Being involved in the arts is good for us – good for our mental health and emotional wellbeing, good for…
It’s an infant born from Creative Hawke’s Bay and a loose group of arts brains under the moniker CoCo (Coalition of Creative Organisations). With Creative HB’s infrastructure and standing (having been around for decades) and CoCo’s fresh enthusiasm and impressive collection of thinkers, Ngā Toi is well-resourced to make some big impacts on the arts and culture landscape of the Bay.
Their ‘quick win’ is to ‘map’ the arts community here – find out who does what and where, with the initial intention of creating a directory of providers and a ‘What’s On’ for audiences.
Dr Dick Grant is the chair of Ngā Toi. He’s had an impressive 40 year career as a diplomat, was High Commissioner in London and Singapore and a former chair of Creative New Zealand’s Art Council. He explains Ngā Toi’s fledgling project: “At this stage it is a database, but we can transmogrify that into a map. The map is about the creative side, the events are about the productive side. That won’t necessarily work for everyone, but most people want to create or consume, with Ngā Toi you’ve got to meet both.”
Ngā Toi’s first task has been to set up the building blocks for communicating about arts in Hawke’s Bay, but it’s predominantly a passive, pass-it-on capability (website and facebook details at the end of this story). They’ve also set about getting some funding to run workshops on the business of art, a phoenix idea that often pops up in early strategising for new advocacy agencies. A third action is reaching out to the arts sector, asking that individuals, entities and outfits get in touch and log their details, to create a user-created register.
Ngā Toi is then self-proclaimed advocate and champion: supporting, encouraging awareness.
“Anything that helps the creative side sustain itself is helpful, giving confidence, spreading word to funding bodies that Hawke’s Bay people make good applicants,” Dick explains. “The feedback we get is that’s what the sector feels it needs most. If we start at the grassroots levels it enables us to judge whether we’re on the right track at lower risk of loss or failure.”
Toni MacKinnon, director of the Hastings City Art Gallery, is sceptical of the value of mapping exercises. She cautions the fluidity of the sector means it’s tricky to capture.
“The cost of keeping it (mapping) dynamic and up-to-date is huge and unless it is, it’s a complete waste of time.” Toni warns, “It’ll take resource, and it could be resource that is sucked up away from the arts community.
“There are reasons to do it, connecting to a bigger picture is important. If the arts can collect together and get a sense for what it is to work as a sector then that’s a good thing.”
Early, rudimentary mapping exercises look at the clusters of offerings – how many galleries, venues, theatre groups, youth programmes, actual makers, etc., we have in the Bay.
Knowledge of clusters isn’t as useful, though, as the relationships between them. The flow from one cultural activity to the next builds up a far more productive picture. For art to benefit wellbeing, destinations aren’t as crucial as journeys. It’s there that value can be identified and begin to be measured.
Pitsch Leiser, manager of Hastings’ arts trust Arts Inc Heretaunga, says mapping nodes isn’t as useful as mapping linkages. “One of the things that isn’t happening is a collective knowledge of who we are and how we impact community, environment, economy. By understanding the depth we can start making connections, start making collaborations, understanding where we live, looking at ways to connect for new exciting initiatives.
He also believes the arts are as deserving as any other regional unique-selling proposition.
“Everyday someone new moves here. We need to not just tell them about good food, housing, wine and weather but that there’re people who make amazing stuff here.” Pitsch says arts mapping should be more outward looking than it traditionally is.
Mapping is a useful exercise for the cultural community itself, but to have greater reach and usefulness the task needs to be taken up by multiple agencies working together.
“We need to check in on our reason for mapping and how we want to use it,” says Pitsch. “All of that mapping work does strengthen our networks, our knowledge and our abilities to lobby to local, central, then private enterprise. But we need to map beyond what we already know about to make sure we capture the breadth, depth and scope, as well as how it impacts health, wellbeing, sense of belonging, pride.”
