Innovation in Arts and Culture in Aotearoa
Innovation is a phenomenon that is both simple – the successful implementation of new ideas – and complex – the interplay of environmental factors, culture, relationships, activities and capacities that lead people to uncover new ways to do things.
Aotearoa has a unique arts and culture context. Within it, there is opportunity to bring Indigenous knowledge – Mātauranga Māori – to the forefront of how to understand and build a practice of innovation. Since the beginning of time, Māori epistemology has displayed the innovation and disruption we are also looking to achieve in arts and culture using Mātauranga Maori.
From the separation of Papatūānuku (earth) and Rangi-nui (sky) where they were joined together, and their children were born between them in darkness. The children decided to separate their parents, to allow light to come into the world. After this, the children became gods of various parts of the natural world. Through to the story of Maui: with the help of his brothers, Maui harnessed the sun to slow it down so that the days would be longer and they would have more time to find food.
Mātauranga Māori have been pushing boundaries and using innovation to make the world a better place. There are also lessons to be unearthed by the experiences of a range of institutions and agencies, internationally and in Aotearoa, dedicated to designing and delivering innovation programmes. Many of these approaches have been sector-specific (business-, environmental-, social- and science-innovation) but much of this learning can also be applied to arts and culture sector.
This series is intended as an exploration – a provocation – to start a dialogue about innovation in arts and culture in Aotearoa: it contains as many questions as insights. At the end of each article is an invitation to join the conversation by sharing your thoughts with Te Taumata Toi-a-Iwi on what resonates, what’s missing, or any alternative perspectives that can enrich our understanding and action.
The series includes:
1. From the place we stand now, what is the future we want to create?
2. Innovation as renewal: how Kaupapa guides us?
3. Where do we want to play, and to innovate?
4. Enablers for innovation: what is needed to step forward and create that future?
5. What does this mean for funders of innovation in the arts?
The ‘we’ in discussion includes all of the players in the system that support, nourish and create in arts and culture in Aotearoa – the makers, producers, administrators, advocates, funders, and policy makers, along with all of the other people that collectively shape our sector.
“We are geared toward innovative and revolutionary thinking, and practical and sustainable solutions.”
Sir Paul Reeves Hui Taumata 2005
From the place we stand now, what is the future we want to create?
Innovation and Disruption
Innovation is often called for and held up as a solution in challenging times. This applies not only in arts and culture but across society, business, and government. It has an implicit judgement of value. Novel is better. New is progress. What is often missed in these discussions are substantive and hard questions. What future are we trying to create? What kind of innovation is required to get us there?
In a crisis, innovation can help us to rapidly respond. It’s reactive, disruptive, and motivated by necessity. During the COVID-19 crisis, the arts and culture sector has been responsive, flexible, and innovative in the face of chaotic and unpredictable conditions. Expanding digital reach, securing new funding sources, and rapidly turning around productions following lockdowns.  This has been innovation as survival. But, as Rosabel Tan states: “The question is not simply one of survival and recovery. It’s understanding that now is the time to be bold.”
There is another form of innovation that emerges from crisis. It comes when the crisis abates and all of our assumptions about how the world works are still thrown up in the air. It’s an opportunity to reflect on where we have been, where we are now, and where we want to go. A chance to pause. To make considered decisions about our direction.
Innovation is Creative Practice
Creative practice is a process of innovation. There are values within creative practice that also exist in an innovation space, for example curiosity, an understanding and empathy towards lived experience, solving creative problems through testing, being comfortable with failure, and being comfortable “being in the grey”.  Making something – such as an artwork, a performance, a music album – requires a journey into the unknown and trusting in a process. This might begin with a feeling; a central question; a desire to make change; a story that needs sharing; a subliminal impulse; a musical note. No matter what the catalyst, artmaking does not happen in a void. There is generally a lot of hard work that goes into the endeavour. The artist, creative practitioner, or sector leader understands that taking risks and failing is the way to push boundaries. It is the only way to create something new, that has not been proven possible before. The creative mind therefore can think laterally and strategically, as the creative practice is a constant journey.
These core innovation skills and capabilities already exist in the creative sector. The question is how to unleash this potential.
Innovation is Indigenous
Te Taumata Toi-a-Iwi commissioned Rosabel Tan to talk to some of “our architects of imagination, map-makers to the unknown” about a vision for post-Covid ngā toi arts and culture sector in Aotearoa. “We can Build a New Utopia” sets out a bold challenge to us all to think deeper, be brave, and intentionally transform the sector. These seven actions are shown in the box.
The most fundamental of these is:
“… questioning the worldview that underpins our sector is utterly crucial to thoughtful change. These values are so often invisible, but they shape our entire world. They determine which art forms are considered more valuable, or how our limited resources are distributed, or how we even conceive of leadership and hierarchy.
“Let’s commit to understanding and embedding our many ‘ways of knowing’ in Aotearoa – and to let that shape the way we do. We’re talking about shifting our whole value system. “
“We’ve imported our culture, mostly from Britain. We’ve imported the funding structures, what’s considered high art. Wouldn’t it be great to let go?”
Elise Sterback, outgoing Executive Director of Basement Theatre
To do this requires a recognition of the strong history and contribution of Indigenous innovation. [3,4] There are examples of innovation in Aotearoa that collide, combine, and synthesise western processes with Mātauranga Māori and Te Ao Māori. The acknowledgment of Mana Whenua and Tangata Whenua means recognising that a Māori world-view, values and frameworks, need to be at the heart of how Aotearoa innovates towards a desired future. We can move towards a new paradigm that values both Tikanga Māori and Tikanga Pākeha practice by exploring the differences, alignment, and tensions between Indigenous and Western systems.
This model below is one of many Te Ao Māori frameworks which can help us understand the process of innovation and renewal.
Mātauranga Māori can deepen and enhance innovation and design processes in Aotearoa. This has been explored by practitioners such as Ngā Aho and Innovation Unit. These reflections show the rich potential for everyone – from government agencies to social innovators – to adopt new ways of working that value Mātaurangi Māori, show how it can be applied in practice, and how outcomes can be enhanced.
This takes time and courage because it requires us to step away from current models and practices. Instead, we need time to consider:
- How might Mātauranga Māori frameworks lead our approach to innovation in arts and culture from now, and into the future?
- How might we reimagine innovation – from policy to funding to action – if we committed to this world-view and these values?
- What happens in our system now that unintentionally interrupts, or acts as a barrier, to the people and organisations that work in this way?
For example, what if we approached innovation as a system-wide initiative that supports and enhances our relationships and grows interconnectedness? This could see a step away from processes that create artificial competition to ones that reward and nurture co-operation as a long-term endeavour. We might move from a mindset of scarcity to one of abundance, where Aotearoa’s contribution to the world is celebrated and strengthened.
Next in the series we will consider ‘how’ we might innovate and with intention. This will be followed by ‘Where do we want to play and innovate?’ in the arts and culture sector. We will then consider what we need to be able to do it, and the important role of funders in supporting the innovation journey.
We invite you to share with Te Taumata Toi-a-Iwi what resonates, what’s missing, or any alternative perspectives that can enrich our understanding and action. We intend to collate, digest, and share the responses as the start of a dialogue on innovation in arts and culture, and how we shape the future emerging. You can do that by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
Read the next in the series article 2: Innovation as renewal: how kaupapa guides us
This series was written in collaboration by Shona McElroy, Eynon Delamere, Jane Yonge, and Chantelle Whaiapu.