T he prowess of a nation or culture is measured in history by its arts. So when questions are asked about the state of our arts in Hawke’s Bay it’s a big question that covers a huge raft of disciplines. It’s complex but crucial.

When most people think about the arts it’s the fine visual arts of painting, drawing, sculpture and printmaking, and performance arts like drama, dance and music they consider. But the arts are much more than that.

A whole range of fields needs to also be considered, including architecture, fashion, landscape, film, graphic, industrial, product, planning and spatial design. Then there’s culinary and applied arts, crafts and trades. The list goes on to include what’s considered cultural; indigenous, language, writing, rhetoric and intellectual rigour. What I’m getting at here is that when one considers the arts in the context of a region like Hawke’s Bay one must think widely – design in all things matters.

There’s good cohesive advocacy for sport and things like roads, waste and water, but here advocacy for the arts, in its lay form and within this broad overarching definition, has waned as the climate and the landscape have changed. We had a positive change in the Bay when the wine industry was getting off the ground and they were developing their profiles. The character, personality and vibrancy of the area was as important to the sparkle and taste of their wine as the terroir, so the cultural dimension played a big part in introducing new ideas and challenges to our conservative constituents.

Our national leaders seem to have little understanding of what art, good design, creativity and innovation can do for a place and its people. The NZ flag design, or lack of it, epitomises an attitude by current leaders that these things don’t matter. In this moment in time one would think that the opportunities for nation-building are rich, with new technologies at our fingertips, an educated population and treaty grievances behind us. One would think that we would be taking the opportunity to recognise our new strengths and further develop our economy and culture with the benefits of our new knowledge of science, technology and matauranga to underpin an adaptable and sustainable NZ.

That’s big picture stuff, but those same disappointing trends are at play locally too.

In 2013 I was fortunate to spend some time in a series of workshops with a group of NZ’s key leaders charged with developing a concise statement to define the distinctly Kiwi attributes that make us unique. This work was to provide a framework to help us better communicate our character and value to the world. Trade & Enterprise tested the following statement around the world for authenticity:

We’re the boldest little country on the planet
With one of the biggest hearts in the world
We’re spirited, switched on, often incredible,
always credible
Borne from the youngest, most beautiful
land on earth, our attitude is unbound
Our responsibility as kaitiaki drives our care
of people and place
Resourceful thinkers, game changers, day
makers, smile generators
We’re still changing people’s worlds because
we didn’t know we couldn’t.

The market research reported back that the story was not entirely authentic; that it was more of an aspiration than a reality.

Here we had some of the best minds in the country, movers, shakers, thinkers and doers describing a potential and not a reality … so they were forced to de-tune it. What’s happened to us?

While we are a small nation at the bottom of the planet we need to be stepping up our skills and attributes so every part, every action by everybody contributes something to our culture. Who we are, what we are and where we live is important to us and to others in the world. We should be paying attention to it, but Hawke’s Bay seems to have lost its way.

We’ve hit the era of compliance and control. Everything needs approval from someone. There are CEOs with business cases and risk management for everything. Then there’s project management control. There’s an earthquake insurance industry to support, building codes, structural upgrades and resource consents, dogs on leads, a check list of ticks that need to be met … and the tick comes from a council clerk who becomes the moderator/controller.

While it’s about mitigating risk it fails to recognise the biggest risk: dumbing down and disenfranchising people – that destroys hope and initiative, that stifles innovation and that hampers enterprise.

The researchers were right – the NZ Story has changed – the Maui, Sir Edmond Hillary, of the atom, women’s vote and number 8 wire phase was a long time ago and we’re not like that anymore.

We are subjected to over-the-top determination and control here and the advocates are wary of the dismay that comes after hope. It’s a long shot waiting for the day we’ll get some enlightened leadership facilitating more of a can-do attitude.

What we need to get back is the climate for change. The creatives and entrepreneurs just need to be able to get on with it – like Pitsch Leiser is with the Hawke’s Bay Arts Festival and Te Rangi Huata does with events like Matariki and the Festival of Lights.

EIT has probably got the biggest group of potential game changers penned up in the back of Taradale. They should be in the community enlivening us with their young ideas and new skills.

In 1931 the earthquake made a big difference to Hawke’s Bay, with Napier and Hastings now trading on the character build that came about as a result.

Christchurch is now a city in transition where changes are being explored with artists involved. Here in Hawke’s Bay we shudder at the thought of The Big One. We regulate, legislate and mandate against it, but we don’t tap into what a big shock in a community can do. We don’t rip up the asphalt and plant the seeds of new ideas.

We need to declare a call for change and work strategically to make it happen. Arts professionals who are trained to think and creatively organise elements within boundaries to develop pleasing outcomes must be involved. Our artists are our observers and our investigators. They think in question marks and imagine at a truly ‘blue sky’ level. They are the innovators, thecreators and the ones who are prepared to try something different.

There’s a glimmer of hope on the horizon with newly-appointed bright ‘arty’ brains heading up our formal arts institutions: Napier’s and Hastings’ art galleries, museum and community arts organisations. They are passionate, educated and capable people with fresh eyes ready and keen to get into it. Individually they are discovering that this is not an easy place to work. They all say we need a strategy and that the sector is struggling, there’s no cohesion or commitment, but lots of potential to develop the arts in the Bay.

While amalgamation is now off the agenda we do still need to see a switch in thinking. We need a realisation that ‘the arts’ is more than a pretty picture. It is a mirror, a spot light, and the jackhammer that’s needed to change the landscape.

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