ardern: “We mustn’t let the likes of water (a big issue for the iwi leaders forum) crowd out other issues” in relating to Maori.

The Greens’ manifesto declared Aotearoa/New Zealand’s heritage “includes the taonga of toi Maori”. Fiery young Chlöe Swarbrick is spokesperson.

And, while New Zealand First did not have an arts, culture and heritage section in its manifesto and leader Winston Peters has often railed against “separatism”, the spokesperson is new MP Jenny Marcroft who emphasised her bicultural heritage in her maiden speech.

All very aspirational. Where’s the cash? Robertson laid heavy emphasis in the buildup to the election on fiscal constraint within a tight framework agreed with the Greens in March. Moreover, while Robertson has a looser track than National’s, making up deficits in health, education and housing could scoff maybe all the difference — and more.

But over time there is reason to expect “arts capital MP” Robertson to deliver, the more so because of the economic argument.

The arts are heritage and define Aotearoa/New Zealand in the world. Ardern is de facto minister of international relations/promotion.

She is also de facto presenter of her nation to her nation.

Can she “do this” (her campaign slogan)? Well, she is a practised DJ. This will be her biggest DJ role.