Aug 6, 2023 Arts
The conductor snaps his fingers and begins an incantation of sorts — knowledge of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-Flat Major courses through him. The commands are almost imperceptible: a twisting of the wrist, the laying of the eyes, inaudible exhalations of breath. I sit amid the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and ponder the verb ‘to orchestrate’ — the planning of elements to a desired effect, usually surreptitiously. Powerful art often feels like a conspiracy.
I am in Wellington to look for art coveted (and funded) by the state — a tricky proposition. Many government agencies have a hand in supporting this art, and there are at least three distinct manifestations of ‘the state’ itself: central government, local government and the self-governing tino rangatiratanga that Te Tiriti o Waitangi enshrined for tangata Māori. Each of these ‘states’ attests to art in different ways, sometimes aligning and other times diverging in their visions of what Aotearoa New Zealand is or could be.
The conductor offers an analogy for the state I have come to find, a figure of authority who can create a sum greater than the parts. The string movement begins to lift again. The conductor cranes himself forward to the violins before drawing back, as if to say, ‘I want you more than this.’ The players obey his command as English pianist Paul Lewis, one of the greatest living interpreters of Beethoven’s music, conjures an improbable array of notes from a piano that wouldn’t fit into my lounge.
The breath stops.
As I leave the auditorium at the Michael Fowler Centre, I encounter a giant bottle of mayonnaise next to a construction site. The nutritional information is three feet high, and I can only presume it’s part of a funding deal necessary for the six-storey National Music Centre — a project costing tens of millions of dollars, due to be finished in 2026, which will house both the NZSO and Te Kōkī the New Zealand School of Music. The Palladian columns of the NZSO’s new home befit its status as the “jewel in the cultural crown”, as then Minister of Arts, Culture and Heritage Chris Finlayson once described it. The NZSO is a jewel so valued that in 2004 legislation affirmed it as a Crown entity, lifting the orchestra above the competitive funding streams of the public art sector more broadly and making every government henceforth its guarantor.
With Finlayson’s analogy in my head, that night I watch the coronation of King Charles III in my hotel room. The feudal ceremony involved two hours of orchestral music — classical musicians interspersed with a literal crown and other decorative anachronisms. While it costs about £100 million to crown a king, maintaining an orchestra in Aotearoa isn’t cheap either — $19.2 million in the last year for the NZSO. A civic luxury, that becomes a veritable feast once you’ve added the seven regional orchestras across the country, which bring the total local and central government spend on orchestral music in the last year to around $30 million. If you count the culturally adjacent opera and ballet, the figure rises to more than $40 million. (It may not surprise you that our third leg of state, iwi and hapū, is not a principal funder of the orchestral arts.)
The special treatment for orchestral music is especially apparent when it is viewed alongside other art forms in Aotearoa — cue, Creative New Zealand. The agency is responsible for funding a vast array of creative disciplines and last year received $16.68 million baseline funding from the Crown (via the Ministry for Culture and Heritage), a few million less than the budget of the NZSO. Community arts, craft, toi Māori, dance, literature, music, theatre and visual arts (to name but a few) collectively draw less from state coffers through CNZ than the NZSO. The inequity lessens somewhat when you include CNZ’s funding from the Lotteries Grant Board — its revenue derived from the profits of gambling in predominantly low-income areas. It’s a story for another time, but have no doubt: the people who play scratchies and the slot machines are this nation’s greatest philanthropists.
In an article last year, James Wenley, a Wellington theatre academic and arts commentator, rendered the situation in stark terms, describing NZSO’s special treatment as a “colonial hangover” and calling into question the Crown entity status that protects heritage European art forms from competitive funding rounds. In the past few years many have spoken out about these funding inequities, with Te Pāti Māori in 2022 drawing a comparison between the NZSO and Te Matatini, Aotearoa’s premier kapa haka festival. In an open letter, Te Pāti Māori expressed exasperation with “the continued second class treatment of Māori arts” — a fact backed by numbers, as Te Matatini can fill Eden Park for three days in a row on a comparatively measly $2.9 million of annual state contribution.
I resolved to get to know the orchestra and discover why the state prizes its music above all else.
