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Snip snip snip goes the funding bodies, and away away away goes the art. (Image Design: Archi Banal)
Snip snip snip goes the funding bodies, and away away away goes the art. (Image Design: Archi Banal)

OPINIONPop CultureOctober 6, 2022

The grim realities of arts funding

Snip snip snip goes the funding bodies, and away away away goes the art. (Image Design: Archi Banal)
Snip snip snip goes the funding bodies, and away away away goes the art. (Image Design: Archi Banal)

Another round of Creative New Zealand funding is another round of experienced professionals scrambling for a diminished pile of scraps. 

The results of a Creative New Zealand funding round bring much joy and much heartache. The joy belongs to the artists and organisations who have been funded to do the thing they love, the thing they’re best at, for another project, another year, or in some cases another three years. The heartache belongs to those who have been told that CNZ either won’t support them, or won’t support them to the extent that they need to actually function.

Over the past few weeks, several organisations have had their funds substantially cut by CNZ, the go-to government agency that provides for pretty much all of our significant arts organisations (unless they’re taken care of by the ministry of arts, culture and heritage directly, shoutout to the NZSO and the Royal Ballet). The most prominent of these have been the Shakespeare Globe Centre of New Zealand, the hub of the bard’s work in this country, and Arts on Tour, a multidisciplinary organisation that funds touring shows around the South Island. Both have been invited to apply for another fund, namely an annual grant rather than the three-year programme they were previously on.

While both of these cuts have been reported by the media, many more organisations and individuals did not receive funding at all, meaning they won’t be able to make work next year. These haven’t been reported on, presumably because releasing a “who didn’t get funded” list is the kind of emotional torment that CNZ probably prefers to keep to the inbox, not a public forum.

I don’t write here as a CNZ hater. I’ve been funded a few times by them, turned down a few times, and I’ve also been paid by several projects and companies that receive funding from them (including this very website). I’ve looked at the feedback for at least one of my funding applications, laughed, and gone, “Oh shit no, I wouldn’t have funded this either”. I may be unique there.

Without CNZ, I wouldn’t be where I am in my arts practice or my career. It’s a vital organisation that absolutely has entrenched issues (lack of accessibility, lack of strategic planning for independent artists, lack of accountability for investment clients, we can go on and on) but I think it stepped up during Covid in a way that very few national arts organisations across the world did.

CNZ, broadly, wants to fund art. However, they have only so much money available to them, and have repeatedly indicated that the amount of money for the next few years is going to be less, thanks to the Covid injections required to keep the various arts industries afloat throughout the pandemic. It sucks, but it’s the reality.

A lot of people got funded. A lot of people also didn’t. I can’t say that if I was on the panels that make these decisions I would’ve decided differently, in all honesty. Funding someone, obviously, means not funding someone else. In this latest round, I can imagine that many of these organisations and artists were recommended for funding but were declined because CNZ literally didn’t have enough money.

If you’ve got five apples and six people to feed, no choice you make is going to end up with everybody fed. There’s going to be a sixth hungry person. Right now, there’s a lot of sixth people, and it’s really hard to argue that your hunger means more than someone else’s.

Shows and venues all reliant on CNZ for funding. (Photos: Silo Theatre, Auckland Theatre Company, Basement Theatre. Design: Tina Tiller)

This is all exhausting, and frankly, boring to talk about. Whenever the topic of arts funding shows up in the media, it’s for one of three reasons. One, someone didn’t get funded and is pissed off about it. Two, a journalist with minimal-to-zero understanding of the arts scours the “who got funded” page for a gotcha headline. Three, people go viral retweeting a so-called union for momentary clout and dopamine.

It’s that first one that stings, though. Because it’s real.

In many instances, applying for funding from CNZ is like applying for a job you already have. You’re good at it, you can do it, you just need the money to be able to do it. Not being funded by CNZ is essentially being fired from that job, but told that you might be all good to reapply for it. 

If you’re a contractor – be it an actor, a technician, a producer – working for a company that loses its funding, you can’t just rock on down to the next company down the road with your hand out. Someone else already has that job, sorry, because that company got funded. You’re unemployed.

People complaining about arts funding is people complaining about scraps. People complaining about getting paid nothing. People complaining about being paid less than what they’re worth from a pot that is far smaller than it should be. For bleak context: CNZ’s annual funding for the 2022/23 financial year is $51 million. That’s a little less than a third of the money it took to make one episode of Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power (approximately $89m in US dollars, $158m in NZ dollars). 

The defunding of big organisations such as Arts on Tour and the Shakespeare Globe Theatre of New Zealand has a knock-on  effect. Both of these outfits, as reported by Stuff, were recommended to apply for the CNZ annual arts grant, a pool of money that funds applicants with a proven track record, be they individuals or companies, to create work for an entire year.

There are, of course, a whole range of companies and artists across art forms who are applying for that annual arts grant already, several of whom were defunded recently as well. That means that these companies move to project-based funding – the arts grants handed out multiple times a year, and now the first rung on the funding ladder.

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It’s the same pool of money that I would apply for, as an artist who has been making work for ten years, and an artist who is fresh out of training would also apply for. If you put the outcomes, a show on for a week at Basement Theatre against the likes of companies that have been delivering work consistently for decades, it’s not going to be a difficult choice for a funding panel. In other words, forcing big organisations to apply these pools of money means younger, emerging artists risk getting pushed aside.

The ultimate result of all of this is sad, and simple: there’s just less art. Less funded art means fewer artists making work, and certainly fewer artists making quality work. Not all great art is funded, sure, but even excellent artists struggle in a country this size; and an artist’s ability and desire to live in poverty decreases the older and more jaded they get.

As a New Zealand artist myself, I’d like to say that when artists suffer, audiences suffer, but the bleak reality is that audiences will find art wherever they can get it. It just might not be from here.

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