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Arts funding and support

by Martin Durrant

Creative arts cannot survive and thrive without determined support. In New Zealand this comes from both the government and from generous private patrons.

Government support for the arts

In New Zealand, as in all developed countries, the state provides support to the creative arts. Most support is given either directly or through funding organisations.

The government provides support directly to national arts organisations. These include the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra (a Crown entity), the Royal New Zealand Ballet and Te Matatini Society (both non-government organisations). The government also provides support through distribution agencies, such as the Arts Council of New Zealand Toi Aotearoa, better known as Creative New Zealand, as well as the New Zealand Film Commission. They in turn support arts and film projects developed by a range of artists and organisations.

‘Arm’s length’ decision making

A highly developed cultural strategy has not been a feature of New Zealand cultural policy, in contrast to some European democracies. For the most part New Zealand governments have been content to provide some of the means for the creative arts to develop, without seeking to shape the ends.

Both Creative New Zealand and the Film Commission may be asked to have regard to government policy. Both, in their founding acts of Parliament, are protected from ministerial direction on cultural matters. Making cultural funding decisions at ‘arm’s length’ from the government of the day protects freedom of expression. It also usually (though not always) protects government ministers from controversies that sometimes arise from funding decisions.

No comment

In 2005 a New Zealand art ‘collective’ called et al. exhibited work at the Venice Biennale, but refused to talk directly to the media. Prime Minister Helen Clark was infuriated. The Biennale, a contemporary art exhibition, is a showcase for nations round the world, which fund exhibits. While et al.’s silence was not politically approved of, the art work itself won high praise from critics.

Lottery and other funding

Some of the public funding for these agencies is provided from taxation, through the annual Budget process. However, since the late 1980s the Lottery Grants Board (LGB) has been a major source of funding for arts organisations – for some, the principal source. Creative New Zealand, for example, received $27.516 million in lottery funding in 2011/12, compared with $15.689 million from Vote Arts Culture and Heritage. Because it comes from state-run lotteries such as Lotto and is distributed by the LGB, a Crown entity, this too is a form of public funding.

Another kind of government funding support is the revenue the government forgoes through providing tax incentives for cultural purposes. An example of this is the tax incentives for individual and corporate donations introduced in 2008.

Art form development

A further objective of public funding of the arts is to support the development, not just of individual creators or works, but of the art forms themselves. Some art forms – film, television and music – are industries, and have significant economic potential

Preserving creative arts

As well as funding new work directly or indirectly, the government plays other roles in supporting the creative arts. Works of the past may become part of our cultural heritage. The government plays a role in their preservation through institutions such as the National Library and the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, which holds national art collections as well as presenting new work. It also supports Ngā Taonga Sound and Vision in preserving New Zealand’s audiovisual heritage, and provides building grants to regional museums.

Local government’s role

Local government is also a significant contributor of public support for the arts. It owns galleries, museums, and performing venues. It supports community arts, public art works, and festivals. Indeed, its role in relation to the arts started earlier in New Zealand history than that of central government.

Regulatory support

Central government and Parliament make laws that support the creative arts. For example, copyright provides an incentive to creation, by allowing creators to control the distribution of their work and helping them to profit from it. Other types of regulation may operate as a kind of check on cultural creation, in the interests of avoiding social harm. Film and video classification and censorship are an example.

Government’s developing role

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.

Bureaucratic touch

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.

Changing reasons for government support

As government support for the arts developed, so did the rationale for it, and the idea of ‘culture’ itself. In the early 1960s, the emphasis was on building professionalism in the arts, and on making them available to the public. Economic benefits were seen as secondary to spiritual and aesthetic ones. The focus was on the traditions inherited from Britain and Europe.

A broader idea of culture

A decade later there was a new emphasis on wider participation in the arts, and on popular as well as ‘high’ arts. The Arts Council was given a regional as well as a national role. In 1978 a combined Council for Maori and South Pacific Arts was established within the Arts Council structure.

A developing concern to reflect the status of the Treaty of Waitangi led, in 1993, to a new structure for the Arts Council with separate general and Māori arts boards. These boards had little input into the Arts Council’s wider strategy, though. An Arts Council of New Zealand Toi Aotearoa Bill, introduced in 2010, sought to replace them with a single council responsible for policy and strategy, and including members with knowledge of tikanga Māori and Pacific cultures. The bill was expected to be passed in early 2014.

New Zealand identity

The government’s sense of the purpose of cultural funding widened further in the 1990s and 2000s. There was a self-conscious stress on New Zealand’s special identity in a globalising world, and on the role of the arts in shaping that identity.