“It all comes back to Beethoven really, and what musicologists call the ‘Beethoven Paradigm’,” says 24-year-old Fergus Fry, an early-career composer and scholar of sustainability in Western art music. While the term ‘classical’ describes a specific period of Western music, roughly from 1750 to 1820 and encompassing Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, the now-preferred term ‘Western art music’ (or WAM) usefully includes contemporary composition. “Beethoven symbolises a seismic shift in societal attitudes towards the art form, allowing it to exist outside the courts and churches and the general ceremony and pageantry of the state.”
Fry and I start from the beginning and discuss the provenance of the music in the NZSO’s repertoire. The musicological literature traces the tradition not only to Europe but to “military trumpet corps”. This original link continued in later years: musicians carried in the hulls of British naval ships were almost certainly the first proponents of the WAM tradition in Aotearoa, along with the musical congregations of the early evangelical missions. The orchestra, first appearing in Aotearoa among amateur philharmonic societies of the 1840s, offered a musical form born of the settler society.
WAM is a catch-all for a complex synthesis of European — and latterly American — classical and contemporary traditions. With the advent of the “genius” or even “divinely inspired” composer, the music began to be considered as ‘art’, not simply aural ornamentation to the church, state or military. “Proto-orchestras seemed to be more egalitarian,” Fry says. “There were fewer divides. The conductor was often the composer, and they were really just another servant like the rest of the ensemble.” After the Beethoven Paradigm, Fry explains, “the tradition became more hierarchical. Now, everyone has a title, and there’s a chain of command that ultimately elevated the ‘classical’ composers to a truly ‘god-like’ position.” The other telling context for WAM today is the university, the academy having been added to the original church-state-and-military trinity. It all adds up to a complex history, too fractious to be simply boiled down to “cultures of colonisation”.
I think about the players of the NZSO I’d seen — many of whom looked like accountants in orthopaedic shoes. The entity didn’t look especially violent, monarchic, religious or academic. Fergus notes however the mood within is broadly conservative (even in terms of nomenclature, with the ‘conservatoire’ still an enduring site of training within WAM). Going deeper into the culture of orchestras, Fry tells me that these “elite musicians can have very long careers. In the 2020 NZSO report, 63% of players had been there for 15 years or more, and 36% for 25 years or more. Also only six of the 78 players were under 35. This sort of longevity can make it very hard to have any significant cultural change.” The NZSO audience is similar, Fry says. “If you go to an NZSO performance, it’s a sea of grey hair.”
How relevant are orchestras to Fry’s own future as a composer? “Honestly, orchestras could fall off the face of the earth, and I don’t think it’d make too much of a difference to my career or practice. The opportunities I’m eligible for generally offer ‘exposure’ or ‘experience’ which might be valuable but won’t pay my rent.”
While Fry is doubtful about the pace, change at the NZSO is slowly getting under way. Sam Rich is a percussionist and was the youngest member of the NZSO when appointed in 2019 — the perfect emissary for an institution associated with silver-haired elitism. We meet behind the stage in the NZSO’s percussion store room, and I soon begin to glimpse the depth of Rich’s craft. He describes the construction of the National Music Centre next door as “loose but complicated polyrhythms that I hear all the time”. Rich has been a percussive apprentice since he was a toddler, a rigour of training that is almost a prerequisite at this level of musicianship.
I knew Rich couldn’t speak to the intricacies of funding and budgets, so instead I asked him to tell me the price of things. “Well, a timpani drum will set you back about 15 to 20 thousand, but this clapper will hardly cost you a thing,” he says, holding what appears to be two sticks on a hinge. After a deft movement of Rich’s wrist, the drum produces a startling thunderclap. I’m on the lookout for conservatism, but Rich shows me a corner of the percussion storeroom dedicated to “weird shit”, explaining that “the weird shit is just becoming less weird, it’s more normal now”.
‘Percussing’ the chattering mandible of a donkey, Rich assures me that the orchestra is “all black magic”. His musical expertise makes me feel about four years old. I am reminded once more that affecting art can make the world feel new. No one in their right mind would defund Rich — I can only imagine his impact when visiting our nation’s classrooms through the extensive NZSO education programme. Fry, too, notes that “orchestras can make really funny sounds, and kids love that. Contemporary art music is only inaccessible because we make it inaccessible.”
