Just before Xmas I received a phone call from a Creative NZ worker. She announced in a consoling voice that I would be feeling upset because our application for funding assistance ($3000) toward the running of the Blackball Readers and Writers Festival had been unsuccessful. I listened as she murmured condolences: ‘Not a good way to end the week …’ etc.; even wondered whether she was reading from a script.
But I hadn’t expected success – in applying I’d simply made a routine gesture. Unlike the city festivals which attract thousands to listen to celebrities legislate grand themes for substantial fees, where the budgets are considerable, where organisers are paid, where excellence and the special vision become consumer items and the spectacle is achieved, our festival involves an encounter between fifty people at the local school. We’re celebrating the local and the regional – we’re telling another story, which can easily go unnoticed. Yet people do enjoy coming and if we’d got our three thousand, it would have been stress free and everyone involved would have self exploited a little less.
I must admit that a few years ago, after I applied for a grant from CNZ to tour a large-cast Brechtian-style play on the transition economy around the West Coast region and the application was rejected, and I then saw that in that round, twice as much as I had applied for had been awarded for the opening party of the Dunedin Fringe Festival, I did pen a few critical words to CNZ, which brought down the director of funding for a conversation. It seemed that CNZ was embarrassed that none of its budget outside the Creative Communities scheme was going to the regions. She was keen to do something about it and would report back. I am pleased that there is now some progress.
Yet I am skeptical. The email (which was passed on to me) announcing the scheme, went out to some local organisations on the Coast, mainly the venue managers and the schools, promised to ‘connect you with potential arts organisations who can tour to the West Coast’; and furthermore was keen ‘for you to work collaboratively in presenting work’. What we have here expressed is a desire to open up the regional market to the touring, urban-based professionals. Not a bad thing but not particularly useful for the regional artist.
The official outline is more sophisticated: ‘In partnership with communities’ – but who’s the other partner? ‘Develop quality arts by and within local and regional communities’? Who will be the protagonist? The scheme? CNZ wants some financial input from Councils or local corporates, but Councils on the Coast are already stretched because of infrastructural demands and corporates of substance are few and far between and usually committed to worthy schemes such as rescue helicopters. And ‘increase engagement (attendance and/or participation)’ is fine, but attendance is easier to measure. Opening up the regional market will tend to dominate.
Surely, what CNZ should be looking to primarily assist is regionally-based professional artists working with their communities in a structured manner, which usually means that the content is suggested by the community, that there is a reciprocal relationship, that the project will have a greater purpose than to be merely entertainment, and that creativity is considered a universal gift.
There are other valid possibilities: for community-based events or exhibitions of merit to travel within the region or across regions or to the urban areas. There could be professional development opportunities regionally and perhaps an opportunity to honour the regional artist, for example, through retrospectives. There could be symposia giving locals the opportunity to work alongside artists from outside the region. Another issue is obtaining informed critique in the regions.
And who has been consulted. I certainly wasn’t. Nor I suspect, were other artists practising within the regions. And if we are looking at regional arts development, the first step on the Coast would be to bring the local players together in order to develop a regional arts infrastructure and create a body or bodies who might meaningfully apply to such a scheme or become a significant partner. That wouldn’t be an easy task, for the local players are a complex mix of council funded, commercial or community venues, private, co-operative (and one public) galleries, amateur artists and groups, professional and semi-professional artists and groups, co-ops, trusts and so on; but it would be worthwhile. In fact, what we really need is something akin to the old Regional Arts Councils with their funding for regional touring, regional arts development workshops and other opportunities, as well as their ability to build a regional knowledge base. If you really want to tour to small places you have to know that X will put up some posters, that the rural mail deliverer is willing to place a flier in mail boxes if asked by the right person and so on.
Part of the problem here is a loss of institutional memory. The Dunedin group, Talking Heads, for example, did years of exemplary work telling regional stories and touring within the Otago region. Ditto for us, Kiwi/Possum Productions. And then there is the whole business of arts in education. Footnote used to have a wonderful programme for schools, with a performance followed by a workshop for kids interested. Kahurangi the same. Te Rakau took shows developed by youth at risk around the schools… All disappeared because for some extraordinary reason funding for this sort of work stopped. Finally, there will always be an infrastructural problem with regional arts organisations – even having a hui on the Coast is an expensive proposition because of distance issues.
And the money? 1.12% of the CNZ budget to provide for 2.7 million people, 58% of the population. What would a meaningful budget be, without regions competing one with the other? From a local point of view, $3 a head of population would provide a fund of $98,000 for West Coast arts each year. Amazing things could then happen. I would suspect that a similar $3 a head in other areas (Southland and Taranaki would each get around $300,000) would provide for meaningful arts development. These sums in the city context are trivial, in the regions they are substantial. Cost of such a scheme: $8.3 million, 18% of CNZ’s budget. 58% of the population would get 18% of the funding – and that would be okay, we realise our limitations when it comes to mounting an exhibition of butter boxes at the Venice biannale.
As far as I know, the arts council has never been reviewed or its work analysed objectively. Rachel Barrowman’s book, A Popular Vision covered the vision of the left for the arts during the pre-Arts Council period of 1930-1950, Michael Volkerling wrote a report for the Arts Council, Cultural Research in NZ in 1976, Jenny Keats wrote another report, Know Your Audience in 2000 and there has been the occasional Chairperson’s comment of substance, for example, Elizabeth Kerr in the 2005 publication, On Arts 33.
There is good reason for the absence, for any such studies come to the conclusion that, in the words of English writer, Jonathan Lewis, ’Public funding of the arts represents the redistribution of wealth from the working class to subsidise middle class entertainment and middle class aesthetics.’[i] We can include geography in this paradigm. To put it succinctly, the Invercargill cleaner buying a weekly Lucky Dip is subsidising the Auckland lawyer attending the opening of the latest ATC production. Best to keep this a secret and if it threatens to leak out, mystify it with notions of artistic vision and excellence, nationalism, creative industries, postmodern diversity and so on.
But the scheme has been formulated and announced. Can I suggest that CNZ run hui in each region bringing arts players together, as a first step in what used to be called community cultural development. These could well be run along open agenda lines, the aim being to cut across parochial survival and to begin to plan a regional strategy in line with what the scheme is suggesting.
Ultimately, in this era of climate emergency, there’s a big story to be told in the regions, in order to avoid the split between city and region as has happened in the US, to move past fundamentalist extractive or conservation positions, to foster dialogue and to create new images. And what we’re learning down here is that iwi are central to that story.
[i] J. Lewis, Art, Culture and Enterprise: The politics of art and the cultural industries, Routledge, London; New York, 1990, p.21