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1. General directions of cultural policy

Government involvement in the cultural life of New Zealand had its origins in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when the government first established national heritage institutions (the predecessors of the present-day Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, National Library, and Archives New Zealand). Many of the nation’s regional museums, galleries, and libraries were also established by the end of the nineteenth century. They have historically been - and remain - the responsibility of local government. The state’s involvement in broadcasting, which has been extensive, dates from 1925.

Structured government support for the arts began in the 1940s, with the establishment of a national symphony orchestra and the New Zealand Literary Fund. Other initiatives followed over the next half-century: the Historic Places Trust (1954) - now known as Heritage New Zealand,  the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council (1963) - later restructured as the Arts Council of New Zealand Toi Aotearoa (1994) trading as Creative New Zealand; the New Zealand Film Commission (1978); and the Broadcasting Commission (NZ On Air), 1989.

In establishing support for the cultural sector, New Zealand has favoured the "arm’s length" model followed in other English-speaking Commonwealth countries. According to this model, the government owns and funds cultural agencies and appoints their governing boards, which are required to perform functions prescribed by a Parliamentary statute. Within the limits of this statute, each agency acts autonomously in determining and implementing policy. At the same time such activity must have regard to central government policies. The model allows the sector to develop without undue government interference, and therefore serves to protect freedom of expression. The government also funds organisations that it does not own such as the Royal New Zealand Ballet, Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision and Te Matatini (the Aotearoa Traditional Māori Performing Arts Society).

An early concentration on supporting the "high arts" was supplemented in the 1970s by structures and policies to support a wider range of cultural activities in New Zealand’s local and ethnic communities. Policies came to be concerned with encouraging community participation as well as supporting cultural practitioners. This shift in policy reflected the concept of cultural development promoted internationally by UNESCO.

A further factor influencing cultural policy was the renewed legal status given to the Treaty of Waitangi from 1975. The government-owned agencies established, or restructured, in the years since have been increasingly required to be bicultural - that is, to fairly represent Māori and non-Māori interests in their operations and their allocation of resources.

The economic reforms of the 1980s eliminated the role of government in subsidising production in most sectors. While government support for the cultural sector continued, there was a new emphasis on ensuring the financial accountability of the recipients of public funding, and on justifying support in terms of the public demand that is met. The proportions of public funding for some organisations within the cultural sector, such as Creative New Zealand, and the New Zealand Film Commission shifted from government appropriations towards the proceeds of national lotteries. (See section 3.1, "Financing of cultural activities".) During this period, the globalisation of popular culture prompted debate about the nature of New Zealand’s cultural identity.  

In 2000 the Labour-led government introduced the Cultural Recovery Package which injected $80 million into the sector with an additional $20 million for each of the following three years.  This honoured a commitment to increase government support for the cultural sector.  There was also an emphasis on the benefits that such an investment would bring through the creation of employment and through tourism.  There was a continued emphasis on the strengthening of New Zealand’s national identity. Under the National-led government, there is continued emphasis on increasing the visibility and accessibility of culture and heritage through funding of well-governed, efficient and sustainable cultural organisations.

The involvement of government in the cultural sector has developed in a gradual fashion over the decades, and has come to involve several government departments. A ministerial portfolio for the cultural sector was first created in 1975.  The Minister holding it is now known as the Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage.  A department charged with advising the government on cultural-sector issues, the Ministry of Cultural Affairs (now the Ministry for Culture and Heritage), was not established until 1991.  Prior to this the Department of Internal Affairs was responsible for the cultural sector.

Updated on 8th October 2021