The person sending Rich out as ambassador to the young is Peter Biggs — former seminarian, ad-man, lauded champion of the arts and chief executive of the NZSO. “I don’t think there’s been any government entity reviewed so often as the NZSO,” he tells me straight up. “A significant amount of our funding is government related. And so we’re accountable to the government.” From his time in advertising, Biggs knows that a “healthy paranoia” can be valuable when it comes to the client. “We can’t sit on our laurels and expect money. We’ve got to prove our relevance, usefulness and engagement with all New Zealanders. Are we delivering for the money? If we’re not, the government should correct that.”
I try to imagine a scenario in which the government would correct that. While the NZSO’s core audience is relatively small (only 86,500 attendees in 2019–20), they also know how to petition the government. Only a brave politician would take them on. According to a discussion paper for the 2012–13 New Zealand Professional Orchestra Sector Review (chaired by Biggs), orchestra-goers in Aotearoa were “mainly European, female, over 50, with a tertiary qualification and earning above average incomes” — the exact same profile of a likely voter in this country. Politicians know this and are cautious of provoking those who enjoy Mozart on Sundays.
Biggs has come up with a simple response to the orchestra’s ageing demographics. “You can get into the symphony orchestra for $10 or pay your age.” It’s a nice idea — the proportional ‘pay your age’ element is a simple, almost homespun way of getting people in and building a philanthropic community around the organisation. “To me, it’s a matter of democracy that people know that they can come to the national orchestra at a very cheap price and have that experience. And that’s why we exist, to let all people in Aotearoa know they have a right to access their orchestra,” explains Biggs.
I look through the latest NZSO catalogue, entitled Manawakura e rere … after the orchestra’s official waiata, and ask the obvious question: “Is the orchestra trying to indigenise?” Biggs replies without hesitation, “Yes, definitely.” Decolonising an art form associated with European court pageantry seems ambitious. Still, Biggs has an earnest look in his eye, and there is evidence attesting that the NZSO has been trying. The orchestra has dramatically increased the number of performances formed in dialogue with te ao Māori, such as 2022’s Mana Moana and Matariki the year before, and has developed a creative fellowship for Pasifika composers with CNZ.
Fry also weighed in on the question of diversity in the NZSO. “It’s definitely visible — I imagine they’re quite deliberate in terms of their metrics. Forging a distinctly New Zealand orchestral tradition is really desirable, and this is one way to go about that. However, the orchestra itself doesn’t strike me as particularly reflective of our current society.”
On this point, Biggs doesn’t really put up a fight. “I’ve got to be honest. Right now, I think if you’re Māori or Pacific person looking to see yourself reflected in our orchestra, you probably wouldn’t. But I am incredibly heartened by the changes on the horizon.”
Wondering how our other public art institutions were beginning to embody the politics of decoloniality — or not — I decide it is time to go where the mess of it all is most apparent — Creative New Zealand. CNZ matters to a great many people. The agency is responsible for funding a huge array of art forms (including $6.2 million for WAM) and has been in the news for the wrong reasons lately, including an incident in 2022 in which a long-running school Shakespeare festival did not receive funding it expected. One of the assessors of the denied application described Shakespeare as “locked within a canon of imperialism”, a line that, when made public, ‘let slip the dogs of culture war’ (that is, David Seymour). The Act leader kept the references going, suggesting that CNZ in its concerns “doth protest too much, methinks”, and promising to disband the “ideological activists within CNZ”. The frenzy was revealing of the increasingly precarious — and politicised — position of CNZ, with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern eventually having to intervene with a solution through the Minister of Education. I remained curious about the incident, as the same imperialist critique levelled at Shakespeare could plausibly be made towards WAM.
I wanted to speak to one of these assailed bureaucrats and understand the critical issues facing CNZ. Gretchen La Roche appears made for the story. Herself a clarinetist, La Roche is CNZ’s newly appointed senior arts programme manager and previously had a long stint as chief executive of the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra. Since arriving at CNZ, La Roche has been compiling a report for the agency, The Future of Arts Development in Aotearoa New Zealand. It’s a much better read than most literature published by government agencies, and, as La Roche explains, provides a surprisingly forthright assessment. “It’s a very frank report, and details how what we have may no longer be fit for purpose.” The Future of Arts Development features 16 pages of feedback (mostly complaints) sourced from 18 workshops held around Aotearoa. One key takeaway? “There is disillusionment and despondency in the arts community.”
