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You threw away your shot, Todd …

Ever get some weeks, Wairarapa, where you’re ready to jump straight off the planet at the next available stop?

That was me last week. On reading Newsroom’s interview with ACT’s so-called “Arts Spokesperson” Todd Stephenson.

In the now infamous, practically satirical exchange, Stephenson admitted he knew next to nothing about the arts, repeatedly crossing swords with Newsroom literary editor Steve Braunias in the process. We learned Stephenson likes musicals, but could only recall having seen “Hamilton” in New York. He struggled to name a New Zealand author [“I’ll have to come back to you, Steve”], but he does like watching TV. And he wants to see the arts sector “supported by individuals and, you know, not have the government involved.” The government that wants to build a New Zealand where “people have more of their own money to spend on things they value”.

A bit to unpack here. But, Todd, buddy … a little research? Type in “New Zealand authors” into Google, and you’re set. You can find out with a quick Google search that “Hamilton” creator Lin Manuel Miranda’s career was kickstarted by federal arts education funding. A bit of extra browsing may reveal a cool 3,640 public sector jobs cut since your coalition partners took the reigns. Not sure if those guys have much of their own money for a night at the theatre.

Stephenson raises an interesting point about public funding for the creative sector. Especially in tough fiscal times.

We know New Zealand creators punch above their weight on the world stage [Sir Peter Jackson, Taika Waititi, Eleanor Catton, Lorde, Flight of the Conchords …]. We know New Zealanders enjoy the arts. In 2022/23, our creative sector contributed $16.3 billion to New Zealand’s GDP.

However, the arts have been underfunded by successive administrations. A report from Creative New Zealand revealed the organisation has received almost no change to baseline funding since 2006. That ain’t likely change – so Stephenson can breathe easy.

As for whether governments “should” fund the arts – both New Zealand and overseas researchers say yes. The arts create employment and attract tourism. They facilitate success in education, boosting critical thinking. They impact health and wellbeing. Ask anyone working at Masterton’s King Street Artworks about the power of visual arts in mental health recovery … or in aged care about the ability of music to recall memories in dementia patients. The arts create safe spaces – from libraries to community theatre groups. They spark debate and awareness of expedient issues.

The arts simply enrich our lives. Remember the covid lockdowns – and the music, films and books keeping us sane while the world ground to a halt? The art stores reporting a rush of last minute sales ahead of the quarantine? The Italian citizens, shut indoors, playing violin concertos for one another from their balconies?

We’re facing some royally s*** times at the moment. Chances are, we’ll turn to the arts again to help us through. Worthy of some government investment, perhaps?

Oh, I forgot – the arts are a tool for holding the powerful to account. Less funding, less introspection, less meaningful action. Works a treat.

Probably not helpful guessing Todd Stephenson’s motivations. But, surely – with the coalition government’s support taking a dive of late, you’d think ACT would do better than fronting up with a spokesperson who is not only ignorant of his portfolio … but indifferent to the climate in which New Zealanders are meant to be self-funding said portfolio? You create mass unemployment, then suggest we foot the bill for the musicals you enjoy? I see …

Mr Stephenson likes “Hamilton” apparently – so I’ll end with a quote. “If you stand for nothing … what will you fall for?” Give it some thought … and come back to me.

Erin Kavanagh-Hall
Erin Kavanagh-Hall
Erin Kavanagh-Hall is the editor of the Wairarapa Midweek. She has been a journalist for the past 10 years, and has a keen interest in arts, culture, social issues, and community justice.

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