Move on the cards?

Major changes planned for Nelson Arts Festival

ALAN CLARKE
Last updated 15:09 26/11/2012
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Where would you prefer to see the Nelson Arts Festival based?

Founders Heritage Park

Nelson CBD

Don't know/Don't care

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Two months ago, with the Nelson Arts Festival fast taking shape, organisers were thrown a curve ball.

News that the Nelson City Council was planning to move the festival from its base at Founders Heritage Park back into the city's central business district made the front page, and caused plenty of angst among some of the army of volunteers and paid staff responsible for running Nelson's premier community event.

There is also talk of setting up a trust independent of the city council to run festivals, as is the case in other regions.

The moves were roughed out at council workshops earlier in the year, have been backed by the policy and planning committee, and are likely to come up for final discussion and community consultation through the annual plan process in the new year.

They were a major talking point among festival-goers during last month's stunning two-week festival, which drew an audience of 11,000 - much more if the numbers at free events are added, not to mention the thousands more who watched or participated in the Masked Parade.

To many, Founders itself was one of the stars of the event this year.

The Granary Cafe is the beating heart of the festival, a venue for a wide variety of free or lower-priced events, and also the place where people meet for a pre- or post-concert drinks and animated discussion.

The Mainstage has a maximum capacity to rival that of the main performance venues in town, and noise issues that were a factor previously when the festival was based in the central city, have not been significant over the past three years.

So, the case to move the festival back into the CBD will have to be convincing - and the debate has some life in it yet.

In the meantime, it's business as usual; for next year at least.

According to the council's acting executive manager of community services, Roger Ball, the 2013 festival will follow a similar format to this year's, with a spread of venues across the city but the "main base" at Founders.

"The council's arts activity management plan 2012-22, which was adopted by council in September this year, refers to a ‘move back to the central city' for the arts festival main base, but a date for that has not been decided," he says.

"The plan states that future work is required to assess the best location and mix of venues for the arts festival. That work has yet to be undertaken and it is important that we do that carefully in order to ensure issues such as venues, costs, noise consents, business impact, audience reaction etc are understood.

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"I am confident that the arts festival will continue to deliver highly successful outcomes for Nelson, as it has done in 2012."

So, to clarify what's what with the festival and set the scene for the debate to come, the Nelson Mail asked three of the players to submit their personal views.

Pete Rainey

The creation and rollout of the sports venues and facilities at Saxton Field have happened in a relatively planned and managed way by the Nelson City Council over the years, with the co-operation of the Tasman District Council, sporting codes and others.

Indeed, it is that sense of overall planning and co-ordination at Saxton that has contributed to both its success for the region, and the esteem in which it is held nationally.

For some time, I have been advocating a similar stance for the arts in Nelson City. There is a real need for a co-ordinated and planned approach to the way in which the city resources, manages, promotes and uses its arts venues and their ensuing activities.

There is a growing desire to develop the city's various arts venues as a Saxton Field for the arts.

To achieve this, the investment by the city council and others in the Nelson School of Music, the Suter Art Gallery and the Theatre Royal must be fully realised.

We need to get maximum bang for our buck. This investment needs to produce tangible social, cultural and economic outcomes.

I feel this same approach needs to be applied to the Nelson Arts Festival. It is no secret that I am a strong supporter and advocate for festivals and events in this city generally, with the Nelson Arts Festival up there around the top of my list.

While I understand and appreciate that not everyone is interested in taking up what festivals have to offer - as, indeed, not everyone uses the facilities at Saxton - I do feel we have an obligation to maximise the opportunities and benefits of the festival for all Nelsonians, including central business district businesses and venues.

I know that the arts festival plays a strong role in invigorating the city and I recognise that it delivers on council policy - both arts and social wellbeing.

The value of festivals to communities, the sense of connectivity, wellbeing and identity that they create is acknowledged worldwide. They contribute to the building of a sense of place, as well as building a sense of community and common purpose.

It is essential that this policy connection be made, otherwise it becomes difficult to defend the expenditure. However, this is no secret. It applies to everything the council does.

The festival is an investment with social, cultural and economic outcomes.

Therefore, as far as I am concerned, over a period of time, to maximise the investment as well as the benefits, the festival should shift its focus from Founders Park back to the centre of the city.