For those creatives without a connection to other institutional funding (like that given to the NZSO), CNZ offers a glimmer of governmental support. I’m unsurprised therefore to hear La Roche cite “demand” as the critical issue. “It’s difficult to step away from that. There is real pressure on the investment that CNZ can make,” she explains. “And we have a dynamic art sector — there’s an awful lot going on.” It’s a better problem than some, but it’s a problem nonetheless. The huge imbalance between the funding ambitions and CNZ’s capacity was highlighted last year when a funding round closed within 24 hours due to intense demand. The incident, widely reported in the media, led many to question the value of the contestable funding system. La Roche is on board with this, indicating that “CNZ’s desire is to create something that is far more in line with the art community wants and needs”.
Whether or not art is ‘delivering for money’ is yet another tough question that CNZ has to grapple with, and attempting to provide the right answer can lead to much contortion on the part of arts organisations applying for grants. Practitioners have certain artistic tools, but their organisations also have to use bureaucratic ones — consultations, spreadsheets, stakeholders and visitor surveys. From a top arts worker who spends a lot of time “asking for money” — too risk-averse to be named — I got a sense of the ‘paper face’ between art and the state. “On a good day the slog of funding administration feels like being a desk-bound Robin Hood,” she explained. “What is the arrow in the bow?” I ask her, curious about the analogy. “Oh … critical reading, persuasive writing, analytics and well-matched programming to funding outcomes.” While writing grant applications doesn’t require dishonesty or ethical compromise, the unnamed administrator does note “you become masterful at shaping your ambitions and activity to the language of aspirational funding outcomes. It’s strategic on the cusp of manipulative.”
Pondering the issues of demand and value for money, I turn back to ask La Roche about the supply problem. The broad category “Sports and Recreation” gets $142 million versus the $21 million reserved for CNZ, and also receives lotteries funding on top of that. La Roche responds tactfully to my questions. “There’s no doubt that if there was more funding available, that would have a very positive impact.” I don’t push the administrator to criticise her bosses — I was grateful for what she did tell me. This assignment had me sifting through seemingly endless tracts of unusable departmental statements in response to my inquiries; words so dull that no conscientious writer would incorporate them in a story. Trying to get anyone at CNZ to talk about Shakespeare was especially difficult.
And I have my own issues that leave me speechless. I went to Wellington to explore the funding of the NZSO by the state through the Ministry of Culture and Heritage, but was forced to confront my own dependence on that purse. This article is funded by the Public Interest Journalism Fund (PIJF), a pandemic-era “emergency fund” administered through MCH and New Zealand on Air, designed to safeguard journalism in Aotearoa and to enliven democratic values. It made things complicated. Following the money-go-round, I had to acknowledge that the story was, in fact, the story, commissioned and funded by the state.
Speaking to La Roche, I realise that CNZ is not really for funding the arts — it would need vastly more money if that were the case. It’s a creative advocacy organisation, with funding representing just one of its four core functions. Referring to some of these other goals, such as ‘capability building’, La Roche suggests that “CNZ can help people to understand the intrinsic benefits of the arts”. There’s an important word lingering there, intrinsic. A belief that creativity transcends all measurements, it is a word that proposes art as a language of the soul, irreducible in the spreadsheet or business case.
This is something I had also put to Biggs, noting the religious roots of WAM and that many of my interviewees had former or current lives in the church. “Is there a connection between advertising, music and God?” He laughed. “If I can sell Mainland Cheese and have people believe it actually comes from a farm run by two old guys, I should be able to sell an orchestra.” But what about the most intrinsic values? What about God? He laughed again at my insistence, before conceding that “the arts do elevate you to a higher world”.
Still seeking the crux of the matter with La Roche, I ask: “Does more money equate to better art?” La Roche responds, deep in thought, “It’s not as linear as that, but more money does result in a better environment.” To put it another way, “you have to have fertile soil to grow the good veggies”. While heartened by some of the listening it was doing and seeds it hoped to plant, I was pessimistic that CNZ had the gardening supplies required. The agency’s resources are humble compared to its broad mandate to “encourage, promote and support the arts in New Zealand for the benefit of all New Zealanders”. Ultimately, realising the dream of a creative society will be determined by the politicians who hold the purse.
