When Judith Tizard announced the arrival of the Pace scheme in 2001 - a special programme for artists on the benefit she was exuberant.
Pathways to Arts and Cultural Employment was a vote of confidence in young artists, she said. A recognition of the arts as real work.
"Now, when you go to Work and Income, you won't be told to go and work as a dishwasher," she said at the end of her speech launching the programme.
Not everyone agreed with the rallying cry from the then-Associate Minister of arts, culture and heritage.
"A massive blowout of taxpayer dollars," said ACT MP Muriel Newman.
"Dazzling in its naivety and spectacular irresponsibility," spluttered the businessman and commentator Sir Bob Jones.
Not even the Soviet Union had managed what we were now facing, he continued in typical style.
"I'm ready to accommodate allcomers at any money that within five years New Zealand is awash with at least 10,000 alleged 'artists' on the state payroll."
Whatever else it was, the beginning of the "artists' benefit" was colourful. And it stayed that way for the next couple of years.
In 2002, The Dominion revealed that 17 hopeful people were using the benefit in a bid to become radio or TV announcers, while others listed their preferred job as clowns, acrobats, Maori cultural entertainers, stuffed-toy makers and more.
On the other side of the coin, by 2003 Social Development Minister Steve Maharey could boast that 1200 beneficiaries had found work using the scheme most of them in long-term employment. Fully 2127 jobseekers were Pace members at the time.
Today the picture is very different. For a start, anyone who took up Sir Bob's wager has made a lot of money. Instead of his vaunted bulge of bludging artists, just 376 people were on the Pace scheme last September, according to figures released by the Social Development Ministry.
That's a decline of more than 80 per cent since 2003 even as unemployment figures have surged. Given that National's Chris Finlayson promised to keep the scheme in his 2008 arts policy, it's also quite a puzzle.
There's a dearth of political rhetoric about Pace now, too. It's as if National's support for the scheme drained it of interest. It doesn't get mentioned in Parliament. The press releases about its success have faded away. Some artists have tried to sign up for the scheme only to be told that it no longer exists.
The Social Development Ministry encourages the perception. No-one from the department was willing to talk to The Dominion Post about the scheme. Information previously released publicly including how many Pace members find work in the arts is apparently no longer kept.
In written answers, the ministry insists that Pace is "not a programme or scheme", despite Ms Tizard using such words, but instead a "tag in the system that indicates the job preferences of a client".
Any number of factors could be causing the declining numbers, the ministry says.
"People do need to self-identify ... Harder economic times also may have meant some clients are more focused on jobs they view as providing a more reliable source of income."
But there is no mention of the likeliest cause the fact that the scheme is not really available in most places around the country.
The ministry will, however, reveal that Pace is under review. Alternatives are being canvassed and the scheme is being examined for how it "fits with current Government priorities".
I Social Development Minister Paula Bennett's tone is anything to go by, it might not last much longer.
"As valuable as the arts are to our society," she says, "now is not the time to be turning down available work to follow an artistic dream."
Mr Finlayson, now Arts, Culture and Heritage Minister, declined to comment.
Much confusion has been caused by what the Pace scheme actually is, so let's try to be clear.
It's not worth extra dole money to artists they go on the ordinary unemployment benefit. But it does allow them to list the arts as their preferred job field, which was not acceptable before the scheme.
"The great thing about the Pace scheme is that it kind of allowed artists to tell the truth," says Geoff Cush, who completed his acclaimed novel Son of France while on the programme.
"Under the old way, you'd be going along to the dole [office] and saying, 'Hey, I've got an MA in creative writing from Victoria University and I really want to work at the Ministry of Fisheries'."
If you're accepted as a genuine arts job-seeker, what happens next depends on whether the local Work and Income has hired a contractor to provide Pace services.
They haven't, which is the case in most regions now, then being a Pace member means little. You'll get advice from Work and Income staff, but it won't be specialised and you're still liable to be heading off to that dishwashing job.
If there is a contractor, then artists get support and training around how to make a living in the arts everything from learning about contracts to how to start a business.
"They don't teach you this stuff in art school," says visual artist and former Pace member Sian Torrington, who moved from the benefit into arts work and further study.
"It works for people who are on a bit of a mission."
Finally, though the Social Development Ministry denies this, the scheme has offered many artists time to work on their craft without having to accept non-arts jobs.
That's the whole reason an established author like Cush got on it in the first place. Training programmes were not useful to him, but financial support while he worked on his book was.
"Pace was effectively a way to live while you did your stuff. I think that's how most people would have used it."
The same was true for fellow author Anna Taylor, who spent time on Pace in 2007 working on her short story collection Relief, which went on to win the New Zealand Society of Authors' best first book award last year.
