OPINION: Reading the Hamilton City Council's draft Hamilton Arts Agenda was a pleasant surprise. Certainly, the document is irritating, in that it looks like it was written by a sentient thesaurus being paid $25 a word. But its sentiment, despite being vague to the point of parody, seems to be in the right place. Reading between the lines, it seems to be: Hamilton has rather a lot of creative people in it, and if we (meaning the Hamilton City Council) just offered a bit of support, we could get a good thing going here.
That's not what it actually says, of course. What it says is stuff like this: "Activity in the five priority areas will be regularly evaluated to ensure ongoing dialogue on current issues, and an annual reporting `scorecard' will be developed and made available online." I've read that six times and still haven't the slightest idea what it means. A scorecard? I hope it's not a set of arbitrary numbers. Attaching arbitrary numbers to things just means someone (or more likely, many someones) have been paid to attach arbitrary numbers to things. No, what will tell us if this strategy is successful is evaluating in a year's time or so – is there more art being produced here? Are there more people studying it? Most importantly, are those who produce the arts in this city finding things easier than they are right now?
At the moment, a lot of people in the local arts sector feel like the council's latest move is only one in a series. Fair enough too. Hamilton is a city with an identity crisis. Much like a teenager going through phases, Hamilton jumps from one fad to another, to the ratepayer's detriment. Remember how we were going to be the Events Capital of New Zealand? That approach got us the V8s and the Claudelands Event Centre, which, judging from the events held there so far, is going to qualify us for the title of Rodeo and/or Caravan Expo Capital of New Zealand. It's also costing a hideous amount of money, so it's quite understandable for people to be wary of the next big thing.
There's also the fact that, to date, the council's approach to the arts has been to import them from more fashionable cities. The fact that I don't like the new sculpture thing in Garden Place is irrelevant; what annoys me is the fact that HCC felt the need to get someone in from Auckland. (How else would a collection of oversized pipes and washers have credibility?)
Other things we've had to import from Auckland include consultants to tell us where public art should go. This must surely be a most lucrative scam. All this requires is to drive down the expressway, point, say "There", drive home, and make a bill for $100,000 out to the Hamilton City Council. Why couldn't we have someone local do this sort of thing? They would know a lot more about suitable locations for public art. Perhaps the council's new agenda will address this problem, but I have my doubts.
Mayor Julie Hardaker has stated that one of the purposes of the agenda is to acquire sweet, sweet Creative New Zealand funding. This is important. Currently, the Waikato gets only 1.7 per cent of CNZ funding; Auckland gets 27 per cent. Creative NZ handed out $37.5 million to the arts sector in 2011, so this isn't exactly chump change. The creatives that I've spoken to worry that the new regime means there won't be enough input from the creative community, that funding may become cannibalised by the council bureaucracy, and that things will become too Hamilton-centric, leaving the wider Waikato creative community out in the cold.
The problem is that Hamilton only seems to understand grand gestures like cash-haemorrhaging event centres. There's little understanding of what it takes to make arts work on a community level. Here's a perennial example: the Meteor theatre. It should be Hamilton's entry-level theatre for small groups, but at $800 a day to hire it's so prohibitively expensive (for what it is) that it sits empty much of the time. A simple profit-sharing arrangement such as that enjoyed by BATS Theatre customers in Wellington would fix the access problem for community groups.
I wrote about this specific problem early last year. Many council meetings later, nothing has been done to properly address it. Here's hoping that the council's effervescent new agenda will, this time, help foster the arts that truly are Hamilton's best kept secret.
Joshua Drummond is a Hamilton freelance writer who once painted a picture of Batman playing a guitar, and is thus qualified to speak about the arts.
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