The deputy prime minister, Carmel Sepuloni, who is also the Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage, sits on the parliamentary benches as I watch from the public gallery above. Despite numerous attempts to meet with Sepuloni, first at Parliament, then in her Kelston electorate, then on Zoom, followed by a concessionary 10-minute phone call and a last resort of emailed questions, I started to get the sense my remit was too broad for the minister. At least the Opposition was happy to meet with me.
I try to behave with decorum as I walk into the office of National MP Simon O’Connor, but don’t get very far. Pointing at the object in the middle of O’Connor’s desk, I ask, “Is that … Aragorn’s sword?” O’Connor nods with a smile and invites me to unsheath the blade. After a few minutes of swinging a sword around the parliamentary office, I sit down with the National Party spokesman for Arts, Culture and Heritage. “I don’t have a creative bone in my body,” begins O’Connor — not a good start.
Another former seminarian, O’Connor offers me a string of platitudes, including his prescription for CNZ: “Let’s just get back to basics” (repeated four times). He did provide an assessment of arts policy under the Ardern–Hipkins government (“I’d probably give them a six out of ten”) and gave an “it’s apples and oranges” rebuttal to Te Pāti Māori’s comparison of Te Matatini and the NZSO. “We’re comparing a festival with a full-time company of musicians who travel New Zealand and run school programmes. It’s much much bigger than a festival. To me, it’s an unfair comparison.” After that, it was back to what O’Connor admitted was his “trite one-liner” about doing the basics well.
I left the interview with a distinct sense that the National Party did not have an Arts, Culture and Heritage Policy, nor was feeling particularly bothered about forming one before the election. The MP did offer me this assurance for prospective voters: “I think the state of government finances is such that I don’t see a flurry of new funding for the arts.”
After meeting O’Connor, I began to wonder: were politicians increasingly bereft of creativity? Were we — the recipients of public life — suffering for it? Later, back in Auckland (the plane that carried me home was 53% state-owned, and the airport I arrived at was 18.1% council-owned, though soon to be 11.1%), I pose these questions to my fellow Metro contributor, former mayor of Waitākere Bob Harvey, who replies simply, “Yes, definitely.” Reflecting on the lack of creative spirit within politics, Harvey points to the newly elected Auckland Council. “Just look around the table. Jesus! I rest my case and could jump out the fucking window.”
Harvey knows local government — which collectively contributed about $5 million last year to regional orchestras — and he remembers the founding of the Waitakere City Orchestra in 2003, during his mayoralty, with particular pride. “I felt like fucking King Ludwig II!” he exclaims, referring to the famous patron of composer Richard Wagner.
Harvey explains that he’s currently trying to talk sense into Wayne Brown, “a man who loves nothing”. A percussionist himself, Harvey feels deeply that “if a city doesn’t have music, it doesn’t have a soul. It’s really not a big ask that music is funded and applauded by the local and central government.” Still, Harvey understands that as a musical expression of the state, the orchestra may have been eclipsed. Something else has arrived, “an event so staggeringly alive that you know it’s here to stay”. Pounding the cafe table, Harvey recalls “mesmerising” days spent at Eden Park and says that “if heaven exists, they’ll be playing the music of Te Matatini”.
It seems that the state agrees. Carmel Sepuloni, so elusive in person, appears as an RNZ notification on my screen: “Te Matatini gets large funding boost in Budget 2023”. $34 million over two years, equating to an eightfold increase in yearly funding that places Te Matatini on an equal financial footing to the NZSO. Actions speak louder than words, and I content myself knowing that the minister found her way into the story in the end.
“There was so much pressure to come through on this outcome, that they had to,” explains Debbie Ngarewa-Packer, co-leader of Te Pāti Māori, who greeted the announcement with a smile. “Te Pāti Māori were part of that pressure, but so were many others — it has been a long time coming. If you look at the inequities between what Te Matatini was being funded versus NZSO and RNZB, it’s hard to argue that there wasn’t a much-needed change to be made.” In the current political climate, and with Te Pāti Māori looming as possible kingmaker after the October election, a funding increase had ‘no-brainer’ written all over it. “Aside from being inequitable, Te Matatini is the biggest representation of New Zealand’s indigenous peoples and has often drawn larger crowds,” explains Ngarewa-Packer. What did surprise many watchers was the level of funding — $34 million is a transformational sum that will offer new nationwide opportunities for the indigenous performing arts institution.