Toni MacKinnon believes Ngā Toi is currently best placed to undertake any solid mapping work, but only if the creative and cultural community gets behind the initiative.
“We need to give Ngā Toi the resources and the mandate to grow into that lead role. No one else can step into that space,” explains Toni.
“It then becomes an advocacy tool for Ngā Toi. They can say who and what we have here and what needs they’ve got to help with their visibility. Artists have to be a complete business, from financials to making to marketing, and it’s something Ngā Toi can offer to help them with: visibility.”
‘Arts as antidote’
The value of art and culture to community is certainly something being highlighted by Treasury’s recent commitment to a Wellbeing Budget and local government’s refocus on the four wellbeings as central to their planning and operations.
As per Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, belonging, esteem and a sense of self are identified as essential to human beings. Arts and culture are a huge enabler of those.
In the OECD’s Better Life Index, New Zealanders say the things most important to them are community, environment, health and life satisfaction. There too the arts play a big part: greasing the cogs of a social community, improving built environment, benefiting health outcomes, brightening up life in general.
There’s more research on ‘Arts as Antidote’ in the UK than there is here. Snippets of findings are intriguing. For example, under-30s cite ‘de-stressing’ as their primary reason for visiting galleries and museums. Not seeing old stuff or looking at art … but relaxing!
Here’s some more. Music played in neo-natal wards reduces the duration of hospital stays, and music therapy reduces the need for meds in dementia patients. ‘Arts by prescription’ programmes reduce GP visits by a third. Eighty percent of people eat more healthily, engage in physical activity more often and enjoy greater wellbeing after engaging in the arts.
If that pattern fits in NZ, then the shift needs to move from the arts and culture community’s justification of itself and on to wellbeing providers – DHBs, PHOs, TLAs – making arts activities a must-have in their planning. Each of those providers should be ensuring their clients can encounter the arts regularly and often, much like they emphasize outdoor spaces or Push Play-type programmes.
Measurement of the arts community too should come from these wellbeing enablers and adjunct agencies. After all, it’s their Key Performance Indicators, Critical Success Factors and Community Outcomes that benefit from a thriving arts scene.
Toni MacKinnon is leading an arts and culture strategy for Hastings (an attempt was made to make this a regional approach, but Napier wasn’t keen). She believes joined-up thinking across disparate disciplines is the life-blood of any useful strategy.
“If it’s not cross sector then it’ll die. Social, economic, livelihood: if they don’t connect they are vulnerable, otherwise art’s just entertainment,” says Toni. “If the arts can collect together and get a sense for what it is to work as a sector then that’s a good thing. At the moment, most work is fairly isolated, they do their own thing. But artists and makers are creative thinkers. They see opportunities for collaboration and they make it happen.”
Much inspiration for the regional strategy, currently called Toi Tu, comes from Dunedin City Council’s Ara Toi Otepoti Arts and Culture Strategy.
“The Dunedin strategy has been held up by Creative New Zealand as one of the most impactful strategies in the country,” says Toni. “It’s cross-sector. In essence it’s a beautiful explanation of how the arts can enrich people’s lives. Make people healthier, connected, positive; make a place a better place to live in.”
Toni explains weaving that thinking into Hawke’s Bay’s own arts and culture planning is essential, but challenging from the outset.
“It does need a regional approach. Napier chose to do nothing, but artists work across boundaries. Even if this is a Hastings District implementation plan, then for artists it’s a region-wide implementation plan.”
Tania Wright is a Napier councillor and long-time champion of the Bay’s arts sector; she was the first coordinator of arts trust Creative Napier, now Creative Arts Napier. Her opinion is the arts community itself is doing a great job and doesn’t need ‘strategic thinking’ from local government.
“It was felt that we didn’t need a regional strategy we just needed to understand what was happening in our community and fill in any gaps,” she explains. “I prefer this grass roots approach as I find that overarching strategies while well-meaning often fail to deliver anything meaningful.”
