Monday, September 02, 2013

This is public money and it’s none of your damn business

If you’ve followed Creative New Zealand’s handling of the Venice Biennale you'll know it's hard to keep up with how the selection of artists to represent NZ is made. Given that it costs close to a million dollars that's probably not a good thing. For the last two outings the selections seemed to be a fait accompli but the efforts to find the representative for 2015 have taken a formal line as in: send-us-an-expression-of-interest-and-if-we-think-you’re-up-to-it-we-will-call-for-a-proposal-which-our-panel-will-judge.

Now, the Venice Biennale is by far the largest single chunk of public money that goes to the Visual Arts (it's around 15 percent of the visual arts annual total) so it matters how it is spent. The only way to see what CNZ is trying to achieve at Venice is to understand the rationale for the selection so we can have an informed discussion not just a reaction. It’s a power thing. The difficulty is that even when there is a selection process in place, as there is this time around, it's impossible to judge the quality of the decision unless you know who threw which hat in the ring.

CNZ issued an 11 page call for expressions of interest (you can read it here) to be in no later than 12 August so we asked for the names of the curators who have expressed interest and the artists they want to work with. No, said CNZ. We asked again as a matter of urgency under the provisions of the Official Information Act. We got a standard go-away letter.

“Creative New Zealand is aware of a number of people who are interested in and eligible to make proposals.” Of course they are, CNZ would have had all expressions of interest since the deadline of 12 August and sent them all emails on or about 16 August. Word is that all the proposals were accepted to go through to the next stage so that’s a lot of proposal writing to be done between now and the deadline of 16 September.

More from CNZ:
“Creative New Zealand’s decision is made on the basis that all applications are submitted to us in confidence…” Say what? Confidentiality is not mentioned anywhere in the CNZ call for proposals and why would it be a problem for artists or for curators if people knew they'd applied? This is the sort of attitude that encourages an unhelpful winner-takes-all culture. As one senior curator said to us, “why not just release them. It's kudos for the artist, not a shaming.”

“Making application material available during the funding decision making process would prejudice the provision of free and frank opinions to us in applications” Hey back up the bus we didn’t ever ask for material in the applications, only the names of the people who put in proposals. And besides we would be perfectly happy to have the names after the proposals have been written and sent in to CNZ which would seem to sort out free and frank.

So there you go. What we did was to ask for a list of people that at least 50 people will know already and that most of us will have worked out in a few weeks, and that’s what you get. You can read the two CNZ responses here

Our next step will be to ask the Ombudsman to reverse CNZ’s decision, but having to do this for such a simple request feels like overkill and a waste of public money. Why can’t we all just get along.