At the 2020 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern declared, "the arts should be at the centre of our revitalisation".
For this to be more than lip service we need a coherent vision supporting a considerable investment in all levels of Aotearoa's artistic ecology. Now is the time to bring the arts off the sidelines and into the mainstream, into our media, classrooms, Parliament.
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Recent studies, such as one by Arts and Minds, a leading Arts and Mental Health charity in the United Kingdom, found participants who undertook art therapy experienced a 71 per cent decrease in feelings of anxiety and a 73 per cent fall in depression; 76 per cent of participants said their wellbeing increased and 69 per cent felt more socially included.
Studies also show making art can lend itself to lowered blood pressure, increased immunity, chronic pain management and slow cognitive decline. On a communal level, the arts strengthens a sense of identity and celebrates the differences that make up a collective whole.
Yet despite the importance of the arts, those within it struggle to make ends meet for years. In 2019, Creative New Zealand released A Profile of Creative Professions. Of the 1500 surveyed across Aotearoa, the average wage was $35,800pa, compared to $51,800 for all New Zealanders. When you took away supplementary income, the median income from creative work was $15,000. Just 23 per cent felt they were living comfortably.
Perhaps this is because in a pre-Covid world, art was undervalued by a culture that put productivity and profit on a pedestal. Regardless of intent or medium, the arts struggled to be seen as anything other than a luxurious extra to wile away an evening.
But while we have been in lockdown, Netflix series, books, albums, opera, dance and theatre live streams have allowed us freedom of movement in fictional worlds in a way impossible in our real one. Regardless of medium, creators are still using art as a platform to express our idiosyncrasies, celebrate our commonalities, question the status quo, reminisce on a bygone era, to herald a revolution, to comfort or disturb depending on who the artist is speaking to.
In short, art is flourishing in a world led by a sentient Dorito and a limp crumpet. It has taken the Covid-19 pandemic for us to pause; to realise the depth and breadth of what art already brings to humanity and question the structures keeping it on the societal backburner.
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We have the chance to make a lasting change because centralising art in society ultimately benefits us all. But to achieve this, we must first make uncomfortable decisions that challenge the cornerstones of a pre-Covid world.
Capitalist structures that cram creativity into business models have an opportunity to be broken down. There is a chance to explore new ways to measure a work's significance - for example, how it impacts or inspires an audience rather than solely focusing on profits or the need to fulfil a quota.
We have the opportunity to make boardrooms more diverse, with decisions being made about the future of creativity by those who help shape it. Because their day to day lives will be most impacted. To tear down power structures that benefit the few and rebuild them to benefit all. A strong arts sector is adaptive in uncertain times and gives space for the myriad of stories that make up our world.
Let's not waste it by "going back to normal". That is too easy and too damaging. For humanity to continue benefiting from what art gives us, we need to keep what the pandemic reminded us of - namely "how" and "why" consuming and producing art is important - at the forefront of our collective and individual minds as we move forward.
• Kate Powell is a cultural critic, columnist and curator. She has also held a variety of roles as a social media strategist, artist liaison, artistic director and publicist.