I acknowledge that this will take time, but point out that that, as far as I can remember, there has been no collective decision to make Founders Park the base of the festival. It has just evolved as such, partly because of the downtime while the Theatre Royal was being restored.

There is no question that Founders Park is flourishing. It is a great asset to the city, and there is no reason why it should not continue to be used as one of the range of venues available to the festival, as it is currently.

However, a renewed focus on basing the festival in the central business district will help it play its role in enhancing the positive image of Nelson City.

Basing the festival in town will provide special and additional opportunities to present artistic work, which wouldn't otherwise be available in that locality - and I use the example of Piki Mai from last year's festival.

Although this opportunity always exists for the central business district, it is the concentrated synergy that is of benefit here.

This is somehow lost with the physical separation that the Founders location creates.

The arts festival offers a short intense burst of activity that achieves impact and concentrates attention. This should be based where it has the most impact.

The shift should be phased over a period of time, with good planning and proper resourcing - ie, do we need a festival marquee or complementary facility to replicate the synergy of the Granary and the Energy Centre? This has happened before in Albion Square and Trafalgar St. Why can it not happen again?

It does seem unnecessary to create venues such as the Energy Centre, while other venues, such as the Nelson School of Music, lie idle.

While I respect that, for many, Founders Park seems like the ideal place to base the festival, I want to see Nelson City as a whole embrace the festival and grow the benefits for a wider group.

  • Pete Rainey is a Nelson City councillor, holding the community services portfolio, and is active in a range of art and music activities.

Jacquetta Bell

It's 8am on Sunday and I've picked up my two big sons to help set up tables and chairs for the Thinking Brunch at the Granary Festival Cafe. The floor has been mopped at 2am, when last night's dance party wound up.

Nic is behind the bar and Cynthia is vacuuming - both back on deck after a few hours' sleep - and the after-party stories are told as we set up the coffee, put out the Sunday papers and tell the volunteer ushers what's up. In the kitchen the Founders' Cafe team are scrambling eggs and slicing croissants and at the bookstall Stella from Page & Blackmore is laying out the stock.

By 10.30am it's all go as 150 people are seated with the coffee and brunch, and Rhys has fitted the panellists with their mikes. Time to sit back as five top thinkers on environmental issues debate the human response to the climate change threat.

That afternoon a mainly female audience refills the Granary, happy with afternoon tea as gardening guru Lynda Hallinan delivers an entertaining session on her new book, Back to the Land.

As the co-ordinator of Page and Blackmore Readers and Writers my day is over, but Cynthia has more chairs to move, and Rhys is sound checking The Hangman Blues who will pack out the cafe for a free music session at 6.30pm.

Over in the TSB Bank Mainstage, the atmosphere is building for that night's session of Michelangelo and the Black Sea Gentlemen. Sand is mixing the sound, Wendy is working magic with lights, young Jesse is learning to use the following spot and Kate has a herd of ushers matching tickets with seats. Somewhere, Antony is calmly masterminding the next day's fit-out and Sophie is fielding phone calls, welcoming guests and managing a chat with directors from other cities.

That's a glimpse of one day's Nelson Arts Festival action at Founders, and of a team of council staff and contractors who have a big job to do and do it with professionalism and good humour.

The festival moved here three years ago out of desperation.

Noise complaints plagued the city venues and the Theatre Royal was shut for refurbishment. Founders has turned out to be a great venue - the Granary has soul, and the Energy Centre offers a versatile space for music gigs where people can sit and listen or get up and boogie.

I can understand the Nelson City Council, now they are (quite rightly) providing ongoing support for the Suter, the Theatre Royal and the Nelson School of Music, wanting to see these venues used for Arts Festival events.

In fact, the first two are well used, with 16 shows staged at the Theatre Royal this year and eight at the Suter Theatre.

This leaves the question of whether the Nelson School of Music (the venue council seems to want to use) could replace the Granary Festival Cafe? It could work for Readers and Writers, but the noise issue is likely to resurface if late-night music gigs are staged there. And it's not well positioned as a feeder for people having a drink before going to shows at other venues.

Founders itself is a council venue, and the Arts Festival can take some credit for having helped to liven it up, letting other event organisers see what it's capable of. The park really buzzes when the festival is on, with two or three venues pulling in the people.

Would this buzz be evident in the city if the festival staged all events in town? Personally, I doubt it. It would take some concerted support from retailers and the hospitality sector to drive this, and past experience shows most are slow to grasp this sort of opportunity; or they're franchises with no flexibility to make special offers or change their opening hours in response to local events.

