March 27, 2008

Is there a Wellington bias in Arts funding?

John Smythe      posted 22 Mar 2008, 05:37 PM / edited 24 Mar 2008, 10:33 AM

A New Zealand Herald article (Saturday 22 March 2008) by Hamish Keith, headed ‘Auckland branch office needed for largest population base’, begins:

“For some reason any suggestion that Wellington has too great an influence on the national culture almost immediately deteriorates into a parochial slanging match. It should not. New Zealand is now a country mature and diverse enough to ask and answer questions like that.

“It is also a question far too complicated to answer by adding up who is on what board and where do they come from, or by adding up columns of grants and where did they go. Any reasonable person will or should know the power of a bureaucracy to shape what it serves in its own image.

“New Zealand culture is maintained and to a large degree defined by a bureaucracy firmly fixed in Wellington. Almost every cultural button and lever has a Wellington hand or finger on it.” [More]

In the same issue, under the heading ‘Capital Split over Arts Funding’, David Eames writes:

“One Auckland author’s outburst has highlighted what many reckon is a Wellington bias in the distribution of arts funding.

“In a fiery blog, New Zealand Society of Authors former national president Gordon McLauchlan argued more notice should be taken of demographics when deciding where to site our cultural institutions and spend NZ’s cultural budget.” [More]

For theatre lovers the key statement by Hamish Keith is this:

“It is a self-serving argument, for example, that there are more professional theatres in Wellington than in Auckland through some strange deficiency in the Auckland population. There are more professional theatres in Wellington because more receive subsidy. Christchurch is larger than Wellington and Wellington is the size of one of Auckland’s suburbs. It would be an odd state of affairs if the audience for theatre had miraculously coagulated in Wellington.”

If this statement is true, it would be because there are more professional practitioners actively producing live theatre projects in Wellington than anywhere else while Auckland’s higher level of TV drama and TV Commercial production arguably offers better-paying employment options, and may well keep more people more employed more of the time. I’m not sure how film production compares. In Wellington there’s relatively steady work for SFX practitioners at Weta Workshop, etc, but otherwise work across the creative spectrum depends on where Peter Jackson is on his production cycles. Otherwise I’d guess there is more film production out of Auckland. 

I think this is relevant because the taxpayers also support TV Drama through NZ ON Air, and film production through the NZ Film Commission or tax breaks for big budget international films.

But back to live theatre in Wellington. The only Creative NZ-subsidised professional theatre that pays wages in Wellington is Downstage, which has been quite sporadic in maintaining its own production slate of late. Circa’s co-op model certainly produces professional theatre in most senses of the word but if a show takes a dive at the box-office, it is the co-op members who take the financial hit (and conversely if the show is a hit, they can do much better than waged actors).  BATS facilitates productions of shows that may or may not have got CNZ project funding, and/ or gathered local body funding or sponsorship from various sources. Again it is the practitioners who initiate and subsidise these activities most. They do not, as Keith implies, get handed subsidies and go, “O gosh, thanks, we’d better do something.”

If comparisons must be made, it would be more valid to compare the proportion of successful funding applications against the proportion knocked back. My guess is that a greater percentage are rejected in Wellington (and some of those projects would be funded if they were being produced elsewhere) – but someone able to study the stats would have to confirm this.

Oh and by the way, the decisions are made by peer group panels, the Arts Board and the Arts Council – all of whom draw members from all around the country. To argue that the power is in Wellington just because CNZ’s main office is there, and most meetings happen there, is facile.

Michael Smythe                posted 22 Mar 2008, 08:38 PM

Information that appeared in a graphic box, and therefore was not included in the text online, included comparative theatre funding figures:

Auckland Theatre Company – Creative NZ funding – $831,000

Bats, Circa, Downstage and Tact Theatres, Wellington – Creative NZ funding combined – $1.32m

John Smythe      posted 22 Mar 2008, 10:15 PM

Thanks for that – but the impression is slightly misleading because it doesn’t include all the project-by-project funding that went to Silo.  Then again it doesn’t include the relatively minimal project funding that may have helped out independent shows that played at BATS or elsewhere (did the BATS figures include the YOUNG & HUNGRY and STAB initiatives?).  Of course there will have been all sorts of other project funding that went to Auckland productions too, and elsewhere around the country …

I think the point here is that selective quoting of statistics is less than useful.

Mark Burlace     posted 26 Mar 2008, 10:32 PM

And Taki Rua seems to be missed, and Capital E…. and all the other funding allocated through Wellington Festival. I think the point here is RFO organisations (Recurrently Funded Organisations) rather then focussing on project funding which is decided case by case and competes nationally.

Super Highway posted 27 Mar 2008, 09:43 PM / edited 27 Mar 2008, 10:28 PM

I think that Taki Rua and Capital E weren’t mentioned because they are national, not just Wellington…

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