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anthropy

Phil—
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Hunting the Ministry of Joy

Stephen Wainwright

Stephen Wainwright

Chief Executive, Creative New Zealand

We grab twenty minutes with Stephen Wainwright to talk juicy topics like art and wellbeing, engaging youth and making the arts relevant to all New Zealanders.

Pacific Heritage Arts Fono 2018 Image: Raymond Sagapolutele

Pacific Heritage Arts Fono 2018
Image: Raymond Sagapolutele

How do the arts contribute to the wellbeing of New Zealanders?

S: Well, it’s an interesting time to be talking about this, because at the moment we’re getting strong leadership from the government around wellbeing. Mental health is very much on the public agenda, and I would be very surprised if that doesn’t have an impact on engagement with the arts.
 
People nearly always agree that exercise is a good thing –there’s scientific evidence if you take a walk near the sea or bush it has a positive impact. But of course, the arts can work in the same way.
 
If you ask people to think about what gives them pleasure, so often it will involve creativity in a whole range of forms. We celebrate big moments in our life, such as our weddings, creatively – with music and dancing. And we live in an age where creativity has been democratised by technology.
 
But some people – and especially young people – don’t associate creative things that give them pleasure as being part of the arts. For example, my son and his mates are keen mountain bikers, and they make great videos, which they share online. I asked him if he considered it to be artistry. He didn’t. But he agreed it was creative. In that sense, language isn’t always our friend.
 

We know about the creative process, which leads to art being made. But when people hear the word art, they don’t necessarily have in mind the process of creation.

BB: Is there a difference between creativity and art?

I don’t think definitions are particularly helpful. We know about the creative process, which leads to art being made. But when people hear the word art, they don’t necessarily have in mind the process of creation. Which is why several arts councils around the world –New Zealand was the first, I think – came to the conclusion that even though we’re batting for the arts, that language is not helpful for some people. Hence we use the branding Creative New Zealand – because creativity can be applied in every domain. And here in New Zealand creativity is something we’re quite good at. We’re nimble.
 
However, nationally we still haven’t been able to help people see that the arts are different from entertainment because they demand more of  people who interact with them. For example, people like fireworks, and you can say ‘gosh aren’t they pretty colours’. In the same way, when you look at a great work of art you might think ‘gosh pretty colours’, but in reality, the artist is trying to portray more, and you might need to do some work yourself to get the most out of it. Some people think that’s elitist, but I don’t think it’s any more elitist than say, sport – it’s exactly the same, you get a lot more out of sport if you have a deeper understanding of it.

Visual Artist Nery Ngaruhe, Ngā Many Pīrere Award Recipient 2018. Image credit: Creative New Zealand

Visual Artist Nery Ngaruhe, Ngā Many Pīrere Award Recipient 2018.
Image credit: Creative New Zealand

BB: Can you expand on the connection between mental health and creativity?

S: Well – it’s tough, because so much of the government’s energy is taken up with trying to solve problems or deficits that there is perhaps less attention on the delivery of things that inspire joy. There’s no Ministry of Joy, unfortunately, although it’s a nice idea.
 
But in my work I’ve been fortunate enough to experience first-hand what a positive impact the arts can have on wellbeing. For example, I’ve spoken with prison officers who say that creativity is essential to helping prisoners better understand their cultural identity. These are the big levers for self-actualisation and allowing people to be confident in the world and find their place in it. It’s a tragedy you have to go to prison for that to happen. It’s a compelling kind of public policy intervention – art as prescription. People feeling empowered, whether it’s with a paintbrush, camera or theatre group.
 
We do a lot of research, and it’s really quite telling. When you have a young person, say a ten-year-old, using phrases like “I feel brilliant when I do art at school” – that’s a powerful assertion of art having value at an individual level.

So much of the government’s energy is taken up with trying to solve problems or deficits that there is perhaps less attention on the delivery of things that inspire joy. There’s no Ministry of Joy...
Chamber Music NZ’s accessible concert series with the IHC Foundation.

Chamber Music NZ’s accessible concert series with the IHC Foundation.

