Scoop Election 08: edited by Gordon Campbell

Gordon Campbell On Arts Funding Policy

August 13th, 2008


Gordon Campbell On Arts Funding Policy


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Some people, including quite a few artists, find the very notion of state funding of the arts a hard one to embrace. For one thing, there’s a certain lack of romance involved An artist starving in a garret is a more heroic image ( at least, until the gum rot sets in ) than an artist pulling a government cheque from the mailbox en route to the potting shed. Charges of elitism over funding ( why this art form over that one, why them not me ) clang up against the sense that this stuff is really important, and is a focus for our national identity etc etc. ?

Clearly then, there’s potential for controversy over arts funding. So it’s a little surprising to find at this election, almost universal agreement has broken out between the political parties, big and small. National and Labour are both treating the arts as being a valid and important concern of the state, and pledging that current levels of arts funding should not be cut. Not even to pay for tax cuts.

National’s policy statement – yes, they’ve actually released one – finds spokesperson Chris Finlayson promising to retain almost all the schemes created by Labour, and at current levels of funding, too. However any further funding in future, says the policy document, will have to depend on National “turbo-charging community groups” – whatever that means.

One welcome surprise : National has pledged to retain the art for the dole scheme aka the Pathways to Artists and Cultural Employment scheme, or PACE. So much for the utterly dismissive stance taken towards PACE by National as it went into the 2005 election : “Ambition is one thing; fantasy is another,” Don Brash promised, “ [and] this programme will go, under a National government.” Yet not under one led by John Key.

In music, National has vowed to support the NZ Music Industry Commission, Rockquest and the New Zealand On Air funding for local music. In film, it is keeping the Large Budget Screen Production Fund introduced by Jim Anderton, and is also now backing its belated local version, the Screen Production Investment Fund.

Oh, National is also promising to reform the Film Commission (yeah right) and the Arts Council, and will be scrapping the resale royalty rights legislation. It also promises to “focus the Ministry of (sic) Culture and Heritage on its core functions” which could mean almost anything. I hope this doesn’t mean that National will force MCH to butt out of the debate over the digital convergence in broadcasting and telecommunications – because IMHO, the MCH consultation papers on the regulatory options facing New Zealand in the era of digital convergence were brilliantly written and intelligently framed contributions to the debate. Has National got a problem with them ? Before he does anything else though, maybe Chris Finlayson should take time to learn the correct name of the Ministry he is proposing to reform, and should put that in his policy documents.

You get the general point, though. There’s hardly any diversity in arts policy for this election and no sign the minor parties view the arts as a useful zone of differentiation. As a result, there is almost nothing on offer for instance, about how to re-tool arts funding (and promotion) in the light of the opportunities and challenges posed by the Internet.

A pity, given that the funders maybe need to be using the Net more aggressively if they are going to foster the sort of musicians that neither fit the commercial mould favoured by NZOA, nor typically benefit from NZ Music Month. On this point, National skips the hard part altogether and simply says it will “ require all state funding agencies to place a greater emphasis on emerging artists.”

Arts Funding

Regardless, this country is one of the few places in the world where the government hands out money for people to make videos, recordings, films and do other genre –specific activities. One can – and should – argue about the commercial criteria that apply, but the fact of arts funding is now rarely questioned, before or between elections.

Maybe it should be. That’s not to say the arts can –or should – pay their own way in the market, like any other commodity. Why not ? Because for one thing, society benefits from what economists call the “ spillover” benefits of arts creation and consumption, just as it does from educational achievement – and those benefits range from productivity gains at one level, to enhanced cultural achievement at another. While we may quibble over the specific content, the arts are generally accepted as providing significant cultural capital.

Meaning : artistic achievement is a marker of national identity fully comparable to economic, military or scientific achievement. Certainly Helen Clark has played that card, by making her government such a visible and substantial patron of the arts, of all kinds, old and new.

There is also a so called ‘ option value’ argument for arts funding, whereby you or I may not choose to patronize an art gallery or ballet for instance, but would still like to see it supported – as a viable option for others, or for our grandchildren. To illustrate the notion of option value, economists routinely offer the jokey old anecdote about the King of Naples, who once told Antonio Scarlatti that he felt fine about supporting the Naples Opera, just so long as he was never actually invited to attend the confounded thing.

