Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Govt out of tune over orchestra funding

Cartoon / Peter Bromhead
Cartoon / Peter Bromhead

Arts and Culture Minister Chris Finlayson seemed particularly nervous about sharing the stage with retiring Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra chairwoman Rosanne Meo at last week's season opening concert. The reason for his discomfort became obvious yesterday with the release of the long-awaited review into the funding of professional orchestras.

In her eight years as chair, the indefatigable Dame Rosanne had made Minister Finlayson's life, and that of his Labour predecessor, Helen Clark, hell as she fought for fairer state funding for the APO.

The review totally fails to address this issue, and as Mr Finlayson stood on the platform praising Dame Rosanne's efforts on behalf of the orchestra, his guilty secret must have been top of his mind - with a trepidation that details might have already reached her well-connected ears and she was about to share them with the audience.

The only crumb Mr Finlayson has tossed to the APO is that it will rise in the bureaucratic hierarchy of orchestras.

No longer will it be a "city orchestra" alongside those of Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin. It's to be elevated to solitary splendour as a "metropolitan orchestra" - the only one in the country. But there's no description of what a metropolitan orchestra does compared with a city orchestra. Nor is there another penny on offer to match its new status.

In fact, the lack of extra money and the lack of meaningful change are the defining feature of this "do nothing" document. Even the Wellington-based crown jewel, the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, faces lean times . Its current annual government handout of $13.4 million is to be frozen at that level until the end of 2017, and may even fall if it fails to sell more tickets and attract additional sponsorship income.

On the cost-savings side, the NZSO will no longer have to tour to cities of less than 50,000. All heart, the report says the APO and the other city orchestras can pick up that slack, but offers no compensating funds to cover the touring costs.

In August last year, after the launch of the review, APO chief executive Barbara Glaser warned "no change is not an option for us. For the APO that equals stagnation." She said: "It will mean another big fight because we're not going to lie down and accept this." Yesterday, the comments were couched more diplomatically. But that doesn't mean the battle is over.

The report is a cop-out in failing to confront the terms of reference of the exercise. The first two were to undertake a wide-ranging review of the professional orchestra sector funded by the Government and to assess whether the current concept of one national orchestra funded by the ministry, and four regional-based orchestras financed by Creative New Zealand, "provides optimal delivery of orchestra services".

In Auckland, there is a consensus that the existing model of orchestral delivery - created in the 1940s with the founding of a government-funded national touring orchestra and tinkered with in the 1970s to accommodate the emerging city-based "regional" orchestras - is long past its use-by date.

There are now two fulltime professional high-quality symphony orchestras in the country, the APO being the second, and it's time Government funding acknowledged this. Yet the NZSO gets an annual grant of $13.4 million, which is 79 per cent of the government orchestra pot, while the APO gets just $2.2 million, from the $3.51 million Creative New Zealand pays to the four city-based orchestras.

The system was invented after World War II to bring professional players from around New Zealand together to create a touring band taking quality music to communities all over the country. The world has changed, but the Wellington bureaucrats and Mr Finlayson remain trapped in their 1940s time warp.

How can a system that gives the lion's share of funds to one directly funded orchestra, and forces the other four to compete elsewhere for the loose change against ballet, opera, waka voyaging and 101 other creative endeavours, "provide optimal delivery of orchestral services"?

The only glimmer of hope for Aucklanders is in the claim that "any changes in central government funding to the APO will be considered in relation to its role as a metropolitan orchestra and negotiated as part of future funding rounds".

But without a definition of metropolitan orchestra and a redistribution or increase of funds, these are nothing more than weasel words.

- NZ Herald

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Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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