Carl Ross wasn’t surprised by the announcement or the sum. As te manahautū (or chief executive) of Te Matatini since 2016, he masterminded it all. Now retired from the stage, Ross was a long-term member of elite kapa haka group Te Waka Huia. The ageing fighter is impressive and calm, his crystal-blue eyes not unlike Biggs’. And Ross sees me coming — I don’t even have to ask. “When people make comparisons between Te Matatini and the NZSO, the only commonality is that we bring joy into people’s lives,” he says, with an optimism that won’t be pulled off message.
What does distinguish Te Matatini’s kapa haka from the NZSO is “active participation, social contribution and viewership”, Ross says, coming equipped with what are arguably the best metrics in the country for an arts organisation. Te Matatini draws tens of thousands of paying attendees to each festival, contributes $21 million to the Auckland economy and draws the third-highest TV audience in the country. The only artist who can compete with Te Matatini’s numbers is Ed Sheeran, and his social metrics are appalling.
The social side matters in public arts, and developing a clearer evidence base about Te Matatini’s impact has been a cornerstone of Ross’s leadership. “Some people would stand there and complain about inequity, but instead we decided to do in-depth research into the positive results of kapa haka and frame that evidence in relation to the Māori health index.” In partnership with multiple university research units, Te Matatini began amassing an arsenal of numbers and speaking in a language the state would finally hear. As a result, kapa haka became linked to staving off dementia, improving academic attainment and reducing obesity.
Reflecting on the importance of kapa haka in his own life, Ross remembers the urban migration of Māori in the postwar period. “We left our roots — the roots of the marae, the whenua, and the mauri. We turned to kapa haka to try and fill that void.” Ross’s vision for Te Matatini is healing and connective, grounded in kaupapa Māori and extended to all New Zealanders. Translating Te Matatini as “the many faces”, he describes an art form that is grounded in the togetherness powerfully enacted through communal singing. “Every time you sing a waiata together, you’re participating in kapa haka.”
“We found that unity at Eden Park,” Ross continues, invoking a word also used by MP Kiritapu Allan, when she suggested the kapa haka festival had “the power to unite tangata whenua and tangata Tiriti” (a statement that probably couldn’t be applied to the nation’s orchestras).
We may have found unity, but I am still trying to find the rub. Performers don’t get paid for their work at Te Matatini and the festival is expensive to attend ($50 for the day or $150 for a four-day pass). The performers are remunerated in mana and hauora — ka rawe — but it’s not going to feed the whānau, and in fact, it is the community around kaihaka who really foot the bill, paying via fundraising for food, uniforms, accommodation and transport. Ross knows this is an issue. “$6.5 million comes out of the pockets of the community in order for Māori to stand on the stage and say, ‘We’re proud to be Māori’.” This problematic situation is mainly down to the festival being framed as a competition rather than a performing institute. We don’t make the country’s WAM musicians perform in the ‘Olympics of Classical Music’, though we probably wouldn’t pay them if we did.
The new government funding does not necessarily address this problem, as it is earmarked for investment in the regions between festivals, and the main biennial event will continue at a relatively similar funding level — just a small increase. “The festival is only one aspect now, it’s a much bigger thing,” Ross explains. The new national kapa haka organisation will have 12 regional centres throughout Aotearoa, and 70% of Te Matatini’s funding will go towards sustaining this rohe-based approach. The new structure will situate Te Matatini in the places Māori predominantly live. “The ‘norm’ hasn’t always served our people well,” Ngarewa-Packer says of the previous arrangement. “This approach will mean that each rohe will get to decide what they need to invest in to further thrive in the kapa haka space.”
The moment is comparable to the founding of Māori Television in 2003 or the funding of the first kōhanga reo pilot in 1982. The effects of a truly national kapa haka organisation are likely to be profound, and it will be the young people of these islands, better versed in te ao Māori and reo, who will prove the value of the investment. For Ngawera-Packer, Te Matatini is “Te ao Māori encompassed. It is a wero, it is a celebration, it is our connection to our tūpuna — it is everything.”
