Innovation in arts and culture: A response from the sector - Te Taumata Toi-a-iwi

Innovation in arts and culture:
A response from the sector

In March 2021, Manatū Taonga, the Ministry for Culture and Heritage announced details of the first round of the Cultural Sector Innovation Fund. This presented a unique opportunity for a conversation about potential directions for sector innovation. To inform this conversation, Te Taumata Toi-a-Iwi commissioned a series of articles which considered potential directions for innovation in the sector.

The articles explored what is meant by ‘innovation’, and what it could look like in the context of the arts, culture, and creative sector in Aotearoa. The potential for mātauranga Māori to play an important, embedded, and significant role was also explored.

Te Taumata Toi-a-Iwi intends to keep the articles live and continually evolving – an ongoing reflection as we learn and explore the topic. This ‘response from the sector’ is the first step in this process. It is the outcome of harvesting the responses that came from Te Taumata Toi-a-Iwi social media channels, from meetings with the Auckland Investors Forum and the Council CCO group, and from testing the thinking with Ngā Toi Advocacy Network.

The most powerful of these engagements was a hosted conversation with Nigel Borell and Ema Tavola. Nigel was able to share his wisdom following his experience as curator of the ground-breaking Toi Tū Toi Ora: Contemporary Māori Art at Auckland Art Gallery. Ema shared her experience of leading arts innovation in south Auckland, reopening Vunilagi Vou gallery in her own garage after she closed her Ōtāhuhu gallery due to Covid-19 lockdowns.  Last month Ema relocated Vunilagi Vou gallery to Alexander Cafē in Otara.

1. This is not provocative

The articles resonated. People read them, engaged, mused, and overwhelmingly agreed. But that doesn’t mean we didn’t get challenged. Instead of challenging the substance, people questioned the process of change itself.

Who and what are we trying to shift through this dialogue? Who’s not reading, or listening, or engaging that needs to?

Most of our audience are convinced – they see and feel the need for different ways to seek out, nurture, and support innovation.

We heard practitioners say… we can think big and create things that have never been imagined before, but not if we’re forced to operate inside a prescribed box. Sometimes the best thing that people in management or administration can do to support innovation is simply to get out of the way.

I feel like we’re missing out on seeing what real innovation looks like, because it has to fit within these really awkward structures of bureaucracy and of power dynamics. – Nigel Borell

We heard administrators and managers say… there are restrictions and expectations around us that limit our ability to change things, to take risks, to ‘get out of the way’. We’d like to be more enabling but they feel disempowered by the structures we’re operating within. There is always someone else that needs to be convinced.

2. It’s about the people. He aha te mea nui o te ao? He tāngata, he tāngata, he tāngata

There was a strong feeling that it’s impossible to separate out the people from the process and the outcomes. Culture, life experience, and connection to place all influence what you feel is needed, what is important, and what is possible. One person with a unique viewpoint is not enough to shift the dominant systems and culture.

As Māori we are having to navigate visibility… and really, we’re trying to intersect the dominant culture’s hold on the playing field. We’re at the periphery even when we’re innovating, or when we’re trying to be the change maker. – Nigel Borell

Simply noticing who is or isn’t around the table is not enough. Neither is intentional diversity or ‘growing the next generation of leaders’. The underlying assumptions and behaviours need to be challenged. For example, when developing new leaders from diverse backgrounds, is it done with the intent to build skills to work within and maintain the dominant system? Or are these diverse voices shaping the kaupapa and tikanga? Any development of new leaders needs to instead empower, and build skills, to challenge, reshape and change the system.

The opportunity to innovate existed because we had Māori and Pacific managers leading that change… All of our managers, bar one, were Māori and Pacific locals. The innovation that came out of that space, in what I call the golden era, was a really beautiful blend of Māori and Pacific that was so unique to South side. – Ema Tavola

The move towards more diverse spaces, especially with greater representation of Māori, from governance level, to managers, administrators and practitioners will change the dynamic. That would change the conversations, the power dynamic, the tikanga, the decisions and outcomes.

