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Does Auckland really need an arts festival every year?

May 6, 2013 Art

One of the much-noticed but not so much talked about showings in the Auckland Arts Festival was called When the Gods Came Down to Earth. It was that Indian video work projected onto a makeshift wall at the Festival Club in the Aotea Centre. Beautiful, intriguing, and for most of us exotic. But not quite captivating. Although it faced Queen St and was highly visible, you didn’t see crowds gathering to watch. This is going to enrage a few artists out there, but I think that’s often a problem with video art. Too slow.

I know, that’s the point, we’re being asked to slow down and think more carefully and/or to take the time to revel in the beauty. But there’s a fine line between that and being precious, and I don’t think video artists, as a breed, are very good at walking it.

Now the arts festival itself wants to speed up, by switching from the currently biennial model to becoming an annual affair. That also feels precious. The arguments for it are that they need a better proposition to offer sponsors, that it will build the popularity of the festival, that they could share parts of their programme with the festival in Wellington, and that our festival is so good we obviously should have more of it.

I think all these ideas are thin. Will an annual festival be a bigger and better proposition for sponsors and the public? It might be smaller and worse. We already face a crisis over sponsorship: there just isn’t enough to go round. It will hurt the festival if it cannot find the corporate, philanthropic and public-sector support it needs, and it will hurt all the other arts organisations if it can.

Take the contribution of the Auckland Council, which was $2.2 million for the festival this year (which equates to $1.1 million annually).  The extra $400,000 the festival wants for a 2014 outing would turn into an extra million a year from 2015 and would very likely come from the council’s existing arts budget. That is, from other cultural activities. The same applies to private-sector support.

Further, festival tickets are expensive. Ask audiences to double their festival support and some will respond by reducing their patronage of other arts organisations. It will not serve the cultural life of this city well if the festival starts sucking money and audience support out of the APO, NZ Opera, the theatres, the music groups, the galleries and all the other arts outfits that already operate on a precarious financial footing.

What’s true for the money is also true for the art. At the risk of enraging another group of artists here, I confess I’m not convinced we have enough really good new work in the performing arts — or that there is enough really good touring work on the international circuit — to ensure ongoing high standards.

As for sharing acts with Wellington, that would seriously damage the commercial value of the festival to the city. It’s out-of-towners who stay in hotels and do a lot of the eating out, and while they’re here find things to like about Auckland that will make them come back. Eliminate the Wellington crowd from our festival and force the visitors from Hawke’s Bay to choose between Auckland and Wellington and we will be the loser.

If we want to gain efficiencies in cost by teaming with another city, why not choose Melbourne, whose festival is in October? That would have the bonus of taking our festival out of summer, when the event calendar is already loaded, and putting it into one of the quiet times of the year.

Don’t get me wrong. I thought we had a great festival this year. But I see it as a treat. Let’s not make it a burden.

The council has signalled “in principle” support for making it annual. That feels premature. No business case has yet been produced for public scrutiny, and there has been little sector-wide discussion either. The festival owes it to the other arts groups and to the public to address those things; the council’s role is to ensure that it does.

This editorial was first published in the May 2013 issue of Metro.

Above: cleaning up in front of When the Gods Came Down to Earth, at the Auckland Arts Festival.


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