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Margaret Austin Reflects on the Importance of Arts and Creativity

Margaret Austin, at the tender age of ninety, has more energy than many people half her age. 

Go to a performance or concert in Christchurch, and you’ll likely see her there, supporting a variety of art forms. 

The former Cabinet minister has always had a love of the arts and is proud of her time in Government when she was Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage in the fourth Labour Government.

We sat down with Margaret and asked her as a champion of the arts, what would she like to see happen once the upcoming election is over…

Where do you get your energy from to be going out as much as you do – because every time I go to a performance, you’re there.

Of course! Before Christmas, the dates for the NZSO, the CSO, the Opera, the Royal New Zealand Ballet, the Court Theatre and Chamber Music NZ are all in the diary.  I also put in things like the resonance orchestra and city choirs like the Liedertafel if they are available, so it is all booked in.

It’s great to see you so supportive of the arts – it seems these days a lot of people are happy to just sit at home on the computer and not go out…

Well, how daft is that!

Would it be fair to say you have a wide-ranging interest for all the arts – both classical and contemporary?

I’m not as good on contemporary. I used to enjoy going to contemporary shows but the last few times I’ve been I’ve found the majority of them are just too loud and I’ve found it impossible to cope with the intensity of sound.

Have you always had this love for the arts?

You know, I was given a ticket by my piano teacher in 1947 to go to the very first NZSO concert in the Dunedin Town Hall and that was it! Music has been a lifelong interest. My father was a station master so there wasn’t a lot of money, but my mother inherited her mother’s piano, and I begged and begged for piano lessons until they gave in. I was 8.

And did you continue with piano?

Until I left school, but then I couldn’t afford to pay for the lessons myself.

Is music your great love or are there competing art forms?

Music would come out on top, yes, by a long shot. Classical music in particular. But all arts are wonderful – one of the real satisfactions of my time in Cabinet was being Minister for Arts and Culture. And when I left parliament who was it that enveloped me and protected me and included me? The arts community.

When you went into Parliament was that role something you asked for?

No, parliament doesn’t work like that unfortunately! I had a reputation in education. I had a great deal to do with the development of the school curriculum and my eldest daughter had a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music and had come back and was playing with the NZSO and so the NZSO was added to my portfolio through my interests. I was only Minister of the Arts for a short time – maybe 18 months – but I loved it.

You had a knowledge of it through your own interests, but was it quite different actually being in charge?

Yes, it was. I did extract arts and culture from the Ministry of Internal Affairs and give it its own status, and that was very satisfying.

That was a big achievement.

It’s now, of course, the Ministry for Culture and Heritage.

Why did you see a need to do that?

I was also Minister of Science, Research and Technology as well and while didn’t initiate it, I established the Ministry of Science, Research and Technology and I saw parallels between it and that of arts and culture. It was so obvious it just had to be done.

It’s been interesting watching the lead up to this election –arts and culture has barely warranted a mention from any party – does it worry you that arts and culture is still seen as a ‘nice to have’ rather than a must have?

Every now and again you get a degree of confidence that things are changing and then suddenly it all goes pear shaped. There was a report done about eight or nine years ago by Creative NZ which indicated the extent to which people attended concerts or theatre and it was overwhelmingly positive, and in actual fact, the number of people who attended events associated with the arts was greater than those who ever attended sports events. My beef with the media, is that how is it that we can have four or five pages of sports reporting every day, but we don’t even get a review for a concert or a performance? It’s high time we mounted a campaign to reinvent the arts coverage.

How much did your education background inform your work with the arts?

With the curriculum development it took us years to establish the arts as a curriculum area that everyone had to be initiated into and to include art, dance, drama and music and tell me, what’s the definition of compulsory education?

I would say it’s education you must attend…

Exactly. It’s the initiation of the young into those areas of knowledge which cannot be left to chance so that at the end of compulsory education, they know what their interests and aptitudes are and can make choices.

There should be no such thing as choice throughout the compulsory years, therefore you must be initiated into these particular subjects of drama music dance and art.

I hate to be political, but I believe the last National government ruined this by allowing Boards of Trustees to decide what subjects would be offered. This meant that young people were not given the initiation into some subjects.

It is political in so much as Arts seems to be played off against other things. Funding decisions are frequently criticised, and it seems like arts is just low hanging fruit – how do we get people to recognise how important the arts are?

I don’t know. In a way it comes back to the disparity of the commentary and reporting of the arts as opposed to the reporting of sport. I don’t have a problem with people being keyed into sport but by the same token we ought to be celebrating the achievements of our performers.