Under the Labour-led governments of 1999 to 2008, the theme of identity was combined with a stronger economic emphasis. The arts were seen as helping to produce a smarter, creative workforce and as contributing to an economically useful ‘brand’ for New Zealand. A cultural diplomacy programme, from 2004, was another development in this period.

War of wearable arts

The World of Wearable Arts was a prize fought over by Nelson and Wellington local councils. The show was a money maker, drawing crowds whose spending spread through hotels, cafes, and shops. Wellington won the fight. In 2009 WOW was estimated to have brought more than $15 million into the city’s economy.

An international trend

These trends in cultural policy can be found elsewhere, particularly in Commonwealth countries. A key influence was the promotion by UNESCO, from 1970 onwards, of a broader definition of culture and of the cultural development of communities and nations as a whole.


In New Zealand there was continuity although governments came and went. Changes in the mandates of cultural agencies, in particular to recognise the Treaty of Waitangi, were adopted by one administration and then maintained by the next. A general agreement that the creative arts were important survived changes in economic fortunes and in economic policy.

It is also generally true that the different historical emphases did not replace each other, but grew in layers. The original stress on supporting exceptional talent and fostering professionalism remained, along with later concerns such as participation, community development, realising the economic potential of some art forms, and giving effect to the treaty.

Private support for the arts

New Zealanders are generally regarded as generous contributors to philanthropic causes. But New Zealand mostly lacks the great fortunes that support the arts in countries such as the United States. Still, the country has had its share of important patrons, starting with household names like Alexander Turnbull, founder of the Turnbull Library and Dunedin’s Thomas Morland Hocken, whose collection became the core of the Hocken Library.

More recent patrons include James Wallace and Jenny Gibbs (supporting visual arts) and Denis and Verna Adam (supporting multiple art forms and initiatives including Victoria University’s Adam Art Gallery, Nelson’s triennial chamber music festival and creative writing).

The history of the visual arts in particular was also the story of private supporters, from the building up of private collections in the earliest days, to the work of dealers, to the redevelopment of the Auckland Art Gallery in the 2000s.

Naming rights

Sometimes, a sponsor’s name has become almost synonymous with the event sponsored. The Westpac School Music Contest (1965–98, later with other sponsors) was known in music education circles simply as ‘The Westpac’. The Mobil Song Quest (1956–2004, later the Lexus Song Quest), a competition for classical singers, and the Loxene Golden Disc awards (1966–72) were both strongly identified with the sponsoring company. (Loxene was a brand of shampoo.)

Corporate sponsors

Corporate sponsorship is actively sought by arts organisations and events. The most valuable involve naming rights, in which the sponsor’s name becomes attached to the name of the company, or to its tours or productions. Long-running examples have included the NBR New Zealand Opera, Vector Wellington Orchestra and the ‘Tower Tutus on Tour’ seasons of the Royal New Zealand Ballet.

Foundations and trusts

Foundations and trusts, sometimes established by prominent patrons, are a further form of private support for the arts. The Chartwell Trust, for the promotion of the visual arts, is a prominent example. The Arts Foundation of New Zealand, established in 1998 by several major arts patrons, has since 2000 annually given laureate awards of $50,000 to distinguished New Zealanders across the arts. In 2013 it began promoting a 21st-century phenomenon in funding for the arts: crowd-funding, in which projects are made possible by small donations from many people.

Straight to the point

Dancer and choreographer Michael Parmenter was given an Arts Foundation Laureate award in 2010. Worth $50,000, the award meant ‘during the next few years, especially while I’m studying in Paris, that edge of financial desperation will be removed. I can now consider going to the dentist.’1

Promoting charitable giving

In the 21st century the government has sought to encourage charitable giving in general, through changes to the law. In 2005 it established the Charities Commission, with which charities can register for tax advantages. In 2008 it introduced tax incentives to foster higher individual and corporate donations. And in 2010 it introduced payroll giving, allowing donations to be deducted regularly from salary payments, with immediate tax relief.

It also set up a Cultural Philanthropy Taskforce. By 2014 progress was advanced on most of the Taskforce’s recommendations. These included new forms of recognition for philanthropists, advice on fund-raising for cultural organisations, and a pilot programme for matching funding, to reward cultural organisations that increased their income from private giving.

Nevertheless, public funding is usually needed to supplement private support. A large survey of cultural organisations in 2007/8 found that private giving made up 13 % of contributions received. This proportion was expected to grow.


How to cite this page: Martin Durrant, 'Arts funding and support', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 27 September 2021)

He kōrero nā Martin Durrant, i tāngia i te 22 Oct 2014