Editorial: Festival a feast for art lovers

Beyond, a performance in next year's NZ Festival in Wellington.
Beyond, a performance in next year's NZ Festival in Wellington.

If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

The New Zealand Festival, to be staged over 24 days next February and March, is this country's pre-eminent arts event.

Every two years it brings together performers from across the globe for a feast of music, dance, theatre, literature and popular culture.

Next year Wellingtonians, plus visitors to the capital, will have the opportunity to see a Russian adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream featuring acrobats, singers and 6-metre tall puppets, Israel's renowned Batsheva dance troupe, Japan's Bach Collegium and bluesy jazz singer Madeleine Peyroux, a 21st century reincarnation of Billie Holiday.

They will also have the chance to hear from Man Booker award winner Eleanor Catton and a host of other literary luminaries.

All told there will be almost 350 events featuring 1220 artists spread over almost two dozen venues. Everyone with an interest in the arts will find something to grumble about - too much of this, not enough of that; everyone with an interest in the arts will find something to delight in.

That is one of the joys of the festival. It sparks passionate debate about subjects we too seldom turn our attention to.

As with any event that has run for almost three decades, the festival has had its ups and downs. It has not always recaptured the buzz of its early years when Wellingtonians first experienced the thrill of witnessing world class performers gather en masse in the capital.

However, next year's programme marks a promising beginning for first-time artistic director Shelagh Magadza, who returns to the capital after nine years helping to put together the Perth Festival, the last four as artistic director during which turnover jumped by 45 per cent.

One of the questions she and others are confronting is whether the festival should continue as a biennial event or follow the Perth, Sydney and Adelaide model and become an annual occurrence.

There are pluses and minuses both ways. The big plus to making it an annual event is that the public would get twice as many opportunities to view performances they would otherwise have to travel overseas to see. An annual festival would also beef up the capital's events calendar, boost economic activity, be easier to promote and enable the festival to maintain a larger core group of staff.

However, Wellington should stick to what it does well. Staging the festival is an expensive business. Next year's event has a budget of $13.26 million. Of that ticket sales are expected to generate just over $4 million. The remainder must come from grants - central, local government and private - and sponsorship.

There is a limit to how much a relatively small city like Wellington can extract from ratepayers and the corporate sector which is next year chipping in $3.3m.

It is better for Wellington to do what it does do well, than to spread available funds so thinly the quality of the festival is diluted.

Roll on February and March. Then roll on February and March 2016.

The Dominion Post