Covid-19 represents a twofold crisis, to public health and to the economy. New Zealanders are fortunate to have achieved an elimination goal and saved potentially thousands of lives – but as we grapple with the second phase of the crisis, with Auckland currently in alert level 3 after a new community outbreak, we must acknowledge that our cultural sector is not a luxury or a nice-to-have, but a necessity.
To get through it we need the arts just as much as we need healthcare, education and functional roading networks, and we need them in a balanced measure.
Artists and cultural producers are the voices that provide a popular philosophical framework by which we can anchor ourselves and our communities. Given venues and platforms, people respond with enthusiasm – we had 3.5 million people attend RFA venues in 2019, including 750,000 through Auckland Zoo and 500,000 at Auckland Art Gallery, and 2500 events in total.
In lockdown we saw musicians playing in their garages, famous performers hosting online gigs to view for free, people in Italy singing on their balconies. The call-out to connect lifted spirits, forged connections and gave people purpose. Auckland will need this in the coming months and years.
According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, "Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits." Auckland is a Unesco City of Music, and our cultural life gives people a sense of home, artists a place to practice their craft and earn a living, and creates the feeling that we have enduring landmarks and beacons even in times of profound upheaval.
We need ways to express ourselves, our identities and our values, and to see these reflected back. By providing stimulating and enticing cultural events that make the city much more than just a collection of roads and buildings, we will find our way through the current stormy night.
Great cities of the world are known for their culture. If Auckland is to rise to great-city status we must become cultivators of culture by nurturing, tending and educating, and by creating opportunities for future generations.
A key challenge for Auckland is to reach communities across the region, and ingrain te ao Māori beliefs, culture and manaakitanga. A city's culture is both tangible and intangible – something you can see and experience through the arts and events but also something you feel, and it cultivates civic pride and draws essential visitors to contribute to the economy of the city.
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For these reasons we must continue to invest in the places people participate in culture, including the many facilities that fall under the RFA's purview, from Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki to Auckland Zoo and Auckland's stadiums, among others.
The arts and culture sector is essential infrastructure. Auckland is rightly spending money on base infrastructure such as roads, water, waste and sustainability, and these are paths to a new city. However, we also need to ask, what does Auckland look like in 50 years – not just physically, but in our cultural expression? Thus is why organisations like RFA are working closely through the Covid era with stakeholder and supporter networks.
For instance, as a Unesco City of Music we can capitalise on this, from education to composition to recording to performance. However, to do so we need to start thinking about the infrastructure to allow this to develop; a model like the high-performance training centres for sports, but for musicians, artists and creative companies. This is investment that will deliver for a population well beyond 1.5 million, plus the visitors we will be hosting again when borders reopen.
Our venues represent the citizenry's trust in its cultural leaders. RFA provides safe and entertaining places. Our cultural facilities enable people to come together and find relief, fun and fellowship. The institutions in Auckland are trusted brands which played a critical role in a safe to return to social life after the first lockdown, stimulating the city's economy.
Recognising the economic headwinds, at RFA we are taking a more proactive approach to programming and the relationships with our audiences. We will keep building on Auckland's social capital and feel-good factor for the sake of our economy and social cohesion.
The stark truth is that most arts and culture organisations cannot rely on central or local government funding. RFA's performing arts arm Auckland Live, for instance, has to self-generate 90 per cent of its own funding, so it has to stay close to the pulse of what people want to see and experience. We invite all Aucklanders – as their budgets and schedules allow – to join us in rising to the challenge ahead.
• Chris Brooks is CEO of Regional Facilities Auckland.