Stories about the cancellation of Shakespeare have been exaggerated. Photo / Getty Images
Headlines over the last week would have you believe that Shakespeare was at risk of being cancelled in New Zealand.
All the outrage surrounding the issue emerged from revelations that Creative New Zealand declined the Shakespeare Globe Centre New Zealand’s application for $31,000 in funding.
The centre is behind the annual Sheilah Winn Shakespeare Festival, where high school students from around Aotearoa perform scenes from the Bard’s plays.
Culture editor at The Spinoff, and award-winning playwright, Sam Brooks tells the Front Page podcast that cries of cancellation were largely an exaggeration of what actually happened.
For starters, the future of the Sheila Winn Festival was never under any threat of being discontinued due to this funding being rejected.
“I think the narrative has been exaggerated because, in the past, when people have heard that art has been defunded or cut that often means it’s not happening,” says Brooks.
“But that’s absolutely not what has happened here. The funding from Creative New Zealand only makes up about 10 per cent of its $300,000 annual budget.”
While $30,000 certainly isn’t a small amount, the organisation confirmed that the loss of that funding wasn’t going to stand in the way of the event happening next year.
Brooks also explains that most of the criticism has been based on a tiny excerpt of an 11-page document that no one beyond Creative New Zealand and the Shakespeare Globe Centre has read in full.
The excerpt that has been doing the media rounds focused on the fact that Shakespeare is “located within a canon of imperialism and missed the opportunity to create a living curriculum and show relevance”.
Brooks says that context is important here and that this would have been one consideration among many when Creative New Zealand came to its decision.
He further says that the argument of race playing a role in this funding decision is also questionable.
“It is important to note that this organisation was mostly in competition for contestable funding with pākehā-led organisations,” says Brooks.
“Also, Shakespeare is in no danger of losing any kind of value for the next one hundred years. Kids will still study him in schools. It’s not necessarily that all these things are being prioritised over Shakespeare. It’s whether Shakespeare needs this extra money.”
“Ultimately, arts are funded on a needs basis, not a nice-to-have basis.”
The public outrage surrounding the decision eventually led to the Government stepping in to make up the funding shortfall through the Ministry of Education.
Asked whether this could set a dangerous precedent of having public outrage lead to overturning decisions, Brooks says that this isn’t likely to be a problem in the arts sector.
“The chance of anybody but Shakespeare having this kind of massive outcry is very small. I don’t think any similar kind of intervention is likely to happen [in the future].”
The great irony here, of course, is that public outcry is more regularly directed at the funding of projects that the public believes don’t deserve funding – and this is precisely why Creative New Zealand is generally so fastidious in making decisions about what and what not to fund.
Brooks says this debate points to the need for a broader discussion about what Creative New Zealand should be funding.
“I think Creative New Zealand’s mandate should be funding New Zealand art. Shakespeare has space, and he will always have space. He’s part of the canon now … But there is so much New Zealand art that can be funded and simply won’t happen without Creative New Zealand investment.”
• The Front Page is a daily news podcast from the New Zealand Herald, available to listen to every weekday from 5am.