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No to all of this discouse. (Image Design: Tina Tiller)
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Pop CultureOctober 19, 2022

How one online rant about Shakespeare became a near fact-free global news story

No to all of this discouse. (Image Design: Tina Tiller)
No to all of this discouse. (Image Design: Tina Tiller)

Shakespeare was never at risk of being cancelled, and neither was the Sheilah Winn Festival. Sam Brooks unpacks a bizarre series of events.

On Tuesday, Jacinda Ardern announced that the government, via the Ministry of Education, will step in to fund the Shakespeare Globe Centre New Zealand (SGCNZ), which recently had a $31,000 funding application declined by Creative New Zealand. The announcement came after much media attention and calls for both the funding to be granted and for Shakespeare to be defunded entirely. Ardern spoke of the importance of Shakespeare in schools and “the programme” run by SGCNZ, the Sheilah Winn Festival.

“I know there has been a significant level of interest as to the future offering of Shakespeare in schools. I have been talking to our minister of education [Chris Hipkins] and he has been talking with his ministry,” Ardern said. “The ministry of education intends to reach out to the Shakespeare Globe Centre to work with them to find a solution that ensures the programme will continue to be offered to schools.”

Ardern continued: “It struck me that actually, this is one of those situations where it probably best sits with education anyway, so we’ve found a solution and that’s what we are going to do.”

Great news for Shakespeare and the SGCNZ and Sheilah Winn Festival, which is now saved. Except that’s not true, because the Sheilah Winn Festival was never in danger.

The $31,000 worth of funding that was declined by CNZ – and caused such a furore – makes up 10% of the SGCNZ’s annual budget. The organisation has confirmed, in the press, multiple times, that the Sheilah Winn Festival, which the SGCNZ is most known for and which has allowed tens of thousands of students across the country to access Shakespeare, would continue despite not receiving that portion of its funding.

Its CEO, Dawn Sanders, said in a Monday interview with Tova O’Brien that the application, through the recurrent Te Uru Kahikatea Programme which funds organisations on a three-year basis, was towards funding for an executive assistant and succession planning. In this same round, 58 of the 62 applications were accepted, with South Island-based touring company Arts on Tour being one of the others declined for funding.

This follows an announcement in June that CNZ would have less money than usual to give out. Several organisations, competing for the Annual Arts Grant round (a different funding stream which funds an organisation a certain amount of money for a role, a project or an annual output) were cut entirely from that level of funding a few weeks after this news, including both New Zealand and Dunedin Fringe, A Slightly Isolated Dog and Binge Culture.

Dozens of organisations are declined funding. Very few get an intervention from the prime minister as a result. How did the SGCNZ manage such a successful media campaign?

Some of the words from Terry Sheat’s open call for enquiry. (Words: Terry Sheat, Image Design: Sam Brooks)

While the cuts were first reported in September by Stuff, the news of the SGCNZ’s unsuccessful application began to gain traction on October 6 with an open letter, written by Terry Sheat – a former barrister and son of the SGCNZ’s former chairman Bill Sheat – calling for a public enquiry into CNZ. This letter was picked up by Stuff.

The letter, among impassioned defences of the SGCNZ and the role of Shakespeare in this country, engaged in charged rhetoric. Sheat said that CNZ’s decision-makers appeared “hell-bent on reshaping art in this country into forms which are contemporary and intrinsically ‘Aotearoan'”, he blamed the agency for imposing a systemic impediment to “non-Māori and Pākehā organisations” receiving funding, and labelled the agency an “artistic Taliban”. (It’s worth stressing that the bulk of the organisations applying for, and receiving, contestable funding in this round were, in fact, Pākehā-led.)

The most quoted part of the letter came from Sheat’s issue with some feedback. He stated that “a number of trivial reasons were given” for the funding being declined (those reasons were not offered within the letter, and have not been stated publicly elsewhere), and then goes on to say that the advisory panel questioned “the role and relevance of Shakespeare in Aotearoa” and quoted the assessors’ feedback as saying “the genre [Shakespeare] was located within a canon of imperialism and missed the opportunity to create a living curriculum and show relevance to the contemporary art context of Aotearoa”. None of the other feedback from the panel or assessors was provided, although Sanders stated in an interview on Newstalk ZB that there was an 11-page assessment with “eight pages of mistakes”, suggesting neither the public nor the media are always working with full context regarding this story.

At any rate, the letter worked, with the organisation’s declined funding making numerous headlines, even going international, with several opinion pieces both attacking and defending Shakespeare, and several critiques of CNZ for not funding the centre. Notable names like Robyn Malcolm, Sam Neill and Michael Hurst came out in defence of the organisation, with the phrase “a canon of imperialism” coming up multiple times. Cancel culture, the universality of the work and the extensive history of Shakespeare intersecting with Māori culture were also raised.

It must be said that the media stumbled in multiple ways here. First, by framing this as a debate about cancel culture – neither Shakespeare nor the Sheilah Winn Festival or even the SGCNZ were at risk of being cancelled. Second, by fundamentally misunderstanding or misinterpreting the way CNZ assesses projects for funding, which is freely available here. Thirdly and finally, by allowing an open letter to serve as some sort of smoking gun when it should have been a lukewarm water pistol.

A reminder, the SGCNZ applied for funding for an executive assistant and succession planning – both of which might be seen as luxuries to many other organisations in and out of the arts. Despite that, the majority of the media has conflated this funding being declined with jeopardising the Sheilah Winn Festival. What the organisation actually applied for funding to do, a key part of every funding application, has often not been mentioned or even questioned. We’d expect the same scrutiny of our politicians, our sports leaders, our businesspeople, why not of our arts organisations?

Not to be, thanks. (Image Design: Archi Banal)

On Tuesday, following the prime minister’s announcement, CNZ released a joint statement from chief executive Stephen Wainwright and Arts Council chair Caren Rangi, indicating that they were pleased that the ministry had agreed to work with the centre to find the funding originally sought.

“Creative New Zealand does not hate Shakespeare,” the statement read. “We support Shakespeare productions and we support Shakespeare being in schools. We simply can’t meet the demand for our funding, and hard decisions need to be made.

“62 organisations submitted proposals to our Kahikatea programme for funding from 2023 to 2025. 58 proposals were successful. We have a limited amount of money to invest, and we had to make some tough decisions. Unfortunately for Shakespeare Globe Company New Zealand, their proposal wasn’t as strong as others and didn’t align with the Kahikatea programme requirements, and so they missed out this time around.”

The statement notes that the company also has guaranteed transitional funding (which had not been reported by either SGCNZ or the media), which would allow for a smoother transition away from its regular CNZ funding. It also highlights that the SGCNZ is part of a lineage of “exceptional artwork” but that it is not entitled to continued funding without going through due process, and that the comments published had been taken out of context, and were “a small component of a thorough decision-making process”.

“Their bid for Creative New Zealand funding towards organisational support was unsuccessful within a group of other stronger proposals that were more closely aligned with our strategic and funding priorities.”

CNZ challenged the narrative that its decision was driven by “reverse racism” and took exception to its frontline staff being targeted with hate mail.

Shakespeare is not cancelled. The Shakespeare Globe Centre New Zealand continues to exist. Chris Hipkins said, in a statement, that the ministry would iron out the details of the arrangement over the next week. “It would be a real shame if those coming through their education today were to miss out on these opportunities for learning and performing,” he said.

After a prime minister’s intervention, the Sheilah Winn Festival will take place in 2023. But it was always going to.

Keep going!