November 19, 2011

Arts Policies – 2011 election

John Smythe      posted 10 Nov 2011, 05:22 PM / edited 13 Nov 2011, 10:55 PM

This morning the Hon Chris Finlayson publicly accused me of running “a long-standing jihad against Circa.”  [jihad: n. (in Islam) a holy war against unbelievers – New Zealand Oxford Dictionary].

We were participating in an Arts Wellington “meet the candidates” forum at the St James, where Arts Spokespersons for the National, Labour, Green and Maori parties pitched their policies and answered questions.

I made the point that the biggest subsidisers of the arts were the artists, that Wellington theatre predominantly survived on co-op models, and I asked each panellist to state what in their policy supported the notion that arts excellence could only be achieved when our best talent saw it as reasonably possible that they could earn proper professional fees in pursuit of their vocations.  

Mr Finlayson chose to interpret this as a veiled criticism of the Circa model and declared Circa to be a model of excellence both in output and in its financial arrangement. I responded that I agreed Circa maintained a very high standard but observed that its subsidised co-op model led to relatively conservative programming and that what they excelled most at was in being ‘a cover band to other people’s cultures’ (yes, I know they have produced some excellent homegrown work – and are planning to do more – but one has to resort to such one-liners in these pressure-cooker forums). I added that the Circa model was not conducive to the rigorous development of new work that involved high levels of risk (see below).

This is where Mr Finlayson asserted it was well known that I had run “a long-standing jihad against Circa.”  I took strong exception to this and demanded a retraction (which was not forthcoming), claiming that the record shows I have been very even-handed in my reviews of Circa productions, happily heaping praise whenever it’s due (which is often. And, of course, the Theatreview set-up allows anyone to readily engage in public debate, which is why we relish provocations that get people thinking about and discussing issues of importance). 

It appears that Mr Finlayson is harbouring a grudge from questions I raised at the end of my review of Circa’s contribution to the 2010 NZ International Arts Festival, Mary Stuart. First I questioned Circa’s choice of a non-New Zealand play as its Festival offering, then added:

“In singling out Circa here, I should add that I find it equally strange that Peter Biggs, an ex chair of Creative New Zealand, should be sponsoring this production. I am just as bemused that Chris Finlayson, an ex-chair of the CNZ Arts Board and now our Minister of Arts, Culture and Heritage, has only ever sponsored Circa productions of non-New Zealand plays. The failure to recognise the fundamental responsibility of state-funded theatres trickles down from the top, it seems, and now runs very deep.” 

Vigorous debate followed and there would be little point in regurgitating it here. (It’s interesting to note, however, that Peter Biggs hailed me in the foyer of Circa at the opening of Meet the Churchills to gleefully make the point that this was a New Zealand-written play and a world premiere.) 

Having clarified the issue that derailed the debate this morning, I’d like to return to the questions that are germane to the coming election and the Arts & Culture policies of the parties:

1.  Are professional performing arts practitioners properly paid for their work in live theatre?

2.  Given Mr Finlayson seems to think the Circa model, where the practitioners personally take the financial risk – wearing any losses and pocketing any profits – is the ideal, would we be happy to see this adopted as the norm?

stephen blackburn           posted 10 Nov 2011, 08:45 PM

I would have been interested to know if the Minister having stated what a great model the co-op is, when he planned to propose this model for the Royal NZ Ballet or the NZSO or ATC for that matter

John Smythe      posted 12 Nov 2011, 04:08 PM / edited 12 Nov 2011, 06:29 PM

Following this morning’s ‘The Diary’ report of the unfortunate fracas, on the Dominion Post’s Capital Day page (A23), I sent the following letter to the editor:

Your report (The Diary, 12 Nov) of the unexpected clash between the Hon Chris Finlayson, Minister of Arts Culture and Heritage, and myself needs clarification. My point was that theatre artists continue to be major subsidisers of theatre arts and my question to all the candidates was: what in their arts policy is directed towards ensuring talented artists get fairly paid for their work?

    Mr Finlayson chose to interpret this as a criticism of the Circa co-op model (whereby artists lose out if a production does badly and win from a runaway success, which sets up a clear disincentive for creative risk-taking). But Circa was not in my sights in raising the question (above). They have produced some notable homegrown plays over the years, plan to do more, and such works are represented at both ends of their box-office spectrum.

    The fact remains that the performing arts funding environment sees administrators and bureaucrats paid regular salaries while theatre artists are underpaid, erratically. This does not encourage the best potential talent – writers especially – to choose live theatre as their favoured medium. That is the issue that needs to be addressed in the pursuit of creative (rather than re-creative) excellence.

John Smythe

Mount Victoria

Phil Grieve          posted 13 Nov 2011, 09:03 PM

Do you have pictures of this holy wart, John?

John Smythe      posted 13 Nov 2011, 10:56 PM

Ha ha – thanks Phil – what a terrible typo (now fixed).

Editor    posted 19 Nov 2011, 04:07 PM

Ironies in acres of arts policy white space

By Janet McAllister 

NZ Herald 

9:20 am Saturday Nov 19, 2011

This election-special column was originally going to sum up all parties’ arts policies, but it turned out that one of these things was not like the others.

John Key has spent more time thinking about that respected thespian and swimsuit model Liz Hurley than the National Party spends thinking about the arts, judging by their nearly empty policy document. Still, they’ve strewn a few amusing ironies over the acres of nicely-designed white space. [More]

nik smythe          posted 19 Nov 2011, 07:44 PM / edited 19 Nov 2011, 07:45 PM

I recommend drama schools across the nation adopt the phrase ‘Are professional performing arts practitioners properly paid? as a standard warm-up tonguetwister.

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