All that said, I'm reasonably open-minded about moving the festival to town. But it is complex and needs investigation. It mainly needs some input from the people who run the festival.

Sophie Kelly and Antony Hodgson have years of programming experience and know each of Nelson's venues, their capabilities, their audience appeal and what performers think of the facilities. You'd think the council might have asked their views before rushing into print with the concept of moving the festival to town. Sadly, this didn't happen. Fortunately, there is still time. The main reason the festival director and technical director were not consulted is that the latter is a contractor and the former sits well down the many-tiered management structure at council that ensures her voice is never heard. Time for a change in structure for the festival as well as a change of venue? You bet.

So let's have some conversation about this, and let's make a decision that will enhance the two weeks each year when Nelson lives up to its arty reputation. The Nelson Arts Festival is a wonderful celebration for locals and is an added attraction for visitors. It's worth getting it right.

  • Jacquetta Bell runs Nelson Media Agency and co-ordinated Page & Blackmore Readers and Writers, part of the Nelson Arts Festival.

Annabel Norman

An interesting debate - should the Nelson Arts Festival be in the city or at Founders? Well, just to be a bit perverse, I thought the Nelson Arts Festival was held in Nelson city, which raises the question: is Founders not in the city?

If we're talking about the CBD, most of the festival is as close as is physically possible. The Masked Parade is held in the heart of the CBD, and what a spectacular night it is - the largest crowd drawn to the streets of Nelson annually.

The Theatre Royal and Suter Theatre are at the edge of the CBD, and an easy walk for patrons to access cafes, restaurants and bars. Stage One, the schools' programme, is at the 1903 site - you can't get more central than this.

Then there are the Granary Festival Cafe and Mainstage at Founders on the edge of the city - a four-minute drive, a 10-minute bicycle ride or a 30-minute stroll from the CBD. Hardly a big effort.

When the festival first chose to try Founders Heritage Park as a venue, it felt like a huge risk. Why go there? Because it was stuck for a venue in the CBD that could offer what was needed: a festival cafe that could hold up to 180 people, and a performance venue that offered flexibility to present music, circus, dance parties and multimedia, capable of seating up to 400.

Founders has worked better than the festival team ever imagined. It has a great atmosphere and is family-friendly. Festival patrons seem to love going there, it uses a council-owned facility, it highlights our heritage, and it provides flexibility. For example, this year the hilarious show Party with the Aunties was held in the Jaycee Room.

The Nelson Arts Festival cannot be all things to all people, and must make choices that work best for the festival. It has a highly skilled team of professionals such as Sophie Kelly, Antony Hodgson and many others who are paid to make these decisions. Let's leave the matter in their hands and remember the adage, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

Now to a more pressing topic for the festival - a proper home for the whole festival team. The festival is owned by the Nelson City Council, and that means you, the community, own it.

However, this does not mean it is fully funded by the council. A number of wonderful local businesses put in a substantial amount of cash and services to help the festival go ahead. The other key stakeholders are the patrons who purchase tickets to shows.

We have a team that reflects this funding arrangement, with the festival director, producer and marketing manager based at the council offices (in fact, locked inside the tower).

The other 30 or more contractors work independently, and the 100 or so volunteers are reached by email. This is not the ideal way to manage a large team.

The Nelson Arts Festival has grown hugely in the past 16 years and now requires its own home - an office that can house the management, administration, marketing, technical, production and art departments under one roof. This will make for a much more cohesive team, improving communication within the team and with the community.

While the director, producer and marketing manager remain separate from the core team they need to be working closely with, they cannot be as productive and effective as would be possible in a more accessible environment. It also means that their time is taken up with council bureaucracy, meetings and paper-shuffling that is irrelevant to the job they are there to do.

There is also a growing concern that more direction on operating and staffing the festival is coming from council management. There is a real risk of decision-making falling into the hands of people with no knowledge of the arts or of arts management, marketing and administration. This can only undermine the professionalism of the festival.

Like the use of venues, the management of the festival needs to stay firmly in the hands of the festival director and her team. Like any other organisation, they must have transparency and systems for reporting to their funders, including the council's executive management and councillors.

  • Annabel Norman spent 16 years as the Nelson Arts Festival director, standing down in March last year.

- Nelson

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