Editorial: School of Music at a crossroads again

Last updated 13:00 04/05/2012
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OPINION: First and foremost, the Nelson School of Music is special. It is at the very heart of a community which prides itself for its creative spirit.

Founded in 1894, it is New Zealand's oldest independent music school, so it ticks the box headed national historical significance. Its auditorium is acclaimed for the quality of its acoustics.

That, plus its splendid new Steinway piano, draws international performers to a city they'd otherwise overlook.

It is the region's largest purpose-built performance venue.

It generates not only cultural capital but economic activity too – an economic impact assessment shows that last year's biennial Adam Chamber Music Festival alone meant $3.2million in new spending, and half of the 3000 people who attended came from outside the region.

It provides a range of services to the local community – Saturday music lessons, master classes from visiting musicians, concerts, a meeting venue with seating capacity of up to 380.

It hosts around 150 concerts a year – three a week – and claims some 60,000 visits a year from individuals.

So, there can be no denying its importance – even if its role as a "school" is over-stated in its name. Indeed, a school could be sited anywhere. This particular facility is all about its auditorium.

Not for the first time, the trust board responsible for the school is coming to the community, cap in hand.

Its greatest need is for $2.1m for earthquake strengthening and to replace the 110-year-old tiles on its roof.

These, says trust chairman Neil Deans, are brittle and "falling to bits".

This most urgent work is part of a more ambitious three-year, $7.6m programme which would include refurbishing the reception area, auditorium and attached Kidson building, removing and replacing the adjacent Rainey House with a new education building, buying new instruments and repairing the school's pipe organ.

There is nothing wrong with aiming high. However, the regional economy continues to drift along.

The Government is signalling a back-to-basics imperative for local council activities.

As always, there are any number of competing regional projects requiring significant capital.

The board might struggle to sell a $7.6m rescue package to the community. However, a $2.1m plan to safeguard the school's primary asset seems very achievable.

The board says it has made no final decision about future governance but one option is Nelson City Council ownership.

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While some people with close links to the school offer qualified support for that idea, Ian Kearney – who drew up a successful rescue package for the school 14 years ago – warns the loss of independence could be disastrous.

The board discussed its future at a public meeting on Wednesday and plans another for next Thursday evening.

It should not dismiss Mr Kearney's fears out of hand.

If council ownership is the only way to safeguard and ultimately save the school, then it must seek a model that would remove any question of political interference, retain its ability to control its destiny and perhaps build in a clear pathway to eventual return to full independence. Meanwhile, it is essential our local councils recognise the school's significance in the community and find ways to offer appropriate support, regardless of ownership.

- The Nelson Mail

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