A Tribute to Helen Clark

Recently, New Zealand has elected a new government. This means that Helen Clark, who has been Prime Minister for the last nine years - a period which, as far as I can judge it, seems to have been one of the happiest ones in New Zealand's short pakeha history - will no longer be in office.

One of the most distinctive features of Helen Clark's period of office was her strong, and may I say, visionary support of the arts sector. Throughout her Prime Ministership, she insisted on keeping the portfolio of Minister of Arts and Culture as well. And she will be greatly missed by the arts practicioners in this country, judging from the tributes that have been posted on websites like The Big Idea.

I wrote up the following text as a tribute to be posted there among the other tributes - but it turned out perhaps a bit too long, and perhaps also a little too personal, to be entirely appropriate in that context. So I will post it here, instead of the November newsletter which I won't have time to write.

Dear Helen Clark,

I would like to thank you for making a big difference in my life.

I came to New Zealand, now nearly six years ago, because I was curious about that place where they did that movie. No two ways about it, it would probably never have occurred to me to come and live here if I had not witnessed the quality and commitment of what was done, and heard about all these talented people who had converged on Wellington to create it. I was curious to see what would happen when all that creativity was going to be released into the atmosphere. I’ve always had trouble fitting my creativity into boxes, and this seemed like a place where I could live, could do my thing.

Contrary to what some people seem to have come to convince themselves, Lord of the Rings could not have been made in New Zealand if it had not managed to attract substantial numbers of very talented people from overseas – including many of the key crew and all of the key cast.

One of the things which made that possible was that your government reacted quickly and creatively to this sudden demand by introducing an immigration policy that allowed artists to gain residency purely on the strength of their artistic reputation – no degree, no job offer necessary, just raw talent and the proven commitment to doing something with it. I think this policy is unique in the world – at least I have not come across anything like it. But I have witnessed the agony of friends and colleagues in my birth country, who, after living and working there for decades with a different passport, still had to fear the day when their permit expired and they had to try and prove all over again that yes, they were good and productive residents despite being artists – low, irregular incomes and all that that entails.

This policy is your brainchild, I think. I was able to take advantage of it, and it was one of the proudest and happiest moments of my life when your government validated the hard work I had done so far, being a musician and scholar, a teacher, writer and webmaster, by granting me permanent residency in this beautiful country. I cannot think of anywhere I would rather be.

This still holds true, though I sometimes wonder why. My first job here was to teach a bright and committed young musician whatever I had to teach him. He had all the qualities that have been so widely promoted as kiwi virtues – enthusiasm, the famous “can-do” approach, and an unwillingness to accept no for an answer. Only, I could not teach him. He would not be challenged out of his comfort zone, he would not engage with trying to learn things that would have challenged his point of view, or made him realize the amount of things he did NOT know about music.

At the time I did not know that his attitude would be symptomatic for a lot of experiences I have had since – I might even say, for the state of music in this country in general. I hear people talk a lot about the importance to foster and promote “New Zealand Music”. I don’t know what that means. Some people seem to think they do – the other day I picked up the phone to speak to an agency which had expressed interest in my work after hearing a demo, and was promptly questioned about my accent and whether they could indeed work with me, for was it “New Zealand Music”? (The other question is of course, do I want to work with THEM?)

I think it would be a lot more helpful if we could talk about “Music in New Zealand” instead (or “Arts in New Zealand of course, but I can only speak as a musician). Did you know that the most famous French composer of the 17th century, who made the French Style a vast success all over Europe and beyond, was one Giovanni Battista di Lulli from Florence, Italy? Did you know that the Italian tradition he grew up in had in turn been created by musicians who were born and trained in the Netherlands, and hired by Italian aristocrats and churches for the excellence of their work, about a century earlier?

Well, I suspect you, Helen, did know all that, but it seems a lot of the people who go on and on about the importance of protecting “New Zealand Music” from the big bad people overseas have not got a lot of knowledge of the history of their art form.

History. Yes, that thing that New Zealand thinks it doesn’t have.

I have come here because I do have that knowledge, and I would love to share it. Only, so far I have not really been given that opportunity. The exaltation of being invited to live and work here on account of what one could potentially contribute begins to wear thin after a while when it turns out that what people really seem to think I’m fit for is cleaning toilets.

For the past six months or so I have had to rely on unemployment benefit because in six months of job search, I have not been offered a single job interview. Before that, I was on a student allowance for nearly a year because I decided to retrain as a multimedia artist and designer, after running into brick walls for four years previously trying to find paid work with the knowledge and experience (considerable) which I had accumulated so far. Meanwhile, my previously international career as a performer has taken a complete nose dive because I have not been able to secure any funding or sponsorship to make up for the considerably higher expense of getting myself to international venues from New Zealand.

The single best thing that has happened to me in that period of time was to become a PACE* client – another brainchild of your government, I take it. But I and others had to put up a big fight to get me there, despite all the evidence of artistry in my biography, including that posh residency permit awarded by your own government. Why?

From what I hear, I am by no means the only person who came here on account of some special knowledge or talent or experience they have, and who have since found that it is simply not wanted by society at large, despite everything your government has been trying to promote. This is very sad. It is also very stupid, and a huge waste of human potential.

Your leadership, dear Helen Clark, has been not only an inspiration to me, but has enabled me to do things with my life that I never thought I could, and evolve as an artist in ways that I find deeply satisfying. And despite all the adversity and frustration and outright poverty I have experienced, I have not regretted my decision to come and live and work here and contribute whatever I can contribute to what is now Culture in New Zealand – and will perhaps one day be New Zealand Culture (unless that whole issue of nationality, and the accident of a person’s birth location and genetic inheritance have become obsolete by then, which is something I thoroughly look forward to, but then again New Zealand will always be an island).

There would have been work to do still for you. I am sad that you won’t be able to exert the kind of influence you have been able to exert for the past nine years. But I trust that this will not be the end of your political involvement with the arts! Also, I appreciate that after shouldering that burden for so long, privately, you perhaps feel a sense of relief.

You are one of the very few politicians I have come across in my life, whose work I thoroughly admire.

All the best, and thank you!

Astrid Nielsch/www.asni.net

*PACE - short for Pathways to Arts and Cultural Employment - is an initiative for clients of Work and Income New Zealand to develop their skills and ability to make a living in the arts sector. It's a *really* good idea. It is not giving people money so they can sit round and smoke pot. Just to clear up that common misconception.