Making Sport Out of Arts Funding

25 Oct Making Sport Out of Arts Funding

A version of this appears in the NZ Woman’s Weekly on 1.11.21

On a pretty regular basis, people who aren’t arty-farty creative types like to have a crack at the people who are. They almost make a sport of it – though not an actual sport because when sport gets funding people don’t complain.

I’m talking about actors, writers, dancers and musicians who might apply for grants to create a thing – a show, a play, a novel, a dance – and then that proposed thing is loudly poo-pooed as a waste of taxpayers’ money. The poo-pooing is often predicated on a brief description of the creative endeavour which, if you’re short on imagination, might sound a bit lame.

Indeed, there were questions in Parliament recently about our national arts development agency, Creative NZ, funding a novel about the collapse of democracy in an association of alpaca breeders. I don’t know about you but that’s the kind of allegory I’m totally up for and, when you learn the writer is award-winning novelist and screenwriter, Duncan Sarkies, you’d be wanting to get your pre-orders in for Christmas.

For sure, it’s not hard to make artistic projects sound lame if you want to. Try this: “A comedy about gender fluidity and what that means for personal identity and sexual orientation, plus a look at the mental health consequences of workplace gaslighting.” You would be hard pressed to find a talkback radio host who wouldn’t deride that proposal as “woke nonsense”.

Or this: “A powerful patriarch with anger issues and zero self-awareness suffers a breakdown and goes bush with his mates. The vacuum created by his absence leads to murder and suicide amongst those left behind.” Far-fetched post-modernist tripe, surely.

And who would fund a play about a misogynist who goes through a messy divorce, starts a cult and secretly marries a woman he meets at a party only to have a daughter who then goes on to become a global leader? Feminist claptrap, thank you caller.

I am, of course, describing “Twelfth Night”, “King Lear” and “King Henry VIII” the way I would if I was in the business of making Shakespeare sound silly. Though now I’ve said it, I’d be keen to see a production where Viola fully investigates gender identity and Olivia explores her sexuality. But I digress.

The easy derision of the arts and artists boils down to not really believing that creative work is “work”. Every kid played Pretend and Dress-Ups and we still secretly believe we could have been a movie star if things had panned out differently.

We also drew pictures that were good enough to be exhibited on mum’s fridge, and we’ve see paintings we’re pretty sure we could do if we had the paints and the patience. And writing? We wrote a poem once that the teacher made us read out to the class, and we’re pretty sure we’ve got a book in us if only we could find the time.

That arty stuff looks like the kind of fun and games we’d do for free in our spare evenings whereas we tend to think of “work” as stuff we’d only do for money because it’s boring, dirty, or dangerous.

And yet. In 2019 the arts/creative sector contributed 92,000 jobs and $10.8 billion to our country’s GDP – about the same as agriculture. And right now the creative sector, which largely relies on humans gathering together in one place, is bearing the brunt of Covid 19 restrictions.

Meanwhile, most of us are surviving the pandemic by reading, watching and listening to creative work. Best we keep supporting those arty-farty types.