On Ross’s part, the words that pepper his speech are ‘hauora’, ‘mana’ and ‘joy’. Joyfulness is a quality he attributes to all the performing arts of Aotearoa — orchestras included. Talking to me, Ross doesn’t bemoan the obvious inequity kapa haka has endured from the state, but he does remember the hard times. “Seven staff and a photocopy machine”, he says of the team up until now — a ridiculous reality for the most successful arts festival in the nation. “I remember there was a time when the stage had to be built out of a woolshed.”
“We’ve done it on nothing for all these years.”
“I am so excited,” Kura Te Ua’s voice is warm, uplifted. “We’ve got everything we need at this point, and now we need to prove to ourselves that we can administer this opportunity. Otherwise, it’s going to be the same old ‘those Māoris don’t know how to use money that’s given to them!’,” she says, joking but serious. On that point, Ross too is strident, mentioning “accountability” three times in our interview and bringing a precision of numbers and metrics to bear throughout.
Te Ua is the founder of Hawaiki Tū, an impressive kapa haka, contemporary dance and theatre company. When I speak to her she is busy with rehearsals for Autaia, a youth kapa haka performance, involving 450 school kids, that was staged in Auckland in June. “We’re right in the thick of things at the moment!” she explains, the screams of children reverberating through the phone. Te Ua helps me see the broader picture of the Te Matatini funding injection, placing it in the context of kōhunga reo and the development of kapa haka from early-childhood education to secondary school. She can see the effect in the children she works with. “By the time rangatahi reach a senior haka team, they are armoured up with the skills and reo to be an elite kaihaka,” affirms Te Ua.
It can sometimes take a generation to see the effects of new funding and initiatives in arts and education, and Te Ua knows there is much more to be done, further horizons to be reached for and dreams realised. “I hope for a space in kapa haka to exist like the NZSO, or like the New Zealand Royal Ballet, and for kapa haka to be recognised as the national genre of Aotearoa,” Te Ua says, sounding wistful. “We need that one top echelon of kapa haka so that rangatahi can be inspired and see where the pathway is.” But there are many ways to imagine the top of an artform, and the NZSO model is just one form a state-funded performance organisation could take.
I think about the similarities and differences between an orchestra and a kapa festival. Biggs and Ross both spoke warmly of each other and the art and leadership of their different organisations — two living traditions searching for expression in a complex world. At base, and even with the increased funding to Te Matatini, their art forms are in dramatically different places. There are currently about 300 to 400 professional or semi-professional WAM musicians in Aotearoa, but only a handful of kaihaka who could claim the same privilege (and many of these are in the tourism sector, which does not necessarily emphasise rigour of artistic expression). I think back to Sam Rich, the percussionist who shows up for work every day to hit things artfully. Te Ua deserves the same daily work, and we all deserve the art she can summon.
While there is state patronage of the arts in Aotearoa, there is little for the artists themselves. Instead, artists are frequently forced into strange situations in order to practise their art. One of the oddest is a tendency among jazz musicians to join the New Zealand Defence Force. The Army Band is the only other truly stable gig for musicians besides a professional orchestra. As long as you’re willing to do basic training and be deployed to a war zone, a trumpeter can get paid to practise their craft in uniform. Furthermore — and provided they read their geopolitical moment carefully — musicians can even walk away unharmed, with a military pension.
Less remarkable is going on the dole. It is an old survival strategy used by artists, and a hushed-up reality for creative communities nationwide. In 2001, the Fifth Labour Government tacitly acknowledged this use of the beneficiary system as it instigated its Pace scheme, colloquially known as the ‘artist’s dole’, which in fact simply allowed creatives to list the arts as a preferred career while unemployed. The Key government put a stop to it through a raft of punitive reforms to MSD, and now, telling a case manager that you want to be an artist will have you fruit-packing in the provinces.
One section of La Roche’s CNZ report spoke directly to the question of artists’ wages. Respondents both complained and made appeals: “Advocate for NZ to adopt a universal basic income for artists!”, “Universal basic income would solve half the problems for arts communities”, “Replace competitive tendering with a universal artists’ income”. The artist voices of Aotearoa seemed to call out as one. The demand was disarming simple. Give people money on the basis of being an artist, or perhaps — even more radically — on the basis of being human. I put it to La Roche. “I think it would be a terrific thing to see that happen.” CNZ is certainly beginning to think about a reorientation of funding. “Is it the thing — the art — or it is the people who create it?” La Roche asks. “We’re looking to move more towards the people.”
