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Recurrent Funding Review: Making Tough Decisions

In two parts Mark Amery looks at Creative New Zealand’s review of recurrent funding. Part one loo

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In two parts Mark Amery looks at Creative New Zealand’s review of recurrent funding. Part two examines the question of what organisations should get multiyear funding and why.

"Knowing when to maintain an organisation as key infrastructure and when to let it go – to hopefully see the ground around it flourish without it - isn’t easy."

Part one looked at what the review proposes.

* * *

Making Tough Decisions

Speaking to Kim Hill on National Radio, former Chair of Arts Council England Sir Christopher Frayling characterised those organisations that arts councils need to make the hard decisions about continuing to fund – those that begin with a bang, but eventually become a whimper.

“Small arts organisations, usually with a champion who really makes it happen for four or five years, and then it reaches a point where it wants to get bigger but their champion moves on. There’s a key moment for that organisation. Does it morph into an organisation or does it become rather dull and repetitive. And that’s the decision you (the Arts Council) have to make.”

Knowing when to maintain an organisation as key infrastructure and when to let it go – to hopefully see the ground around it flourish without it - isn’t easy.

“Most organisation’s performance varies over time,” says Creative New Zealand CEO chair Stephen Wainwright. “I could give you examples of organisations that have at various times been on death’s door and with the right change in personnel, strategy and support have turned around really quickly.

“So I wouldn’t want to give the impression that at any point in time an organisation is in crisis that means the best response to that is to chop them off at the knees. But it is fair to say that from time to time you see organisations get into a downward spiral and they find it hard to claw out. One of the questions for an organisation like us we are regularly asking is ‘is it appropriate to now say you’ve given it your best shot but actually we see some better opportunities elsewhere.”

Over the years I’ve heard a lot of positive feedback from organisations on CNZ’s help when they’ve been in times of trouble. Clearly CNZ puts major energy into working with organisations to give them a chance not to fail. This is natural. They’ve put substantial investment into building their infrastructure over time, which could be wasted. Meanwhile however the inevitable grumble will be why organisations have been put on a drip for so long at the expense of others. For every organisation struggling to retain relevancy there are innovative arts practitioners of excellence out in the cold lacking decent infrastructure.

“I think there should be clear processes for working through these things,” says Wainwright, “but also I think you want to be somewhat situational. Having been close to a number of these situations over the years whilst there have been a number of similarities every case is different and different interventions have been required. Sometimes you change the board and the fortunes of an organisation can be transformed, other times it might be a different programme, better marketed, a number of small changes leading to a much more successful organisation.”

“I do hope with this report that they’re not simply just trying to make things more simple for themselves because their job isn’t simple,” says recently departed Executive Director of Recurrently Funded Organisation Sounz, Scilla Askew. “It requires hugely perceptive experienced and wise people to deliver it. And when those people are delivering it, most of the time the right decisions will get made. But you can’t get out of that responsibility by setting up a nice little guidebook for yourself to tick the boxes.”

In another telling moment in the discussion paper it’s stated: “There is a tendency to prioritise assistance for organisations in crisis over investing in organisations with high potential.” The implication could be that CNZ are seen as being not brave enough.

Scilla Askew again: “Yet that’s where they’ll end up with some contradiction between what they’re trying to achieve for the arts in the future – actually funding organisations that can do stuff – because sometimes an organisation may just be in crisis one year and not the next. Yet what they achieve over five years for the long-term strategy is extremely valuable.

“It would be good to know what they mean by financially sustainable,” she adds commenting on the paper. “Does that mean with or without CNZ funding? Because if that’s one of the things you need to achieve to be an RFO then people are going to on and off the list all the time!”

The local versus the national and international

Last year the government gave an additional one off $7.1 million to CNZ funded RFO performing arts organisations (though not those artists’ service organisations Askew notes wryly), and an extra $3.4 million to the ballet, to alleviate pressure during the current economic situation. Not surprisingly others felt sidelined, with a particularly strong call from the visual arts. Performing arts organisations were seen as being bailed out yet again. Clearly incensed, the Over the Net and On the Table blog worked out from CNZ’s 2007/2008 figures that 25% of CNZ funding goes to the visual arts, and that 7% of RFO funds go to visual arts organisations.

“We put our proposal forward for different priorities,” says Wainwright, “and one of them was supported and that’s where the money went, so those who didn’t benefit from that may feel left out a bit and I understand that.”

Visual arts organisations don’t share the same box office income base as the performing arts, yet at the same time not only are orchestras and theatre companies hugely labour expensive, in the museum and gallery sector local authorities are the key providers.

“I think often they support their galleries to the tune of 80% of their turnover, which is a terrific contribution that they make, so we tend to support things that aren’t covered by that a little bit more at the experimental end. In Christchurch something like $80 million dollars goes from the council to the art gallery. I think there’d be a range of views around the idea that the visual arts are under-resourced relative to the performing arts.” 

Still it’d be nice to see some comparative international research done. Because looking at that 7% figure, what CNZ may need to grapple with is that there is a lot of significant visual arts projects increasingly happening independently of those big institutions.

