University of Auckland: Arts funding central to improving youth wellbeing

Youth mental health is a stated priority for this government, but funding for young people in the arts remains piecemeal and unreliable, according to recent studies.

This longstanding predicament seems to ignore the large body of research confirming the value of the arts in all aspects of young people’s lives, says Dr Molly Mullen, a senior lecturer in applied theatre at the University of Auckland.

“When young people get involved in the arts, other areas of their lives are positively affected, including relationships, social connection and feelings of belonging and being valued, as well as their physical wellbeing, creativity and general feelings of happiness and optimism for the future.”

She says the arts also have an important role to play in helping young people navigate adverse, complex and uncertain circumstances and helps them find meaning and purpose. And it’s also clear this wide range of benefits applies to the creative arts in particular rather than leisure or recreational activities in general.

“Evidence also shows that the arts are a powerful way for young people to engage with social issues, to imagine fairer futures, to contribute to their communities and to lead social change,” she says.



RNZ recently ran a story on how the National Youth Theatre couldn’t access Covid-related funding support to cover its core running costs, only its event-related costs.

Dr Mullen says that far from a specific issue, this is an industry-wide problem, despite Covid funding – relative to historic levels – having undeniably been a lifeline for many artists and arts organisations.

“It’s also changed the funding landscape by targeting a proportion of the funds to community-based, accessible arts practice, a sector of the arts which for decades has been largely overlooked by government funding.”

Dr Mullen has spent the past five years researching the policy and funding environment for youth arts in Aotearoa with others, including doctoral students Amber Walls, Maria Ahmad and Professor Peter O’Connor, from the University’s Faculty of Education and Social Work.

They have focused on the arts sector in Auckland in particular, and the biggest challenge they consistently found was lack of financial support.

“This significantly affected the capacity of individual groups and organisations to respond to the needs of rangatahi,” says Dr Mullen. “Organisations were struggling to develop, expand, or even to sustain their work, and it appeared that overall sector development was being impaired, with a strong sense of fragmentation, lack of recognition and need for targeted support.”



Dr Molly Mullen believes the arts should be treated as a basic need rather than the ‘nice to have’ it appears to be at the moment.
After leading a recent project with three youth arts organisations, which included Black Friars theatre company in South Auckland, she emerged with a clear picture of what was working, what wasn’t and what changes would make the most difference, especially for groups promoting social justice and youth wellbeing.

“Primarily there was a scarcity of funding in general, a prevalence of short term, insecure funding, and the need for funding criteria to be more aligned with the principles of best practice in youth arts, and with culturally-specific approaches to arts participation.”

For example, she says short term, restricted funding limits the capacity of organisations to build long-term, trusting relationships and to put young people’s emerging needs and interests at the centre of the work.

“Funding reports and evaluation processes, meanwhile, often don’t allow young people and their communities to articulate the value of the work in their own terms,” she says.

Doctoral student Amber Walls, whose research on the arts and youth mental health informed this study, says the 2019 Child and Youth Wellbeing Strategy provides a government framework for achieving wellbeing and equity based on young people’s priorities.

“It’s focused on upholding young people’s rights and takes a holistic approach to wellbeing and it explicitly states that children and young people have a right to ‘participate freely in cultural life and the arts’.

“There’s plenty of evidence for how youth arts participation contributes to a wide range of wellbeing determinants, so we believe the arts should be treated as a basic need rather than the ‘nice to have’ it appears to be at the moment,” she says.

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