Napier City Council though is beginning tentative steps towards taking a more active approach to arts contribution by replacing their “existing arts policy” with a strategy and implementation plan of their own. Antoinette Campbell, director community services, explains their current approach and it appears it’s focused on built environment, potentially with a skew towards Napier’s position as a tourism destination.
Streetscapes are dotted with public art, much of it in collaboration with private and community funding groups. New council works have a requirement to include an arts element.
“Our arts policy requires council to consider the incorporation of art in all its significant developments during the design and planning stage to avoid considering an artwork as an add-on at the end of the development and with little budget left over,” explains Antoinette.
Where Toni and the Toi Tu initiative are focused on linkages between sectors as diverse as health, housing and business, and into the arts community, Antoinette envisages future builds and reworking of urban space will continue to include conversations about art and culture. Aesthetics may be the first objective, but wellbeing needs are also being met.
“While we have a number of art installations and activations across the city we can always do more,” says Antoinette. “The planning and design of our new library will create some great opportunities to incorporate some stunning pieces, I expect.”
Tania Wright supports this shift in thinking from ‘arts as add-on’ to ‘arts as essential’.
“Art and creativity are traditionally seen as luxuries and when funding is tight they often suffer as a result … While this thinking is slowly changing, I don’t think we are there yet. If you look at lottery and gaming funding I don’t think the arts – especially community grass roots arts – are getting their fair share.”
As much as interest by other sectors is important, the arts community too must realise its importance and embrace the responsibility. Each step in the chain – creation, production, dissemination, exhibition, preservation, education, and management and regulation – needs to ensure it is adding value for the public good.
Art for arts sake is not enough; navel gazing is not enough. Acknowledging purpose, hooking in to networks of collaborators, and elevating art beyond making to enabling positive community outcomes do need to be part of the creative conversation.
“With that maturing comes critical thought, discourse, consideration of environment and ecology, design, form and shape.” Pitsch Leiser explains it as a cycle of cultural making and consumption. “Creating all that then is an outlet for more creative expression.”
Mapping of the art world requires some element of curatorial eye. But that brings in issues of taste … and whose!
Events programmes and listings (including the What’s On feature on the new Ngā Toi site) ‘owned’ by creative bodies are often pushed through a filter of perceived artistic credibility and merit. They’re subjective as to what deserves recognition or prominence. Creatives by their nature are opinionated, self-centred and egotistical, that’s the raw material of their practice, so being altruistic isn’t in their jurisdiction.
Really useful databases of those who contribute to arts and culture – and how – needs therefore to be held from outside the sector to sufficiently cover all tastes: high-brow and low, pop, mass and elite. In fact, the individuals and entities aren’t nearly as important as identifying opportunities and multiple ways for people to engage with the arts regularly and usefully.
Says Pitsch Leiser: “It’s important we map it in a way that we know it’s not just white and middle-class but things happening in all areas.
“If we have diversity within the arts here then we have to reflect that in our mapping. It would be a shame if we did the exercise and there were big gaping holes in terms of culture and who was included.”
Toni agrees: “Mapping is everyone. It’s not a value judgement.
“The time is right for thinking about what the impact of the arts is and how we describe it. If we describe it accurately then we can tell compelling stories of how it impacts health and wellbeing, and then help TLAs and Central Government to understand.”
Dick Grant recognises that broadening the scope to include as many as possible is the challenge, but also an opportunity.
“You are never going to be completely sure that you’ve captured everything, but if we can make a good first start and people feel confident that it’s reliable, then you have to hope they feed in the data.”
Rather than silos of output, collaborations formed across traditional boundaries are the real gold on offer from the creative community. Disruptive thinking that cuts through convention sparks new ideas and makes space for people to get involved, as audience and as participants.
UK Art Fund Report: bit.ly/2S9MOvP
The Arts for Health and Wellbeing All-Party Report:bit.ly/2vjGvaI
OECD Better Life Index: bit.ly/ZPvsWh