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arts funding

Mark me, the hour has almost come when I to sulfurous and tormenting flames must render up myself.

Once a year the Shakespeare Globe Centre NZ runs a Sheila Winn Festival whereby secondary school kids in a school get together and select a scene from a Shakespeare play, and direct, design, costume and perform the piece at a festival. They have a lot of fun and it can push some of them in a career direction. Shakespeare is generally considered the genius English playwright, bridging the movement from an oral to a written culture in an Elizabethan age which saw the beginning of capitalism proper and a burgeoning individualism. Shakespeare articulated with a unique skill this Renaissance, one of the key moments in European history. It would seem a good thing that kids of any ethnicity, citizens if you like, can independently grapple with this cultural moment. Nor is it surprising that kids from Māori or PI cultures, with their lingering oral traditions, participate with enthusiasm (I once directed Hamlet with Jim Moriarty and Don Selwyn playing Hamlet and Claudius – they could improvise Shakespeare – but that’s another story).

This kids’ Shakespeare festival should be something that Creative NZ gently support? Nope. Assessors decided this year that the whole thing is an imperialist exercise, part of a continuing cultural colonisation. Rather than Romeo and Juliet kids should learn the story of Hinemoa and Tūtānekai. But where’s the great play about Hinemoa and Tūtānekai? I’m sure there’s a Macbeth in tribal lore- perhaps Te Rauparaha, but where is the play? What about King Lear? Generally, Māori playwrights have been writing in the 3 act realist tradition. Let’s take this impulse into the other arts. Kids should not learn Mozart or Beethoven when there is Hirini Melbourne?

Are we suddenly living in Mao’s cultural revolution, with students encouraged to place a placard around Dawn Sander’s neck (who’s kept the festival alive for nigh on thirty years) and have her kneel and apologise? Has CNZ been taken over by a gang of four? Watch out Leonardo and Van Gogh, you running dog colonisers. Let’s rip up Gaugin especially. Let’s have CNZ’s little pale-pink book with the separation myth dotted throughout together with the karakia and whakatauākī  to be read from the screen before each webinar. And let’s invent history. The apologists are quoted as saying that colonisers came with the bible and Shakespeare. I am aware of missionaries but had not realised from my own knowledge of NZ theatre history that there were theatre troupes wandering around the new colony performing Shakespeare in order to befuddle the locals. But if it is said often enough, I am sure the rewrite will become accepted.

There was this other good idea called Arts on Tour whereby one or two person shows could travel the small places, keeping some rural venues alive and country folk with a hankering to leave off the screen for a night, stimulated. Keep funding it? Nope, that’s presumably colonial as well. The venues are usually Pākeha run and you just turn up and pay at the door. They should all have a sign placed around their necks and made to apologise as well.

Meanwhile US cultural imperialism rages on 24/7 in every cultural area, including academic publishing. Have the gang of four noticed that? I’m thinking it’s time to pull the plug on this particular cultural revolution with its kiwi flavour. It promises all the dullness of 1950s insularity with knowledge reduced to ‘as you make your bed so do you lie on it’ (one of my adopted mother’s favourite sayings) and the sermon on the mount.

Anyway, our good leader has sorted this embarrassment, inveigling the money required out of the Ministry of Education. Try and get a teacher aide sometime, Jacinda.

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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