In the history of New Zealand government support for the arts the pivotal era is the 1940s. Before that decade central government sometimes acted as a kind of patron, but only on a case-by-case basis.
New Zealand culture was featured in international exhibitions. Occasional grants to regional arts societies and the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts helped to develop collections. These grants were administered by the Department of Internal Affairs, which until 1991 was the main government department responsible for the arts.
Visual arts and literature, with support from the education system, therefore developed more quickly in New Zealand than performing arts or film, which needed more organisation and support.
A centennial spur
The 100th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1940 was a spur for government recognition of the arts. Literary competitions and other nation-wide events were held. Work was advanced on an embryonic version of what, in 1946, became New Zealand’s national orchestra. Until 1988 the orchestra was to develop under the auspices of the public broadcasting system. After that, public broadcasting, in the form of Radio New Zealand Concert, remained a vital showcase for classical music.
The National Film Unit, in which many film-makers were to learn their craft, was established in 1941. The New Zealand Literary Fund, precursor of Creative New Zealand’s literature programme, was established in 1946. Also in that year the government set up its first cultural office, within the Department of Internal Affairs. The Office made grants from a state-organised lottery to the arts organisations that had begun to develop around the country.
Joe Heenan, head of Internal Affairs from 1935 to 1949, had a finger in every cultural pie. His involvement in New Zealand Writers’ Week, the National Art Gallery and Dominion Museum, the New Zealand Literary Fund, special funds for culture and the arts and overseas study by young artists was supplemented by one-off acts of government and personal generosity. Some in the art scene were infuriated by Heenan’s personal involvement – no arm’s length decision-making here! But his enthusiasm and drive were unquestioned.
Public and private activity
During the 1940s and into the 1950s, the government was responding to private initiatives as much as leading. Arts companies formed and then were recognised with funding. Earlier in the century the same pattern had been seen. The idea for a national art gallery, established in 1936, originated with the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts. It was taken up by government to create a public institution that eventually became part of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.
The Arts Council
Support for the arts was made more transparent with the establishment, in 1963, of the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council (set up as a ‘gift’ to the Queen when she visited New Zealand that year). In establishing the Council, New Zealand was following Britain, which established its Arts Council in 1946. Canada (1957) and Australia (1973), among other countries, set up similar arts councils of their own.
The model of an arm’s length funding body was thus established in New Zealand, and was followed in later developments.
The New Zealand Film Commission was established in 1978. It fostered an industry able to produce several feature films a year, after decades of sporadic activity. The arm’s length template was followed again in broadcasting, with the establishment of the Broadcasting Commission (NZ On Air) in 1989 and Te Reo Whakapuaki Irirangi (Te Māngai Pāho) in 1993.
A minister for arts
Two further milestones came towards the end of the 20th century. A ministerial portfolio for the ‘arts’ (now ‘arts, culture and heritage’) was established for the first time in 1975. It was followed by the creation of a separate Ministry of Cultural Affairs (now Ministry for Culture and Heritage) in 1991. These developments marked a coming of age for the arts as a concern of government.