Barbarians At The Gates

Arts and cultural policy seems to be going backward at the moment. Why? Does it matter? 

In his 1852 inaugural speech as Canterbury’s first superintendent, James Fitzgerald – later to be New Zealand’s first premier – said, ‘There is something to my mind awful in the prospect of the great mass of the community rapidly increasing in wealth and power without that moral refinement which fits them to enjoy the one or that intellectual cultivation which enables them to use the other.’

One hundred and fifty six years later I recalled to the new Minister for the Arts, Chris Finlayson, that he had two great predecessors in Alan Highet and Doug Graham. Teasingly, I mentioned that a previous National Government’s prime minister, Jim Bolger, said that he wished he had spent more on the arts during his prime-ministership. The ex-premier standing next to us said, ‘I did say that, and I still believe it.’

I am not sure what the current prime minister believes. Possibly does not care; the consequence is that the arts, culture and heritage are being undermined by neglect and bureaucratic  insensitivity.

Here’s a question. Where in Wellington is the National Library Building? No, it is not on Molesworth Street. What you had in mind is now referred to by senior officials as ‘Department of Internal Affairs (Molesworth Street)’. Just along from it is ‘Department of Internal Affairs (Mulgrave Street)’. One has the National Library in it, the other Archives New Zealand (so half marks).

Apparently this will enable the DIA to spend a fortune shifting the various treaty documents from the security room of Mulgrave St to the Molesworth St site without legal challenge, since they are not leaving the Archives New Zealand building – there isn’t one. (A couple of asides. The lecture theatre in the past National Library has yet to be renovated for a far smaller cost, but they can’t find the cash to do the job. Of course it is not ridiculous that the National Library has no decent lecture theatre – it hasn’t even got its own building. Meanwhile the past Archives New Zealand building is being invaded by other divisions of the Department of Internal Affairs.)

This sad state of affairs has arisen because the bureaucrats decided to merge the Library and Archives into the DIA. (You will recall the Clark-Cullen Government, which showed leadership in the arts and culture, had established them as separate entities.) An uninterested minister – he once told us the only New Zealand poet he knew of was Sam Hunt – agreed. The minister has since moved on to primary industries (he is more knowledgeable about cows and sheep) but the resulting administrative structure put the National Librarian and Chief Archivist – formerly departmental heads – at the third level below numerous bureaucrats who, apparently, seem out of sympathy with archives and libraries and may not have even heard of Sam Hunt.

Don’t you feel good about their eliminating the national brands of Archives New Zealand and the National Library and replacing them with the Department of Internal Affairs brand? Does your heart not swell with pride at the symbol of a barbarian-led DIA at the heart of the nation’s self-image?

The DIA attack on branding is not alone. Te Papa is proposing to eliminate Te Papa Press. In contrast, Massey University is establishing its own press as a part of promoting its brand. The next thing is that its graduates will be even more proud, students even more attracted. (Perhaps the university should be merged into the Department of Internal Affairs with the VC at level three; those above would be sure they knew better how to run a university.)

Then there is Te Ara, the world’s first electronic public encyclopedia. Apparently the proposal is to double your pride in the achievement, by ensuring it is the first world’s first electronic public encyclopedia not to have an ongoing program of updating. However, becoming a fossil will not double its usefulness. (Serve the politicians right. Being without bones their fossils won’t appear in the stagnating Dictionary of New Zealand Biography.)

The annual Book Awards are also in turmoil. The withdrawal of the major sponsor (the previous one was a state owned enterprise) has meant the postponement of this year’s awards. Meanwhile the BNZ says it is withdrawing from its literary awards, notably, the Katherine Mansfield short-story award. (Her father was chairman of the BNZ for seventeen years.) Its sponsorship focus is on Plunket, Super Rugby, Cure Kids and Kiwis for Kiwis. All very worthy, of course.

The lack of sponsors has also meant that Book Month has been postponed, possibly indefinitely. (I am never quite sure of its purpose since I buy and read New Zealand books every month.)  So business is contracting its role in supporting the arts too.

It is especially disturbing is that while many of our key cultural agencies should be dealing with the challenges of the electronic revolution, they are instead fighting barbarian bureaucrats and depending on commerce much of which has little interest in arts, culture or heritage. With a lack of leadership at the top, they are not winning.

A healthy arts environment helps us face the challenges of the future. Time and again I am struck by how our leadership is stuck with a world view that is not looking anywhere. Its priorities seems to be casinos, rugby and war – certainly not moral refinement and intellectual cultivation.