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Hear the word ‘culture’? Don’t reach for your spreadsheet

Those who have an appetite for interviews that are conducted in the spirit of a blood sport will have been well and truly satiated by the recent interrogation of the Act Party’s arts, culture, and heritage spokesperson by Steve Braunias.

The literary editor of the Newsroom news site, Braunias has something of a reputation as the smirking assassin of New Zealand journalism [a description that is in no way intended as a pejorative one, by the way].

His conversation with Todd Stephenson was published on April 29, and the title of the interview – ‘Act’s arts spokesman once watched a musical’ – gives a sense of the tenor of the exchange.

Although Braunias – who is participating in two sessions at Booktown in Featherston this weekend – has the rare ability to craft witty phrases that can skewer his subject like a stiletto, in this particular encounter he wisely elects to present the exchange in a question and answer format, the better for Stephenson to be judged by his own words.

Anyone interested in New Zealand having a vibrant local culture is likely to judge Stephenson very harshly indeed – Braunias clearly does, making even less effort to hide his derision by the end of the interview than Stephenson has apparently put into getting up to speed on his portfolio.

Certainly, the interview will assure anyone who has misgivings about National’s Paul Goldsmith as Minister of Arts, Culture and Heritage that his appointment isn’t as bad as it might have been – even if Goldsmith has only ever read the five biographies and three histories that he has written [and there’s every indication he’s a voracious reader], it seems he’d still seven local books ahead of Stephenson, who can only conjure up Alan Duff’s Once Were Warriors when asked what NZ authors he’s read.

Still, the hapless Stephenson deserves credit for his honesty, while his views about arts funding – that it should be the preserve of wealthy patrons rather than the government – is certainly consistent with his party’s ideologically pure worldview.

But while it’d be nice to think that our country is full of latter-day Medicis [sans all the bribery, corruption, and violence, naturally], Alan and Dame Jenny Gibbs would appear to be the exception and not the rule. And even if that weren’t the case, a complete reliance on the well-heeled would obviously carry the risk of normalising the kind of quid pro quo reportedly favoured by heels like James Wallace.

In the face of such ‘market failure’ [which, as in other areas, is pretty much entirely due to our tiny population] surely even Stephenson – who, although he admits he doesn’t know much about it, agrees “arts and culture is important to society” – can agree there is a role for government intervention in the sector.

What that intervention looks like, however, would benefit from some serious examination. The risible – though eventually reversed – decision by Creative New Zealand to pull funding for a secondary school Shakespeare festival two years ago [on the basis that the Bard isn’t relevant to our country and represents “a canon of imperialism”] indicates that arts administrators are as subject to being captured by simplistic ideologies as any newbie Act MP.

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