Māori can’t do it any other way but be people-centred… that’s the nature of our own cultural philosophies… everyone’s visible, everyone’s equal, even when they’re not, because everyone has an equal say. Nigel Borell

3. Governance, governance, governance

Everyone we spoke with could agree on a common concern; the role that governance plays in setting the rules by which we all play the game. This is seen as the biggest blocker, and potential enabler, for a more innovative, equitable sector. It builds from the points above. Some fundamental questions that were asked include:

If this form of governance doesn’t support innovation (even for Pākeha) then what is the risk to change it? 

How might we rethink governance from fundamental principles? What if the structure was designed to get the outcomes we say we’re pursuing? 

What if we thought in terms of true partnership with 50:50 Māori/non-Māori? 

Who is willing to try something different and be radical with governance?

4. Beautiful rhetoric, but where’s the practice?

Another challenge was about the weight of rhetoric versus practice. This is especially true with people who hold positions that have the potential to be incredibly enabling if they chose to engage meaningfully in a different way of working. The perception is that there is a great deal of rhetoric about innovation, partnership and collaboration, especially with Māori. But the practice lags far behind. There was a call for the practice to lead the rhetoric, rather than the other way round.

We need to be more invested in… practice. It means sharing the power. It means really taking a step back and trusting your colleague… letting them lead it… and don’t feel that you’re being neglectful. You’re not. You’re just empowering the partner to take the lead.Nigel Borell

This resonated with Te Taumata too. How can we all start to practice what we’re talking about without waiting for others to shift? If the practice leads the rhetoric, then it’s not about convincing others through words and soft influence, it’s about demonstrating through action what is possible. What are we willing to do today to start the journey? To further the practice of innovation and systems change?

5. Innovate from where you are

We heard from people that work in many different parts of the system. Each person is looking for a way to make change. Each with their own limiting factors. Each person who supports this kaupapa needs to see the potential for change from their own place in the system. What potential exists with this organisation? What role am I willing to take?

We heard from internal agitators, friendly influencers, advocates and protestors.

It will take many different people, in different roles, with a shared kaupapa, to influence greater change. Let’s provide mutual support, and challenge, to make sure we’re leading from our place in the world.

6. The next generation

We also heard from educators who are feeling doubtful that the education being provided now will prepare the next generation to practice innovation and transformation. The challenges sound familiar. The ‘system’ creates limitation and restrictions to exploration, creativity, vulnerability and a positive relationship with failure.

(It’s) interesting how some people and leaders thrive on the risk and the creativity that results from it. Others shut down. This is a challenge for educators… are we risk taking and allowing for creativity and freedom in the classroom, or shutting this down? Jane Vandy Somerville

One final note

Not many people in conversations prompted by the innovation articles expressed discomfort with the proposition of radical change, but many expressed frustration. Frustration is an emotion that comes from both external sources – that your goals and those of others are in opposition – and internal sources – a challenge dealing with perceived deficiencies, such as a lack of confidence or fear of situations. It can be present when we have a goal but we are not sure if or how we can make it happen.

We pause to ask if this frustration is another piece of armour? How do we keep resilience in the face of challenge, and keep the vulnerability that will enable us to keep moving forward without all the answers?

What next?

Te Taumata Toi-a-Iwi set out to provoke a conversation. We found people working across the spectrum of arts and culture who are supportive and ready to agitate for greater innovation and systems change in arts and culture in Aotearoa.

This is our next jumping off point. We heard that the practice needs to lead the rhetoric. We heard innovation needs an enabling system. We heard Māori people, not just mātauranga Māori, need to be central to that change. We heard governance needs an overhaul with great potential to be an enabler.

For those of us in a position to influence innovation in arts and culture, our challenge is to:

  1. Commit to engage with systems change and innovation. There is an appetite to move far beyond product innovation to innovating the system.
  2. Focus on innovation practice rather than rhetoric. This needs to include authentic engagement with innovators working at the edges in the sector, and being open to evolving how you work.
  3. Look at your governance. It can be a significant enabler, or the primary disabler of genuine innovation. If there is not a diversity of people and an evolution of practice (including tikanga) at governance level, then innovation will continue to be restricted.

As a next step Te Taumata Toi-a-Iwi aims to support the development of this with a focus on practice, and to support experimentation with people that would like to lead new practice. We will also share what we learn in the form of stories and practical guidance.

Start at the very beginning – article 1: The Future Emerging: Innovation in Arts and Culture in Aotearoa