Hamish Keith: form over substance?

by Hamish Keith / 09 December, 2013
It's time to devise a more responsive and effective way to nurture and grow the arts, says Hamish Keith.
Several decades ago, in another time, the painter Tony Fomison made an application to the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council for a year’s support to paint. His letter – application forms were not invented then – provided a complete list of what he would need for a year – including soap and toothpaste. The sum of money asked was exact to the cent, and the panel gave him a grant exactly to the cent. The artist, the panel argued, knew exactly what he needed and that was exactly what he got.

Sport #1.


Pondering Creative New Zealand’s decision not to fund the literary magazine Sport apparently on the grounds that there appeared to be some small errors in the application form suggests the Fomison grant was made not only in another time but on another planet. The first error was a discrepancy in the figures for sales and income – it was not Sport’s error; the official processing the form failed to take into account the 10% discount given to booksellers. A further error involved sums of money previously granted to the magazine. The former could have been sorted with a phone call, the latter by looking up CNZ’s own records. Too hard. Never mind. Grant declined.

Put aside the fact that Sport had applied for and been given the same grant for the 40 issues it had published since 1988. Ignore the fact too that the grant application had been in much the same format for all those applications. A mistake is a mistake, and mistakes in forms are a serious breach of CNZ cultural protocols. Forget what the application was for: for CNZ, form wins over substance every time – particularly its own forms, which are often more than a dozen pages long and written in such opaque, bureaucratic gobbledegook that they come with another document to explain what they mean.

Since 1988 Sport has introduced more than 200 new writers. Among its alumna are current literary heroes Eleanor Catton, winner of the Man Booker Prize, and Elizabeth Knox, whose new novel Wake is in serious contention for the year’s best. In the last issue of Sport 75% of its contributors are publishing for the first time. There has not been such a nurturing vehicle for the nation’s literary talent since Landfall appeared in 1947. This is exactly what Creative New Zealand is there to support, without small minded pin-pricking about misread figures and background information a few key strokes would have revealed.

It is time for Creative New Zealand to go. The arts deserve better. Election time looms. Time for the contending political parties to wake up and devise a more responsive and effective way to nurture and grow the arts than this constipated and convoluted bureaucracy. Beyond the All Blacks being unbeaten for a whole season, and Emirates Team New Zealand coming second in a two-boat race, what put New Zealand on the world’s front pages in 2013 was a novel, a song and a film.

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