Another key economic driver for regular boosts in arts funding was a point made decades ago by the economist William Baumol – namely, that much arts activity is simply not conducive to the technological advances and productivity gains that have been obtainable elsewhere in the economy. In his famous example, it still takes the same number of people to stage a Moliere play today as it did in 1664 – but while it would have taken twelve accountants back then to do the company’s ledgers, one person can do the same task these days with a $10 calculator.

This syndrome – routinely called ‘cost disease’ or ‘Baumol’s disease – applies equally to health and education funding as much as it does to the arts. All these sectors entail services difficult to automate and to mechanise. “ This means that as wages go up in these handicraft services, “ Baumol says, “there is no productivity offset to rising costs. So the costs and prices of these things go up, far faster than the average goods or service in any industrialised country.” Artists do their best to internalize costs – and still do their share of garret –based starving as a result – but the costs of their activities rises inexorably, and has been measured at much the same rate of increase at that for dentists and for medical specialists. As yet the Net has not substantially reduced those cost pressures.

Even so, hard line free marketeers may still argue that – if we can put the option value and social good issues aside for a moment – if people really want the arts, won’t there be a market for it? Yes, Baumol argues, but what quality would the prevailing market settle for? And wouldn’t such a market be inclined to downsize by cutting out rehearsals and other production costs, and tend to concentrate on the likes of surefire Broadway hit musicals, rather than on Shakespeare or market untried new talent?

In sum, National’s formula of holding the funding at current levels – and looking to the community, turbo charged or otherwise, for any additional funds – is unlikely to result in (a) quality (b) diversity and (c) anything other than the recycling of the known and the safe. All of which will in turn, erode the option value and cultural capital of our art, both here and overseas.

Along the way, one can feel a good deal of sympathy for the Arts Council and Film Commission and Ministry for Culture and Heritage – all of whom will be facing reform under an incoming National government. Such bodies face much the same contradictory goals as the ones that TVNZ is saddled with – namely, they are pledged to fulfil the social objective of fostering the arts, while in most cases, are pressured to promote the kind of art more likely to deliver a commercial return. It is a hopeless brief, and commonly plays out just as badly at the Film Commission for example, as it does at TVNZ.

National – or more likely Act – could have offered something more radical to voters at this election. The centre right’s favourite funding solution for almost everything – vouchers – might have been one way that the issue of elitism could have been confronted, with punters enabled to allocate their slice of funding to the art form and outlet of their choice.

Under a voucher system, while funding could still be used to maintain the existing – and culturally valuable – institutions, a proportion could also be placed directly into the hands of citizens, who would then be able to spend their arts vouchers at the ballet to augment its core funding, or at Camp a Low Hum, or to support the recording and touring costs of their band of choice.

It is an idea that during the 1990s, the Theatre Development Fund in New York used to its advantage. Essentially, this system basically involves subsidizing the ticket price – you buy a $10 ticket, the scheme tops that up to $15 for the threatre from the voucher fund – rather than having the government pick a play or a movie or a particular artist to subsidise. For practical reasons though, it may be that a similar voucher system would be better pitched at local government level, rather than central government.

Certainly, if Wellingtonians for example, could be offered vouchers that allowed them to decide whether their rates went into subsidies for sports stadiums or for the purchase of publications for their local libraries, this choice would probably be widely welcomed. It would prevent sport from capturing a disproportionate share of ratepayer funds, and would also balance out a situation where certain kinds of art ( both MOR and elitist ) tend to dominate the funding agenda.

Footnote : On August 7th the Children’s Commissioner and Barnardos issued a major report on child poverty in New Zealand, entitled A Fair Go For All Children. The report traced an increase in child poverty during the 1990s, created by increasing unemployment, low wage growth and benefit cuts.

Among other things, the report showed that 27% of Maori children live in poverty. Apart from poverty putting children at greater risk of maltreatment and abuse, the report highlighted the impact that poverty has on children’s health. Children who are poor are significantly more likely to be sick or injured. And what did the Family First lobby group – which describes itself as being a voice for strong families and safe communities – have to say about the report ?

Family First had other priorities. On August 7th it had found time to put out two press releases about what it plainly saw as a bigger issue : namely, Green MP Sue Bradford’s quoting of the “F word ( from a beneficiary’s version of her encounter with welfare officials) during question time in the House the day before.

And, what about child poverty and the Children’s Commissioner’s call for a co-ordinated plan to eliminate this evil from New Zealand society….? Well, Family First it seems, had nothing to say.

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