Thursday, May 07, 2009

The 62 percent solution: cutting the CNZ pie

In Auckland we had a chance to talk over with Alistair Carruthers, Chair of Creative New Zealand some of the things that drive us mad about the organisation. The good news is that he is someone who can genuinely listen to opposing views without feeling personally affronted and (witness the release of the budget for Venice) is also a staunch advocate of greater transparency around government spending.

He has a tough job to unravel a knotted-up and defensive organization that seems to us to be more comfortable working with institutions that can mirror its own processes and language rather than with individual artists. Even more problematic from the visual arts perspective is that CNZ has been leached of anyone with expert knowledge.

A good example of the challenges facing the visual arts with CNZ as a funding body can be seen in one of its recent publications New Zealanders and the arts: Attitudes, attendance and participation in 2008. The devil is always in the detail so we started with the basics and counted the images. Of the 12 full page images, nine are of the performing arts, one for literature and two for the visual arts. So that’s 75% performing and 16% visual.

This visual representation is backed up by CNZ’s allocation of funds which roughly break down to: visual arts 24% and performing arts 52%. Even participation at the Venice Biennale, as pricey as it is, comes in at only 17% of the annual theatre budget. You can see CNZ's distribution chart here.

The questions arise though when you look at the place of the visual arts in the publication New Zealanders and the arts. CNZ states that it commissioned the research to “…allow the measurement of changes in attitude, attendances and participation…” so that the findings could “…inform the development of New Zealand’s policy and implementation. This makes the report important as it will be used as a reference source and a way to justify future decisions.

So did New Zealanders over the age of 15 feel that the performing arts were over four times more important than the visual arts as suggested by CNZ’s funding allocation? Well, no, they didn’t.
First, in terms of attendances the visual arts and the performing arts are equal. 60% of people over 15 attended an event over the last 12 months of the research period, although it’s interesting to note that the category Performance/ performance arts/stage shows/live shows/performances was down 3% when compared with the previous research done in 2005 while the category Painting/drawing/different painters/visual arts had increased by 7%

Second, 61% of people surveyed thought that the visual arts best represented their idea of what the arts are. This is in contrast to 27% for ballet, 27% for theatre, 12% for drama and 16% for performance in general. (For younger people the percentage in favour of visual arts is even higher.)

Why does this matter? We believe that for some time CNZ has systematically elevated the performing arts by its funding priorities, areas of staff expertise, selection of board members and communication focus. The primary affiliations of most CNZ’s board members and staff seem to be to the performing arts and this focus is reinforced as the mainstream culture of the organization. Does CNZ have a mandate to shift public perceptions of the arts over time or a duty to reflect what their own research shows? The Colmar Brunton research shows that New Zealanders might expect more of CNZ’s funding to be allocated to their idea of the arts – the visual arts. It’s definitely time to have another look at the pie.