What this also highlights is the importance of the relationship between local authorities and Creative New Zealand in terms of what is funded, something the discussion paper goes into some detail on.
 
“We’re interested in examining more closely how local authorities might think about what is needed to ensure arts and culture is supported in their communities well”, says Wainwright.

Currently there’s often a conflict for CNZ between criteria pushing to fund national and international excellence versus ensuring wider participation geographically across the country. CNZ are interested in what councils see as regionally important assets where they might be able to increase their investment, freeing up CNZ to focus on quality above geographic spread.

 “They want to provide art for New Zealanders,” agrees Scilla Askew, “but they also to make New Zealand art distinctive internationally, and those two things end up being incompatible sometimes.”

Australia’s solution to the issue in their Securing the Future review, says Wainwright, was to get formulaic.

“It meant that in some cases when a company predominantly was representing a company offshore they were deemed to be of national responsibility, and the Australia Council should pay the whole amount almost and the region not put much in. Conversely when the benefit was seen as almost nearly entirely regional the idea was that the region should give the most and the Australia Council less.

“Now we’re not suggesting at this point a binding restrictive formulaic response but we certainly think the principle of whoever benefits should contribute is a reasonable approach.”

The problem is of course is that Australia is a far larger country, with a federal structure. Part of New Zealand’s challenge remains its length versus its population size. 

The area of fair proportionate funding is, says Wainwright, one of the key ideas they are looking to advance, so that people can actually see the rationale.

“That’s all fine in theory, but then who in practise should pay for it?”

Prior to becoming the current Director of Downstage (who left the recurrent funded portfolio in 2008) Hilary Beaton ran the Queensland Writers’ Centre in Brisbane from 1997 to 2004. In Australia she notes incentives were introduced.
 
“What they did was say that if regional councils put in money for arts and cultural practise the central government would match them two dollars to one. So if the regional government put in $100,000 the federal put in $200,000. In that way the central government partnered with the region.”

 “The idea of regional funding is one that has far more currency than I ever remember it having in the past,” says Wainwright. “For example the Auckland Regional Amenities funding, which says ‘we think there are least 10 organisations of regional importance in our community, four of them happen to be arts organisations and we think as a region we should invest in these as well as the central government’. That means those organisations rather than struggling to get by have been able to commit appropriate energy into delivering to their communities. That’s an idea that is certainly on the radar in Christchurch and Wellington. ”

Communication

CNZ are quite naturally working hard to talk RFOs through the possible changes, but the review could herald major changes for the entire arts sector. With workshops only currently planned with RFOS and other major funding providers, artists and other art organisations’ contribution to the current questionnaire is vital. Askew and Beaton both felt when I spoke to them that CNZ needed to consult strongly and widely beyond the RFO portfolio to ensure artists actually have a voice in the review.

“One of the major things coming from this document,” says Askew, “which would be actually helpful for people would be exactly how they would communicate with the sector to make some of the decisions about the future of the arts in New Zealand that they are taking responsibility for. There’s all sorts of things where they’re saying  ‘Creative New Zealand will decide’ with no kind of indication as to how they will gather the information - and there’s an awful lot of major stuff there about where the arts may be in the future. In lots of ways I can’t see artists having much of a voice in this process.”

“Governors and bureaucrats can certainly makes decisions about how things get funded,” comments Hilary Beaton, “like set up the criteria, but it should be a peer assessment of what is going to work for the industry.”

Stephen Wainwright is at pains however to emphasise that they want and value wide feedback:

“We’re really interested to hear some more views on this. Bring us all of your best ideas. We don’t imagine that we’ve got the monopoly on good ideas, and the wider the funnel I think the better.”

While in the discussion paper CNZ make it clear that its fundamental that organisations line up better with their strategic direction, its also worth noting that the strongest conclusion in the MartinJenkins report, having canvassed the views of the RFOs, was that “there needs to be much greater clarity around the purpose and objectives of the programme and how individual organisations contribute to these objectives (and are expected to contribute).”

A key issue then for RFOs, non-RFOs and CNZ is communication from the other. Whichever of the four funding options they go with, a cluster of organisations will continue to be funded in ways not dissimilar to the way they are now, but hopefully with clearer expectations on both sides.
 
‘I’m not sure that direction of CNZ’s mentioned in the paper is entirely clear,” says Askew, “and I also don’t know that the process by which they decide that direction is completely reflective of what goes on in the arts generally. There’s fault on both sides. Artists are crap at speaking up about what their artform is and doing any global or strategic thinking even about their careers let alone the artform, so conversely it’s very hard for a bunch of people working in Wellington and Auckland to have the finger on the pulse. But I don’t think they’d need to do a lot if the communication was a bit better.”

“Mind you they are in a good position at the moment,” Askew adds. “There’s huge public support for public funding of the arts and they’ve got a very intelligent and sympathetic minister who actually does care, so they’ve got an opportunity.”

Mark Amery is an arts critic, curator and commentator. He was also until recently Director of a CNZ recurrently funded organisation for five years, Playmarket. 
Commissioned by The Big Idea. April 2010.

Written by

Mark Amery

19 Apr 2010

Mark Amery has worked as an art critic, writer, editor and broadcaster for many years across the arts and media.

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