Creative NZ shuns Shakespeare as unfit for a decolonising NZ (“out damned spot!”) and channels public funding into Aotearoan arts

A call for a public inquiry into Creative New Zealand – which raises questions about the legality of fund-distributing processes – appears to have attracted no interest from the state-subsidised mainstream media.

The call is made in an article which alerts us to “the role and relevance of Shakespeare in Aotearoa” being challenged by a Creative New Zealand advisory panel.

CNZ advisors apparently have said “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”.

One assessor felt the need to “question whether a singular focus on an Elizabethan playwright is most relevant for a decolonising Aotearoa in the 2020s and beyond”.

The alert to the CNZ’s cancelling of Shakespeare has been made by Terry Sheat, son of the late Bill Sheat, who is remembered as a major influence on the Wellington arts scene for more than 60 years and a champion of the arts involved in a raft of initiatives, from saving the Opera House to setting up the New Zealand Film Commission.

Terry Sheat’s article has been posted on the Scoop website and apparently has been circulated among his network of contacts and friends via social media.

But mainstream media have ignored it and its analysis of what has been going on with the distribution of public funding for the arts, despite Sheat provocatively beginning by warning:

“Something is not right in the state of Creative New Zealand, our national arts funding body. This should be of concern to everyone who cares about the arts in this country.

“I am prompted to write by the cancellation of Creative NZ’s Kahikatea funding to the Shakespeare Globe Centre New Zealand. However, the issue goes much deeper than one organisation that many may never have heard of and much wider than the works of William Shakespeare (like them or loathe them or just don’t care).

“The issue is at the core of the general stewardship of the health and well-being of the arts in Aotearoa/New Zealand. It concerns what is considered worthy of CNZ funding and what is not.”

Setting out his case for a public inquiry into the fairness and lawfulness of CNZ’s actions, Sheat first records the experience of Shakespeare Globe Centre New Zealand (SGCNZ).

For years (he says) it has been receiving CNZ Kahikatea funding of about $31,000 a year, but Creative New Zealand turned down the latest request when SGCNZ applied for funding for the next three years.

Sheat points out:

“This is in the context of $54 million of funding going to 58 organisations for that 3-year period.”

The full list of Kahikatea funding recipients and their grant amounts is here.

The Kahikatea funding tap was turned off, too, for Arts on Tour

“… and two Wellington organisations which may not have gone public yet so I will not name them here.

“Those receiving Kahikatea three-year funding for the first time this round are Te Rākau Hua o te Wao Tapu ($1.22 million), Te Tairāwhiti Arts Festival ($1.6 million), Kia Mau Festival ($1.57 million) and Toi Ngāpuhi ($1.67 million).”

CNZ has suggested that SGCNZ apply for annual CNZ funding instead, but Sheat contends the probability is that this is just a prelude to a full curtailing of its CNZ funding, whether or not it gets a year or two of annual funding,

“That has been the pattern for other arts organisations to gradually lose all CNZ funding, so the writing is on the wall.”

Sheat reports that:

“SGCNZ has served the community for 31 years to date with a major focus on secondary school engagement. Up to 250 of our schools and thousands of students engage in their festivals every year, as performers, directors and crew, performing scenes from their choice of Shakespeare’s works, edited and adapted as appropriate. Then 24 of our best youth performers travel to London each year to study and perform on the stage of the Globe Theatre.

“Alumni mentored by SGCNZ through and following this process are now working throughout the live performance and film industries as performers, writers, directors, producers, designers, etc. Jacinda Ardern played Bottom in a scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the SGCNZ Festival in the late 1990s.”

Sheat claims several trivial reasons were given for CNZ’s decision, but:

“Only one reason was given which is worthy of any scrutiny and it was stated several times by several CNZ staff/assessors, and by the full CNZ advisory panel, so it is effectively a mantra. It is clearly the main and probably only real reason for rejecting SGCNZ’s application. To quote them, the advisory panel specifically questioned ‘the role and relevance of Shakespeare in Aotearoa’.

” It was also stated that “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” (interestingly, not Aotearoa/New Zealand). One assessor felt the need to ‘question whether a singular focus on an Elizabethan playwright is most relevant for a decolonising Aotearoa in the 2020s and beyond.

“Now, CNZ would be able to see the inclusive and contemporary interpretations (often steeped in Te Ao Māori, Pasifika, and many other cultures and using translations into other languages) enthusiastically given by our next generation to Shakespeare’s universal and timeless themes of power, greed, love, sex (…. mostly sex) and death if only they attended any of the 24 SGCNZ Regional Festivals held around New Zealand or the National Festival. But how many of the CNZ staff or decision makers actually turn up? Despite invitations to all relevant events it is only very occasionally and randomly that a CNZ adviser might deign to turn up.”

Sheat is confident SGCNZ will survive the loss of its CNZ funding but says many others similarly treated or denied funding in the first place for spurious reasons might not be able to become established or to continue their path.

He then turns to the issue:

“CNZ’s decision-makers would appear to be hell-bent on reshaping art in this country into forms which are contemporary and intrinsically ‘Aotearoan’. This is at the expense of other art forms which are now missing out on funding or being underfunded compared to others because CNZ has determined that they don’t measure up to these criteria.

“This overarching concept prejudges what will score highly in CNZ’s regard and hence be more likely to receive funding. It therefore shoehorns applicants into trying to prove that they are sufficiently contemporary and ‘Aotearoan’. “

Sheat is concerned that this implies the future of New Zealand performing arts is narrow, inward looking and myopic.

“We risk reverting to being a cultural backwater.”

Sheat recalls that in  the 1960s, when the forerunner of Creative New Zealand was first established, there was little conception of New Zealand works or stories being presented on the stage in New Zealand. One of the goals was to redress that balance.

The CNZ today seems to have a limited conception of how internationally important and globally relevant performing art forms can fit within the country’s performing arts scene.

“That is a serious overcorrection to say the least.”

Sheat says he has no issue with leaning disproportionately into the need to foster and develop Māori and Pasifika arts.

But he says redressing the imbalance should not be at the expense of damaging existing and important institutions and arts infrastructure.

“It would be ultimately self-limiting. We are back to square one if artists from all walks of life, and across a broad spectrum of the arts, cannot pursue their artistic dreams, whatever they may be, and have careers doing so in their own country.”

CNZ appears to be busy creating and/or funding new arts organisations in their own image to replace existing professional arts infrastructure and organisations, then progressively de-funding those original organisations because they do not align with CNZ’s philosophy, Sheat conntends.

He anticipates CNZ would insist its funding is contestable and someone has to miss out.

“However, something is not genuinely contestable if

“(i) only applicants pre-approved by CNZ can apply,

“(ii) improper weight is being given to criteria which you are perceived as not meeting, and

“(iii) especially if the outcome of whether you can apply and whether you will be funded (and funded fairly) is in fact prejudged because of a bias in favour of other art forms or providers.”

Sheat proceeds to examine the governance, role and responsibilities of Creative New Zealand.

He wraps up his article with “final thoughts” and calls for a public inquiry into

  • the fairness and lawfulness of Creative New Zealand’s funding priorities,
  • the way in which arts organisations are treated by CNZ, and
  • the effects CNZ’s decisions have had and are having on the state of the arts and arts organisations in New Zealand.

It must be an independent inquiry, he insists, not a further review conducted by CNZ which would only be self-serving and pointless.

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