Let’s make arts funding honest!

The Big Idea recently published a thought-provoking article by Elise Sterback, “What if arts funding was honest?” In it, she discusses the often demoralising process of applying for arts funding and makes a radical suggestion: let’s be honest and make arts funding a lottery.

It’s an excellent proposal, and I think we should give it a try. Sterback outlines a clear and transparent process that includes a vetting system, to be sure that all proposals going into the draw are at least legitimate and achievable. Accepted proposals would stay in the pot until they are drawn for funding, or until the artist decides to withdraw the project. This way, artists are not forced to repeatedly rework or create new applications – hours and hours and endless hours that could be better spent on our actual arts practice.

Furthermore, Sterback suggests that the applications could be stored in an open access database, as living documents that the artists can update as their ideas evolve, that other artists can look at – to find collaborators, network, gain inspiration – and that other potential funders could browse to discover projects they might want to fund. The funders applying to the artists instead of the other way around – what a great idea! (although I’m not sure who these other potential funders are … ?)

As an artist whose practice (and life) is often (sometimes even mostly) shaped by the whims of funding decisions, Sterback’s proposal is hugely appealing to me. Not only would it change the game for artists, it would remove a lot of bureaucracy from the arts funding process, thereby freeing up money that could increase the amount available for actual arts projects.

After my latest CNZ rejection I checked the summary of results, and learned that the fund had received applications totalling six times the available budget. This available budget had not been made available to us applicants during the application process, only that grants of up to NZ$150,000 could be requsted. So it was surprising to learn that the total available budget was in fact only a little over $500,000. It would be interesting to know what was the total cost of administering this particular fund.

I was curious to see how my application had been assessed, so I requested the assessment report. CNZ applications are assessed by two anonymous external peer assessors (with some input from the advisor who has communicated with the applicant), who assess the project’s fit with the fund criteria. One of the assessors was very positive about my project, finding that it fit the criteria very well, while the other was not satisfied. In particular, they wanted more evidence of “high standards”, “high quality output” and “how the event will attract an audience and viewership”. This fund was for the development of new work and specifically stated that it did not cover production costs; our new work was invited to be shown at a festival that would be responsible for the production costs including attracting an audience, and this was stated in our application. As for high standards and high quality output (did I mention that the fund was for development, not production?), the assessor does not elaborate on what they mean by high standards and high quality, so I went looking on the CNZ website for some clarity of what this might mean.

Creative New Zealand uses the term “high quality” a lot in its funding information, but nowhere can I find what they actually mean by this (someone please let me know if a definition does exist!) and I couldn’t find the term “high standards” at all on the website. So my application has been knocked back by an anonymous “peer” on the basis of their unexplained personal opinion of “high quality” and “high standards”. Given that I work in a new and experimental artform, of which I am internationally recognised as a pioneer and innovator, I cannot help but wonder who this assessor is and against what standards they are measuring my work. But there is little point in trying to find out – my next application will almost certainly be assessed by different assessors and held to different unknown standards. I am doomed to keep trying in the hope that, because I do so many applications, there is a chance that at some point my application will happen to align with both assessors’ understanding and I will hit the jackpot. You’ve got to be in to win.

Arts funding is always going to be competitive – there will always be more applicants than can be funded, and those who do succeed are undoubtedly deserving. But there are clearly problems with the current funding model – as well as Sterbeck’s criticisms, last year  DANZ took CNZ to court for abruptly cutting its funding, and recently author Paula Morris made a successful complaint against a funding decision, asserting bias and ignorance on the part of the assessors. An open, transparent lottery process such as proposed by Sterbeck could remove much of the frustration, time-wasting, and soul-destroying unfairness of being told by an anonymous and quite possibly under-qualified assessor that you’re just not good enough.

The only way to find out if a system such as Sterback proposes might not only be workable but perhaps event better than what we currently have is to give it a shot; what have we got to lose? There’s always a chance!