BB: How do we engage youth around the arts, and why is that important? Creative New Zealand’s recent research suggests that New Zealanders aged between 15-25 are less engaged than any other sector.

S: Except for rural men. Yes, it’s an interesting one. As we discussed earlier, I think it’s partly a language thing. Also, partly I think it’s because young people expect to have a lot more agency over their own lives. And the way we do things has changed – been democratised. You can be creative alone, on your laptop, on your phone. There’s less of the formal structure around creativity that my generation experienced. So, I actually suspect there’s been a mushrooming of many types of creativity, which might not be so easily captured by traditional measures. 
 
Institutions are working very hard to engage with young people. Partly because their participation sustains the future of those institutions, but also because young people are so interesting. They seem to me to be much more citizens of the world; quite politicised but also very engaged in things locally. And they express that artistically through storytelling in many forms. They’re not interested in being passive in the world; and so that idea that you go and observe art as a passive audience – just looking quietly at something and making your own way out – that doesn’t interest them. All of us have to adapt to the changes and opportunities that young people bring. I think that’s a very exciting prospect.  

A children’s spoon carving workshop underway at the Rekindle workshop, at Te Matatiki Toi Ora Arts Centre, Christchurch. Image: Johannes van Kan.

A children’s spoon carving workshop underway at the Rekindle workshop, at Te Matatiki Toi Ora Arts Centre, Christchurch.
Image: Johannes van Kan.

BB: And how do you do that? Aside from representation.

S: I think like most things, the first thing we do is check our assumptions and hand over some power. Give people a chance to get on with it in a way that they think is the right way.

BB: How would you convey the value of creativity to the 36% of New Zealanders that agree that the arts are only for certain types of people?

S: Well ‘not for them’ is really an issue of inclusiveness – about participation and accessing things. But interestingly, overall attitudes towards arts in New Zealand are actually more positive than any other country that we know of where these surveys are done. But the question on our minds, and on the minds of people arts sector, is how we can turn that positive attitude into the next step of actually attending or participating. 
 
If we were able to increase the number of people attending by 10% that would have a huge impact. There are all sorts of things that can be done. Individuals who are passionate about the arts can take personal responsibility for being ambassadors. When they see something that might appeal to someone who is interested but might not normally go, they could ask them to come along. There nothing as compelling as a great experience – it doesn’t matter what sphere of life that is. You go to a café, have a great experience, you’ll go back. It’s not particularly profound psychology.
 
It’s also about making the experience work for more people. For example, earlier in the year I went to a music event in a pub in Wellington. Nearly everybody there was in their 20s and the music was beautiful. But the context and setting was a world away from what people might perceive to be the usual offering –the town hall with conventions about where you sit and clap.  We all know from things like Netflix that people want to consume culture in ways that are comfortable and easy for them, and so I think organisations and people are working very hard to broaden their creative offerings and the ways for people to engage.

If we were able to increase the number of people attending by 10% that would have a huge impact.
Alien Weaponry. Image: Jeff Doles for HollywoodChicago.com.

Alien Weaponry.
Image: Jeff Doles for HollywoodChicago.com.

BB: So, if you had a word of advice for organisations that are trying to engage with a wider audience, what would you say to them?

Well I think they would probably give me advice since they are in the business of doing it every day! But I think the first thing – like most of these things – is really about mindfulness and engagement with the communities that you want to access. Putting yourself in the shoes of the people of those communities and asking what would make a difference to you. Because by attempting to be all things to everybody you lose focus.  

... is really about mindfulness and engagement with the communities that you want to access. Putting yourself in the shoes of the people of those communities and asking what would make a difference to you.

BB: So, knowing who you and your people are?

S: Yes, and also deepening the experience for those that are only engaging now and again. In our research we asked people if they’d engaged in the arts in the last year, and eight of ten had. So that’s positive. But if we think of the arts as the ocean – yes, everyone has their toes in the water, but how many are confident swimmers? What’s the depth and breadth of their engagement? Because that’s what we’re trying to work on.

But if we think of the arts as the ocean – yes, everyone has their toes in the water, but how many are confident swimmers? What’s the depth and breadth of their engagement?
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