Kulturkampf: Commercialisation Wars Against Arts

Listener: 31 July, 1999.

Keywords: Governance; Literature and Culture;

What have the following in common?

* The disappearance of the National Art Gallery;
* National Archives sued by its stakeholders in the High Court;
* The public outcry over the National Library’s proposed reorganisation.
* The National Trust under severe financial pressure;
* Te Papa confused with an amusement arcade;
* Radio New Zealand’s considering privatising its news service;
* The lack of local content on television.
* User charge threats to your local library;
* Victoria University of Wellington selling off a McCahon painting?

The Beehive must privately bewail the public agitation, often from National’s friends. But from an economic perspective, they are the consequences of commercialisation policies spreading into the cultural sector.

Commercialisation is the theory that business practice is best, even for non-businesses. We have stacked the boards and the top executives of our cultural organizations with business men and women, and those tempted by the fashion. The general rule seems the appointees have to be ignorant of what they are in charge of (so as not to be captured by the special interest groups). Were there a Literary Fund (it got abolished), its chair would have to be illiterate.

Because the commercialisation policies failed in the core economy, there has been no marked increase in material output, and no additional revenue for cultural activities. But the commercialisation mythology says there would be efficiency gains from business management. Business performs best where it is selling things, and so the cultural organizations focused on selling – on user pays, on advertising, on sponsorship, on arcade games. This distorted their purpose, and yet failed to provide enough revenue. Internal reorganizations began.

The theory of the commercialisation has a crucial assumption that supply and demand are “separable”, so the production process independent of the demand for the good or service. That is a reasonable assumption for many – but not all – products. Organic food and free range eggs are exceptions. So is handcrafted pottery.

Much of what is produced within the public sector is not separable. Because the “output”, as the jargon goes, is not precisely defined, the only way of knowing the quality and suitability of its services involves an evaluation of the production process. You dont buy a car that way. You assess it by its final characteristics, knowing little about how it was produced. But the achievements of an archive, library, or museum are not like commercial products. We understand them largely by their supply process, even if the Public Finance Act requires portentous circumlocutory definitions. The business leadership takes the verbiage seriously, not understanding that mucking around with the production process affects what really matters. Before they are finished, the stakeholders are up in arms.

I was fascinated by Helen Clark saying that when she becomes prime minister, she will also take the cultural affairs and heritage portfolio. Perhaps she sees herself in the tradition of Peter Fraser and Norm Kirk who, while not formally holding the portfolio, were great ministers of cultural affairs. They knew it is not just about high culture. An extra 4 cents a New Zealander a day would give a useful $50m plus a year injection to the arts, reducing financial and commercialisation pressures on them. But I would give a third to the popular arts and a third to supporting the interests of the young.

National’s record has been spotty. Its ministers have generally treated the portfolio as unimportant, or have been, as in the case of current minister Marie Hasler, outside cabinet. The government’s Strategic Results Areas (now “Goals and Objectives”) have been dismissive of the arts – if they are even mentioned. Reflecting on his premiership, Jim Bolger regretted he did not do enough for the arts. There are National leaners who care as passionately about the arts as do those on the left.