"It was enormously helpful for me in terms of being able to devote a period of time to writing," she says.
"When you're a really emerging artist, trying to get yourself established, you're not going to be in line for Creative New Zealand grants and so on. If it's a project that takes some time to get off the ground, how can you do that if there's not something like the Pace scheme?"
Plenty of other well-known artists have hailed this part of the programme, too.
Taika Waititi, the star, writer and director of Boy, which topped the New Zealand box office last year, told the Social Development Ministry's magazine Rise that Pace allowed him time and space to develop his film-making career. "I think it's nice at last that different arts are recognised as real vocations."
Luke Buda, of the acclaimed Wellington band Phoenix Foundation, told the magazine that "most members of the Phoenix were on Pace for a bit at some point so we think it's fantastic".
M Fabulous of the Black Seeds, another hit Wellington band, has been vocal about the scheme, too.
"Thank you Helen Clark for the artists' benefit," he told one interviewer. "That got me by when I didn't make enough money and then I got to ditch it when I did make enough money."
Arts advocates say Pace filled a hole in their industry by offering concrete business skills to people trying to move from training towards making a living.
Visual art expert Rob Garrett lobbied for the scheme after seeing good results from pilot programmes in the 1990s.
"I still get artists coming to me and saying, 'The Pace scheme was so helpful. I couldn't have got started without it'."
Biddy Grant ran Standing Ovation, which had the Wellington Pace contract until the middle of last year when she chose to stop doing the work.
"It was really, really successful. There were some years when Standing Ovation got the most people off the benefit in the whole of the Wellington region and that includes hospitality and retail and whatever."
Most people who came to her were new graduates with little idea of how to make a living from their skills.
There were some woolly stories at the start people whose best claim to being an artist was "I own a guitar" but they were weeded out, she says.
She's not surprised by the decline in Pace membership, putting it down to a Government focus on youth unemployment. But there's still a need for something like it, she says.
"There is an industry in the arts. It's called lots of things: events, festivals, and so on. For some reason, we don't industry train our people. Pace did that. It would be really sad for that to go."
Antony Deaker runs the Artist Development Agency in Dunedin, one of the few places where the Pace scheme is still thriving.
He helped research the idea and run a pilot programme in 1999. Now nearly 80 per cent of the artists he mentors end up off the benefit and working in their chosen fields.
But while his scheme is going well, he's been frustrated to see Pace falter around the country. The only places with proper services running now are Auckland, Hamilton and Dunedin, he says.
He wants the scheme revived nationally with a push from the Government's arts agency.
"Why is Creative New Zealand not in there boots and all advocating for Pace when the numbers are like this? It's a significant investment in the arts that doesn't even come out of their budget."
C New Zealand chief executive Stephen Wainwright said his staff had not been involved with Pace since its earliest stages.
"We are interested in any review of the scheme and are planning to meet with Winz."
One with judging Pace is that the statistics are lacking.
Of the 376 people on the scheme, 137 have been members for between two and four years, but the Social Development Ministry says it doesn't know if anyone's been on it longer.
Figures released in the early years of the scheme cast doubt about how many people were actually finding work in the arts, but the ministry says they do not exist for the years from 2007. Neither does a breakdown of jobs members are pursuing.
In other words, as numbers on Pace have dropped dramatically, monitoring whether the programme actually works seems to have diminished.
With many regions dropping contractors, spending on Pace has declined, too. The ministry projects it will spend $662,645 this year compared with more than $1.1 million in 2003. (The decrease doesn't match the drop in numbers though, suggesting value for money hasn't improved).
"They are just cutting it back and back," artist Sian Torrington says. "It's a real shame in Wellington because there's so much work in the arts if you're smart and savvy."
Jude Nye, of the Artists Alliance, an advocacy group for visual artists, says what began as an enlightened idea is now "practically invisible".
Whatever happens to Pace, some of the earliest rhetoric about the scheme was surely overcooked.
Those who predicted that tides of artists would sign up were wrong. But those who called it a watershed for the arts haven't had their predictions fulfilled either.
Paula Bennett says now's no time to be thinking about a dream job.
"This Government's priority is getting people off welfare and into work and right now that means get a job any job because that's the first step to a better job."
It's an understandable sentiment, even if does mean dishwashing might be back on the cards for artists soon.
Maybe it means the Social Development Ministry should never have been in charge of a scheme for emerging artists. Maybe it means National should never have promised to keep it.
Ultimately, Pace's decline is a decline in government support for the arts whatever the merits of that. As such, its toll might be harder to measure than employment figures.
Geoff Cush likes to quote Noel Gallagher saying to former British Prime Minister Tony Blair: "If we hadn't had those years on the dole, there would be no Oasis."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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