A UBI or a ‘UAI’ might just be the way — a solution that could empower the artists of Aotearoa to create on our behalf. The idea has roots in Cuba, a communist political economy with thousands of state-sponsored musicians. It’s odd to think that the NZSO with its retinue of state-salaried musicians has a parallel in the creative organisations of the Caribbean state led for so long by Fidel Castro. Hiding within one of the most socially conservative art forms in Aotearoa is a radical vision of creative life.
Putting in place a basic income will require more money, and thus it may require the state to take in more money. The O’Connors of the world will tell us scarcity tales, but I lean toward the ideas of economist John Maynard Keynes, who believed “anything we can do we can afford to do”. Ultimately, it’s our political imagination that limits us, along with an antiquated tax system that won’t go near the true wealth of this nation. Among the political parties, only the Greens show any appetite for increased and reapportioned taxation, and short of epoch-defining events, no change beckons that could see a different vision of creative life in Aotearoa.
I check back in with Fry, who as someone early in his career is a good barometer for the direction of the creative sector. While currently working for John Psathas, the internationally acclaimed composer, Fry offered a wry prognosis for himself: “I might just go back and finish my science degree and get a ‘proper’ job.” The young composer unsurprisingly advocates for fundamental change. “If we were all getting a universal basic income, I’d absolutely compose and collaborate more. It would allow me to treat ‘creative work’ as ‘work work’ too.”
It’s a bigger idea than an artist’s wage, but it’s exactly what might be needed. Art is a medium that makes us human, and crucially, more humane. The arts are also not a panacea — no matter how deeply they might affect our being. Unless the basic conditions of life are attended to, creativity cannot flourish. To care for the people remains the state’s most fundamental task. It is impossible to think about the creative economy in isolation, but the most profound policy for the arts might actually be what’s best for us all.
The kaiako greets me warmly at the door and briefly checks my teacher registration. I know from my time teaching that organising a future ‘best for all’ means starting young — the younger, the better. The children swarm as I walk in, each offering a little hand or name in welcome. The kōhanga reo movement, which grew from the work of iwi and community leaders in the late 1970s, has gone through a number of gruelling state reforms since receiving its first government grants in the early 80s, but is alive and well, sustained by the state’s dime and, more importantly, on the aroha of communities.
The children gather at their teacher’s call, facing me to sing a waiata pōwhiri. With tikanga attended to — and my own poorly pronounced pepeha shared — an impromptu recital begins. The kaiako strums a guitar. The lyrics of ‘Pungawerewere’ tell the story of a spider and its webbed whare. One waiata after another, the tamariki are transfixed in song and dance, joyfully, as all young children are. I am reminded that kaupapa Māori simply belongs to this place and chimes with meaning and resonance that ‘Old MacDonald Had a Farm’ simply cannot provide. The numbers agree and the heart does, too.
As the children run off freely into the open air, I explore the classroom. In one corner I sight the kind of diorama that only occurs in early-childhood education. The words “Taonga Pūoro” are emblazoned in a Twinkl font that I remember well from my days as a teacher, and on the table below is a collection of Māori flutes, each one labelled with its own name: “pūtātara”, “pūkāea” and “karanga weka”. The forms are beautiful, whakairo marked into wood that glisten in dark hues against the tablecloth coloured red, white and black — the colours of creation. There is even a little box of wipes to clean the flutes between uses.
Among the flutes formed of shells and wood, I am surprised to see another shape on the table, a plastic form with seven holes placed at perfect intervals — a recorder. One of the kaiako spots my interest and laughs. “One of the children said they had a taonga pūoro at home, and then they showed up with this.” Caring for young children is filled with these pragmatic adjustments, I offer, and the kaiako agrees. “Our ideas are less important than the children’s.”
The recorder was first documented in the medieval courts of Europe and this one, despite its petroleum-based body, speaks to an old tradition formed in another place. The name ‘recorder’ derives from the Latin recordārī, meaning to call to mind, to remember. And as I pick it up to sound a note, the kaiako reminds me what really matters: “Tīhei mauriora!” It is the breath of life that is sacred. That is the true taonga.