Let me give you an anecdote – we now have the Concert programme on air 24 hours a day. Go back to 1987 and there was a hell of a debate going on.  Jonathan Hunt was Broadcasting Minister, and he wanted the Concert programme 24 hours a day. Anyway, David Lange got sick and tired of this coming up week after week and he walks in one morning to caucus and says, “I want to know how many of you have listened to the Concert programme today?” and half of us put our hands up. He then asked the next question which was, “How many of you have listened to the Concert programme in the last week?” and all of us put our hands up. The only one who didn’t was him!  Jonathan won!

Is it important to have an advocate – I think of Helen Clark’s advocacy around the Concert Programme controversy here…

The uproar was definitive.  Helen and I were both committed to the arts – she was a great concert goer as was I.

Is that an innate thing or can appreciation for the arts be taught?

Somewhere along the line, the bells have had to ring. Helen’s bells had rung long before she went into parliament and so had mine.

And if they haven’t rung…

Then you’ve got a problem.

You’ve only got a sports whistle. There are places that do it well – Look at Melbourne, it has a huge sporting culture, but it doesn’t come at the expense of the arts.

I think we have to be realistic. We have to cater for everybody. There is so much going on, but it’s true that the arts are so alive in this city. There are at least six local orchestras. There are fifteen community choirs, at least two Brass Bands and they attract a lot of people. There are all these wonderful community activities. all performing all over town and we don’t hear anything about it. Despite this, they attract big audiences.

I want to talk to you about Christchurch and the fact that while we are New Zealand’s second largest city, we often get treated like the provinces and the fact that we have such an incredible heritage of arts and culture and yet often we’re not recognised for that – does that bother you?

Yes. A great disappointment for me was when I was working with UNESCO and the Culture Commission established the cultural cities project. Dunedin got literature. Auckland the City of Music. Then the 2016 the UNESCO produced published a Global Report on Culture for Sustainable Urban Development which identified Christchurch as a unique city of resilience where Arts, Culture and Heritage played a role in revitalisation after the earthquakes. I used that to try and get the city to consider either going for a city of music or a city of resilience, but nothing came of it.

As for literature, we also have a claim to that in Christchurch given that our two Booker Prize winners have both been taught or lived in Christchurch…

We should be celebrating the energy, the diversity and the way in which the entire community is catered for.

You’ve had a long and distinguished career, is there one thing that you are most proud of?

I’m not going to answer that question directly, but just let me say this: I’m a child of the great depression, I had the advantage of a New Zealand education. I won a scholarship to St Dominics in standard Five and the Dominican nuns constantly directed our heads down the hill to the grey buildings of the university which they were preparing us for.  Then the most important room in the school was the library, and of course it was my music teacher that gave me the ticket to the NZSO.

So, what do you think of schools getting rid of their libraries?

I think it’s short sighted in the extreme. It’s pandering to the ones that want to be glued to their screens.

What do you hope will happen for arts and culture in the next few years within central government– regardless of the upcoming election result?

I would like to see a Minister of Arts and Culture out promoting a broad range of the arts. I’d like to see the budget refer to the arts and culture programme specifically set out in the budget – so that people can have confidence whether it’s literature, music, or events -you have to cater for the entire population, and you’ve got to provide the stimulus for that.

So, you’d like to see an increased budget in Central Government?

Yes, I would.

What about the idea of educating people around the value of arts   – looking at it simply as an economic driver. Would that help to make people appreciate the arts?

Yes.  Again, it’s the bells ringing, isn’t it? You have to have had the bells ring to appreciate it, I think. In a way I think we have to find a way of increasing people’s engagement with the arts.   In some ways it takes us back to my idea of compulsory education: if you don’t initiate, you don’t twig.

There seems to be a lot of young people who would have gone to tertiary education in the arts, but are now focused on online platforms such as YouTube  – is formal education still necessary do you think?

Yes.  We need to understand the correlation and interrelation of things. We only get that through education, engagement critical thinking, creativity and opportunity.

Living in Christchurch do you think this is a place that has enriched you?

Without a doubt. Absolutely. Christchurch has been a very rewarding place to live in.

What would your advice to young creatives be in such a confusing world?

Never give up. And I’d say that one of the most important things I can say is that while I’ve had enormous privileges, but I’ve been conscious – no matter where I’ve gone either nationally or internationally – that I’m basking in the reputation of the New Zealanders who have gone before me.

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