If only our politicians would show rugby-like fervour in attending arts events

What a great day it would be if, when the latest register of MPs' financial interests was opened up, it revealed that 50 MPs had accepted free tickets to the Auckland Festival of Arts and not the Rugby World Cup.

Better still, if when the Prime Minister and senior ministers were asked why their names were absent, they insisted their attendance at an arts event was part of their official duties while the rest of us sat at home muttering "lucky buggers".

Unfortunately, in the real world, such as the launch of Creative New Zealand's latest survey on New Zealanders and the arts on Monday night, it's rather different. Only two MPs are mentioned, via their apologies - one of them slipping in for the drinks afterwards - and that was that.

Of course they might have been saving themselves for the opening of Rigoletto next week, but who am I kidding? Yet the results of the survey - the third since 2005 - highlights that if Parliament is a true house of representatives, our MPs should be showing a bit more interest in the arts than they do. They and their local body equivalents.

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The vast majority of New Zealanders (87 per cent) believe "the arts are good for you". That's up from 83 per cent in 2008. Nearly as many, at 80 per cent, agree that the arts help define who we are as New Zealanders, with 85 per cent of us having attended or been actively involved in the arts in the past 12 months. One third of New Zealanders attend arts events regularly - more than 10 times a year - and 27 per cent between three and 10 times.

Most (73 per cent) agree the arts contribute positively to the economy, 69 per cent say we would be poorer without the arts, 76 per cent support public funding of the arts and 73 per cent agree with local council funding of arts.

For those wanting to put a monetary value on the participation, 40 per cent of those surveyed had spent an average of $53 on a cultural event in the past month, which when "calculated across the whole population" equals a total spend of $2.31 billion a year, or $690 a head."

As with sport, the report highlights how art crosses ethnic and cultural boundaries, with 74 per cent of those attending a Maori arts event and 88 per cent of people attending a Pacific arts event not being from a Pacific Island ethnic group.

The Christchurch earthquake and its effect on the cultural life of the city has caused a little dip in some of the national figures compared with 2008, but there are also signs nationwide that some are feeling "less of a personal connection with the arts in 2011".

Those agreeing that "the arts are for people like me" dropped from 72 per cent to 69 per cent, and those agreeing "the arts are part of my everyday life" down from 65 per cent to 58 per cent. A possible reaction to hard times, but also a wake-up call to arts companies to stay connected to their audiences.

An encouraging sign for the future is that kids between 10 and 14 "feel brilliant" (46 per cent) or "really good" (38 per cent) when participating in the arts, with 80 per cent saying they engage in creative activity in their spare time, which is equal to spare time activity alongside watching TV and DVDs, and ahead of video gaming.

Central government politicians seem inclined to leave well alone. If you want to be positive, the pruning shears are not cutting as deep as in places like Britain, where subsidies to arts organisations are being reduced by 15 per cent over three years.

Government funding to Creative New Zealand in the latest Budget remains static, as it was the year before, left to slowly erode by inflation. Last year $35.64 million was distributed, 36 per cent of that a direct government grant, 62 per cent from Lottery funds. Like the MPs who went to the Rugby World Cup as guests of SkyCity casino, it seems whether sports or culture, you can't get away from the underpinning of gambling.

After the first of these surveys in 2005, which included a break-out probe into Aucklanders' cultural habits, I did express my wonderment at the numbers claiming "active" participation in the arts. All my neighbours, it seems, were singing in choirs, swinging poi and potting away in the laundry without my knowledge.

The latest figures are not exactly comparable, but last year, public participation seemed still live with vast numbers dancing, tapping and singing away.

In all, 19 per cent of New Zealanders claimed participation that year in the performing arts - and a third of these admitted to doing it more than 12 times. Around 14 per cent said they took part in Maori arts, 10 per cent in Pacific arts - either on stage or as support crew or in fundraising.

As for the kids, they seem to be up to giving anything a go, with 99 per cent claiming active participation, most of them both at school and outside. Imagine if we chose MPs who had retained some of this joie de vivre.