Tuesday, November 01, 2011

A Diplomatic bag

Funding guidelines are a huge stress to artists when they try to pick up money for projects. They worry about whether they are applying in the right programme, whether their proposal fits the template and whether the outcomes they have come up with will be seen as worthwhile. There is a lot of heartache at application time in the service of strategic focus and transparency.

But when we followed the public funding trail for the recent exhibition Oceania, we discovered that large institutions and funding bodies operate by very different rules or, as it turned out, hardly any rules at all. It all begins with the Ministry of Culture and Heritage.

Via its Cultural Diplomacy International Fund, the Ministry stumped up with $600,000 for the Oceania exhibition that was mounted by the City Gallery and Te Papa in Wellington. Bear in mind that $600,000 would cover the annual exhibition budget of a big city gallery (some of them might even squeeze two years out of it). Apart from some real questions about funding a single exhibition on this scale at a time when all galleries and museums are struggling with their budgets, there are some interesting questions to ask about how allocating this large sum of money was justified and prioritised:

Where is the international Cultural Diplomatic benefit in a Wellington based exhibition? According to the Ministry the Cultural Diplomacy International Fund is focussed on “North Asia, especially the economies of China, Korea and Japan.” Say what? So tell us again how one third of this annual allocation can be given to an exhibition held in Wellington?

How do you get funding from the Cultural Diplomacy Programme? It turns out “The Programme is not a fund to which organisations and individuals can apply.” OK, so we can assume the request for funding didn’t come from either of the participating venues. So who was the instigator, where did the idea come from and what was the need?

What was the lead-time? To get funding from the Programme managers have to ensure all funded events are ”planned well in advance, possibly with two to three years lead-time.” Another rule brushed aside. It is well known that Oceania was pulled together in haste for the Rugby World Cup.

While poor attendances for Oceania (around a third of what was predicted is the word on the street) certainly can’t be giving any joy to the Ministry of Culture and Heritage, it gets weirder. The Wellington Museums Trust (and City Gallery that spearheaded the whole thing and roped Te Papa in) claim in their annual report that the $600,000 grant was “from Government to present Oceania as part of the REAL New Zealand Festival in conjunction with RWC 2011.” But hang on a minute (Smoke screen alert) Oceania doesn’t appear on the Real NZ Funding list which you can download  here (bottom of the page). In fact, none of those grants got anywhere near $600,000 (apart from the Giant Rugby Ball Homecoming to Auckland which scored a game winning $750,000).

What's going on here? More World Cup fever? The public sector insist on more accountability and transparency from artists and arts organisations, but when it comes to the inner circle, forget about it.

Image: Smoke and mirrors