Womad : Saved by the Sun

Will the local government reforms put Womad in jeopardy?

by Gordon Campbell
(with images by Rose O’Connor and Alastair Thompson)

Thanks in no small part to great good luck with the weather –a storm blew in on the Monday just after campers moved out – the Womad festival racked up another successful outcome this year. Due to the golden weather, there was a late surge of walk ups by locals that compensated for the sluggishness of the early ticket sales, and – reportedly- a crucial 15 per cent of this year’s tickets were sold on the Friday of the festival and over the weekend.

All up, the final number of attendees over the three days was almost exactly the same as last year, although the numbers pitching a tent fell from 3,200 last year to 2272 this time around. Overall, the crowd was reportedly split about 50/50, between locals and out of towners.

Those slow pre-sales and the drop in numbers of tenters suggests that Womad did swing back this year at least, to being more of a local event -although this could just be a temporary reflection of the affordability of Womad during these recessionary times. Ironically, Womad wrapped up festivities this year just as the Key government announced its package of local government reforms, which include a direction to local councils to withdraw their support from social, cultural and environmental activities in their communities and concentrate on their “ core” or “essential” activities, yet to be defined. Womad stands to be in the firing line.

The vagueness about major aspects of the intended reforms is of concern to Taranaki Arts Festival Trust chief executive Suzanne Porter. Womad is just one of half a dozen successful arts and culture activities in which the local council is financially involved. As Porter told RNZ’s Arts on Sunday programme recently, just what is meant by essential services and who is to define them remains unclear at this point. “Personally what is of concern to me is that local communities are not allowed to define for themselves what they want to spend their rates on.” The arts community, Porter added, seems to be being blamed for blowouts in rates around New Zealand, yet on little or no evidence – given that the ratio of money being spent by councils on the arts is, on closer analysis, almost insignificant.

Paltry, but vital to the survival of the arts events being supported. For every dollar from the local council, Porter told RNZ, the Trust went out and raised a further $20 from the wider community, and some of the corporate sponsorship involved in Womad looked to the Council to provide that initial seeding money and burst of leadership. It pays off. “What we do in Womad is put Taranaki on the map. We build a town for a weekend…and the economic benefit is $7-8 million a year just on that one event. So we’re up for the debate. And we think there should be robust debate [about the local government reforms] before any decisions are made.”

Councils, she believes play a crucial role in providing startup money and leadership to events that lend a vibrancy to life in provincial New Zealand. “To attract people here there has to be more for them than good roads and pavements….I don’t want to live in a city where the celebratory things are gone. The pull and the beckoning of Aussie is so strong anyway from a money point of view, that if you take away those other things that make it worth living here, I think you’ll have changed the face of New Zealand.” ( In other countries as well, the economic recession and crisis in the Eurozone is badly affecting the funding of the arts. )

Even if it wanted to (and it plainly doesn’t) central government and Creative New Zealand couldn’t pick up what local government may be soon forced to abandon. Central government lacks the grassroots knowledge of local communities, and their needs and wants. In microcosm, Womad and the other popular events in which the Taranaki Arts Festival Trust plays a leadership role – the list includes an arts festival, a film festival and a garden show – will pose a sterling test of the ideology behind the current package of local government reforms.

Images by Alastair Thompson

Images by Rose O’Connor