Dancing round with a pocketful of answers

As someone who makes a living from art I now have the additional misfortune to have friends demand answers from me about Nelson's newest sculpture. "What do you reckon Russell?" they ask.

Their question is a trap. Whatever I say, they are ready to pounce. Dance to the Music of Time has got me dancing on the head of a pin, 200,000 answers at the ready.

"It looks like a giant asparagus," says blunt friend Frank, ready for an argument.

"Well, the giant carrot has done a lot for Ohakune," I quickly reply.

"Think of all the accidents it'll cause," he says.

"People will adapt. The car park will improve," I say.

"And what sort of name is Dance to the Music blah, blah. I mean, if we all link hands and dance around the thing, does it start playing music or something?"

"You've got to call it something," I counter.

"But $200,000! That's a lot of money, Russell."

My eyes glaze over. Frank knows my weaknesses - $200,000 of borrowed money is a lot of money. I think of how many starving artists in Nelson I could feed with $200,000.

I take a deep breath and bring out the big guns. "Investing in the arts is an investment in the region's cultural, economic, educational, environmental and social wellbeing and growth," I reply.

"What? Where did you read that from?" Frank demands. "Sounds like you're dancing to the music of ‘council-speak' if you ask me."

I quietly put my copy of Nelson Tasman Regional Arts Strategy back in my pocket.

"Look, if the council wanted to invest in our region, they should have put up a giant sculpture of Gandalf at . . . what does the council call those sites?"

"Gateways," I reply.

"Yes, gateways. Put up a giant sculpture of Gandalf at the gateways called You Shall Not Pass - without spending your money. That'd get the tourists flocking."

Frank has a point. He may be blunt, but he does come up with ideas every now and then. Now he's on a roll.

"Hang on, forget about the gateways. You know how everything is ‘Middle-earth' this and ‘Middle-earth' that, well Nelson can be the middle of Middle-earth. I mean, we already made the ring here, didn't we?"

"Yes. But I think you'll find Wellington has already grabbed the middle of Middle-earth thing," I helpfully add.

"Stuff Wellington. They can be the ‘belly button' or whatever. We've got the Centre of New Zealand right? Well, surely THAT'S the middle of Middle-earth. Stick Gandalf up there, with a few hobbits hiding in the hill on the way up."

Frank looks pleased with himself. He seems to have warmed to the idea of public sculpture.

"Those guys at Weta Workshops will be looking for work about now," says Frank. "I bet they've got a few sculptures lying around under their hairy feet. Bet they wouldn't cost $200,000 either."

"But what about local artists?" I plead.

"Forget about that." He reaches for a book in his pocket and starts reading aloud from it, stumbling at first, then finishing with a flourish.

"The region needs to consider how best to invest in the sector and get a return on that investment."

Frank points to the cover of his copy of the Nelson Tasman Regional Arts Strategy.

I quickly pull out my copy. Leafing through the pages I find the Principles of Strategy page and start reading: "Professional arts practice is sustainable when practitioners are valued and financially rewarded for their contribution at a level that enables ongoing growth and development as creators of cultural value," I say.

"How does giving work to Weta in Wellington help artists in our region become sustainable?"

"The same way it helps local artists by spending $400,000 on sculptures from a Spanish guy and some guy from up north," he says.

I fall quiet.

"Look, we've already given Wellington the Wearable Arts. We can't keep giving them our best artistic ideas and opportunities," I say.

I'm irritated now. "Our artists need help. You can't say Nelson is some art mecca and fill it with work from artists who have nothing to do with the region!"

Frank looks at me with pitying eyes. "It's a competitive world out there, Russell. You artists need to accept that. If people from other places have better ideas or can do things cheaper, you've just got to adapt, like those of us in the real world do."

Frank sounds like he's talking about train carriages not art.

My voice goes up an octave. "But the reason people from Weta got good at what they do is because they were given a chance. They were allowed to develop. They had work opportunities. Each movie they did made their work better, more refined, more cutting edge . . . "

"Yeah, yeah and the Wearable Arts was a ‘uniting force in the community', I read all that. That was then, this is now and right now The Hobbit is it. That's the ‘collective vision' all you local artists need to get in behind."

He waves his copy of the regional art strategy book at me.

I have a headache. I excuse myself and tell Frank I'll see him later. I have my rates bill to go pay.