Rosie Dawson-Hewes speaks to two men in favour of developing a strong arts-based economy.

A visiting expert on arts, culture and economic development says the region's proposed Arts & Culture strategy could hold the key to Bay of Plenty finding its identity and becoming a vibrant, economically strong region full of talent.

Peter Biggs is chairman of the Wellington Regional Economic Development Agency and chief executive of national advertising agency Assignment Group.

He's also former chief executive of Clemenger BBDO and chairman of the national Arts Council, so when it comes to the arts and how cities can harness them for economic development, he knows his stuff.


He was in Tauranga last week to discuss the Arts & Culture Strategy with city leaders.

He's a passionate advocate of places having what he calls a "lighthouse identity".

"You've got to build [cultural amenities] and they will come. But there's got to be a glue that binds them all together, which is your lighthouse identity. What do you stand for? What is your narrative? How are you distinctive from other cities? Look at Portland, they've got San Francisco just down the road, then LA, so they developed a really clever narrative around what they're good at - which is lifestyle, craft beer, food, tech innovation and sports-related economy."

Tauranga City councillor, and chairman of TCC's economic development and investment committee, Max Mason, says arts and culture and a strong sense of identity will help the region stay strong when the economy isn't.

"Tauranga is still very much a boom and bust economy. Perhaps less so now, because we're getting better. But when immigration slows down and the zing goes out of the housing market, as it does, kiwifruit can be cyclical, so when that happens if you don't have a strong feeling of identity and roots in a community, you will take the first opportunity to leave," Max says.

"But if you have a strong economy, and strong arts and culture with a strong sense of identity, and your family have strong roots in that community, you're less likely to move. You know you have these other forms of value that you're gaining from your life than just a salary. And that's really, really important. It's very well established by credible economists, like BERLE for example, that a strong arts and culture sector is very good, economically, for a city."

Peter says he watched arts and culture transform Wellington completely and the same is possible for the Bay.

"It moved from, as [James K] Baxter called it in his Ode to Wellington, 'O sterile whore of a thousand bureaucrats!', a boring grey city that no one wanted to visit ... to a vibrant, international, acclaimed livable city. That's been driven by two things - a bold vision by successive mayors, great leadership ... and a firm belief by all the leadership in the city, both political and executive, in the driving power of creativity and arts and culture to make the city more distinctive and drive an economic benefit, in terms of visitor numbers (both within the region and out of town), in terms of distinctiveness, in terms of attracting events and also driving the creative industries and innovation sectors, of which I include film, technology, gaming, that whole wider innovation/tech area," he says.

He also adds that the Bay's beautiful beach is not our identity. "Your beach is a commodity. Everybody has one."

So, then who should work out what the Bay's identity really is? He says it's the city-shapers' role. But, he says, it's important citizens take responsibility too, pointing out the community-developed Arts & Culture Strategy is unique, and powerful, in that regard, as is its tangata whenua involvement.

"They shaped this place. There's nothing more distinctive, in terms of New Zealand-ness, than Maori culture. What happened in art in the 1960s, this collision between Maori expression and European art, then in the 90s and 2000s with the influence of Pasifika culture. It makes our fashion, our art, our music so distinctive."

He says the Arts & Culture Strategy as it's been written offers many solutions to our city's issues, including low wages.

"One of the reasons Wellington has the highest salary and wages per capita, the average is $70,000, is because innovation firms like Weta, Park Road Post, Xero and Trade Me [are there]. And they're in Wellington because that's where the talent is."

So what should our two councils do to enable the arts and culture sector to thrive?

"Support it, invest in it, advocate for it."

Max agrees, saying councils should focus on what they're good at and enable those skilled individuals in the community to get on with what they're good at.

Public art is another key focus area of the strategy. Peter says public art is a really important reinforcer of a place's identity.

Peter and Max both agree that arts and cultural infrastructure are just as important core infrastructure.

"Having seen the power of arts and creative-driven development, which I think is essential infrastructure, you've got to find a way to do both [core infrastructure and arts and cultural infrastructure]," Peter says.

Max says: "I think we'll see a lot more public art as a result of the strategy - more sculptures, more street art, more clever design of roading and so on."