OPINION: News that the Government is refusing to stump up with $11 million to help fund a New Zealand School of Music is unsurprising, given the economic climate.
But it is disappointing. Wellington is indisputably the country's cultural crucible, and such a school – to be a joint operation between Victoria and Massey universities – could only enhance its reputation.
Now, however, the school's backers face a serious obstacle in the shape of Tertiary Education Minister Steven Joyce. He has told the universities to consider their options carefully – they had jointly pledged $10m to the school's establishment – because the Government refuses to fund capital for new tertiary institutions.
The challenge ahead, therefore, cannot be underestimated, especially since what began as a $20m facility is now estimated to cost $60m.
A little history. In mid-2004, Wellington Mayor Kerry Prendergast announced that a New Zealand music school would be built on what has become known as Jack Ilott Green, where Circa Theatre once stood. Ideally situated, close to the Michael Fowler Centre and Wellington Town Hall, it would, she predicted, become a "centre of excellence" with teaching and research facilities, lecture theatre, recording studios, auditorium and a student body of 600.
Ilott Green – Wellington City Council puts its value at $5m – was to be ratepayers' contribution by way of a 99-year lease, though some councillors and Mr Ilott's former partner want to keep the land as public space with his name attached to it.
Should the funding shortfall make the school uneconomic, councillor Ray Ahipene-Mercer says the council offer of the site will be reconsidered in March. That means hard work must be done in the next 10 months if a national music school is to be built there in the short term.
A cloud must now hang over this wonderful idea. For a start, it would be surprising were both university councils not to reconsider their financial commitment, given the Government's refusal to assist and Mr Joyce's tough stance on how tertiary institutions should spend public money.
So what to do? This is a project that a city with a population that turns out in its hundreds to the international arts festival, supports professional theatre, and enjoys performances of the Royal New Zealand Ballet, the NZSO, the Wellington Sinfonia, will surely support in concept and in practice.
Can Wellington-based MPs – they include Arts and Culture Minister Chris Finlayson – pressure ministers to untie some purse strings here? Can corporates, and the city arts elite, be persuaded to help university fundraisers come up with the cash as they did for the Adam Art Gallery, in order to create an institution that would benefit the entire country, not just the capital?
The time might have come for those who love the arts to put their money where their mouth is or face the sad prospect of this terrific idea foundering. The idea should not be allowed to die. Wellington is the natural home of such an amenity.
- The Dominion Post