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arts funding

A moment of despair

As the local establishment repeatedly demonstrate a lack of vision, living on the Coast can occasionally lead to despair. A lot of the debate, discussion – conversation is the latest term – has not taken place, so there is a going back to the beginning, and having been through the process years ago, it can feel tiresome.

Take the issue of support for the arts. Despite the arts being useless (not providing food or shelter), people have always created. It’s as basic as language. Once we moved past tribal or village life and more hierarchical and then capitalist relations took hold, and as the arts are labour intensive and considered a public good, the necessity of patronage, particularly public patronage became accepted. The debate around that patronage has been complex, circling around issues of privilege and excellence, mass participation and democratic purpose. Of late relationship to tourism and trade generated a creative industries concept and the community arts model has always been present, as has the therapeutic impulse. And then there’s Maori art and Pasifika art…

After advocacy for regional funding took place, Creative NZ has introduced a regional arts fund and I intuited that a coherent regional strategy would assist applications from the Coast. However, the CNZ model has a requirement to have contributions from regional stakeholders, in order to add value.

This creates a problem on the Coast for there is a sparse corporate sector, and councils are small and stretched. However there is an economic development body and this body should become the significant stakeholder. And I’m not talking about a big contribution: five to ten thousand dollars a year would possibly bring in forty to fifty thousand dollars. All good, gather a network of local artists, write a strategy and approach the body with what seems like a win-win situation – only to find they have little idea what I’m talking about.

– Writer in residence? What are the outcomes of that? A summer Shakespeare? A story telling tour of small towns? Where are the jobs? We’re on about the real world…

– But-

– There’s this proposal to barge shingle to Auckland. Some American company are looking at garnet mining. We’ve got a number of small business proposals. And we run entrepreneurial workshops.

– Don’t you see that stories generate stories and that the economy is simply a story? How do you quantify the knowledge that there’s a well known writer come to town to write a book? How do you quantify that there’s some actors coming to join locals to rehearse Hamlet and that you can then go and see the play and people will come from elsewhere? How do you quantify the outcome of listening to a story about a local inspirational teacher in the 1930s? How do you quantify a community film project which gives young people opportunities to be on a crew?

– Sorry, all too vague. That shingle project will generate 4 jobs.

– This is so dumb.

– I don’t like your tone. You won’t get anywhere with a tone like that.

It’s like negotiating with Jesuits. They only listen to themselves and a narrow ideology of clichés, whereas the activist has to listen, analyse what is being heard and then focus on an image, nurturing that image, seeking resonance with the wider community. The activist is operating from within a creative model, not perpetuating a bureaucratic, quasi religious order.

The despair comes then from this realisation of probable impasse. But to despair for too long or too often is poisonous. What to do becomes the question? It is of course what the Zapatista understood early on and they came to the conclusion that a parallel system was the only answer.

The scandal of lotto funding

The hub of the wheel of capitalist ideology is the rags to riches story: everyone can make it up the ladder with hard work and grit. The top of the ladder becomes, like heaven, problematic – where does everyone fit? – but it remains a key story and at its most banal involves buying the lotto ticket. There is nothing sadder than the queue at the supermarket lotto counter.

But that banality and grief turns to outrage when one realises that lotto funds the community, heritage, environment and arts sectors. When it comes to the community sector, the working class, via the rags to riches dream, funds programmes that are often necessary because of low wages and benefit levels and the dissolution that poverty causes.

When it comes to the arts sector the anger persists. The lotto buyers, who probably have never seen the inside of an opera house, fund Creative New Zealand, which gives out money which subsidises the lifestyle of the urban middle class who attend arts events, visit art galleries etc. As English writer, Justin Lewis, succinctly commented, ‘Public funding of the arts represents the redistribution of wealth from the working class to subsidise middle class entertainment and middle class aesthetics.’

When I wrote my thesis I did some number crunching and came up with the shocking supposition that in 1994 ballet attendance was subsidised by $47 a seat, mainstream theatre by $33 a seat and opera $18  a seat. I doubt that this has significantly changed. This scandal is based on the belief that the art object is something unique created by experts who need to be subsidised by the state and attempts then made to distribute that unique object as widely as possible (once again subsidised by the state). Prior to 1994, lip service was paid to the other ideological position, that the making of the art object is an activity that should be carried out as widely as possible (with expert assistance when required) and subsidised by the state on this broad and democratic basis.

Prior to 1994, lip service was paid to the latter position. There were community arts councils and regional arts council with this agenda. But with neo-liberal restructuring these were abolished and instead, community funding programmes set up and administered by local bodies, each with an annual fund based on 57 cents per head of population, and with none of this money to be spent on salaries or administration. This has resulted in 14% of Creative NZ’s money going to the community, 86% going to the middle class. Not quite 1%:99%, but getting close. And of course there’s lots of postmodern diversity spin to cover up the inequality.

The Greymouth/Mawhera based  theatre group Kiwi/Possum Productions works as a community-based theatre group, exploring local issues and establishing in this way strong relationships within the community, and wider – we now have a following in Hokitika, Westport and Motueka. We have been grateful for Creative Communities funding – usually about $800 per project.  This year we wanted to involve more people in a show exploring a sustainable economy. I also thought it would be good to give a koha to some of our people for the work involved, so we applied to Creative NZ for five grand. We were turned down, but the Dunedin Fringe Festival got eight grand for their opening party! There has also been a CNZ review of theatre where submissions often focused on trying to expand the theatre audience, and they are holding a Big Conversation in June to explore arts relationships with audiences. Our experience on the Coast is of no interest to them.

I therefore weep crocodile tears when I hear that lotto ticket sales have gone down significantly and that Creative NZ is going to have to pull in its belt. One day the working class might wake up to the fact that the rags to riches story is bullshit and instead make a revolution based on equality, and on the fact that all people are creative.

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