Council art strategy worth examining

Artbeat column no 443 by Peter Entwisle
Published in the Otago Daily Times, 6 April 2009

The city council has issued another pile of papers which have some significance for the arts. The relatively modest Draft Dunedin Festivals and Events Strategy 2009-2019 covers arts events and festivals, among others. The two volume Draft Community Plan 2009/10-2018/19 has information about theatre facilities and a proposed new city company which might impact on the arts. Altogether it’s a mixed bag and significantly, does not yet represent settled plans. People can still have their say. The papers are worth examining.

The festivals and events strategy does represent something which many feel is long overdue. The city hosts and the city council partly funds, a number of events and festivals and it can seem they aren’t all well-related to each other, or well-timed. Recently we have had the Id Fashion week, the Heritage Festival, a film festival and the Fringe Festival all in a short time and to some extent competing for audiences. A way of timing these better would be good. The strategy envisages ways of doing that.

It also identifies Dunedin’s per capita expenditure on events and festivals, which is middling compared with other New Zealand municipalities and it anticipates this isn’t likely to change. It does expect though that more money will go to larger, more expensive things and less to the numerous small-ticket items. This certainly concerns some people. The paper announces this is the established view of the city council. It would have been better if it had been left for decision until after this round of consultation.

The council has an “Events Unit” made up of staff whose job it is to deal with event providers. The document anticipates the establishment of an Events Steering Group. It would be made up of an elected city councillor, people from the university, Tourism Dunedin, the Community Trust of Otago and each of the city council’s marketing agency and its economic development unit. The Events Unit would report to the group. This is all very well but the prominence given to tourist and marketing representatives underscores some legitimate concerns.

The document has been circulated to and discussed by some interested parties and there have been some adverse reactions. Some stem from the document’s criteria for categorising events and festivals into International, National, Regional and Local (Community). These are distinguished by visitor revenue and breadth of resulting publicity which doesn’t correspond with how some providers make these distinctions. (An international art exhibition is usually just one from overseas irrespective of the visitors or publicity it generates.) But there’s another, deeper, issue here.

At least one thoughtful participant has expressed the concern that generally the strategy is too concerned with events and festivals as tourist and publicity generators and fails to recognise that fundamentally they are provided for Dunedin people whose satisfaction or lack of it should be the prime consideration.

I agree and think the strategy needs refocusing to reflect this. The same person also felt that while at present there is little feedback to council for funds received, and there should be more, the document seems to desire too much to be workable, especially for small groups. We seem set to go from one extreme to another. Overall the document is a step in the right direction but not yet fit for purpose.

The implications of the Community Plan for theatre provision are much less reassuring. On the relevant pages 9-17 of volume 1, there is no provision for the Mayfair or the discussed 550-800 seat full-facility theatre. At p. 95 of volume 2 $20,000 is allowed for a further feasibility study but “no further work on this project is proposed in this plan period.”

In other words, if this is adopted there would be no prospect of providing this long discussed facility, the need for which was demonstrated by a city council report tabled last year, until after 2019, or any work on the Mayfair. I have long advocated making serious provision for these projects and have said they should be on the list for discussion with the city’s other proposed capital projects. I have not said they must be done now but they are overdue for taking their place among the maybes. The omission is serious for the future of theatre in Dunedin. A sensible conjectural allowance should be made now, say $15m for the mid-size theatre and $5m for the Mayfair.

Similarly volume 2 pp.92-95 shows that an arts and culture strategy should be developed, but no budget is provided. Another ten years is too long to defer this. And volume 2 p.294 describes the structure of a possible Dunedin City Venues Limited confined here to operating sports facilities. But it has been suggested it might run arts ones too. That needs discussion now also. Submissions on the events strategy close on April 10.

© 2009, Otago Daily Times