A new discussion paper on orchestra funding provokes fears of major cuts to New Zealand’s major ensembles

New Zealand’s Culture and Heritage Ministry has released a discussion paper on the current funding model for the orchestral sector, arousing fears of impending cuts to the country’s major ensembles.

According to the report, the sector has seen a 32 per cent decrease in ticket sales between 2007-2010. The paper calls for the sharing of players and headline performers throughout the industry to increase efficiency. The New Zealand government is now calling for public submissions on the report.

New Zealand’s Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage Christopher Finlayson said, “’If orchestras were to work as an integrated system it could improve the sector’s overall viability and productivity, but would require players to work flexibly in a variety of settings, sometimes at relatively short notice.”

The sharing of jobs between ensembles could mean cuts to permanent orchestral positions. Among the organizations affected would be the Auckland Philharmonia, Vector Wellington Orchestra, the Christchurch Symphony, the Southern Sinfonia and the country’s national touring orchestra the New Zealand Symphony (NZSO).

Under the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra Act 2004, the NZSO operates as a Crown Entity, acting as a national arts organization which gives over 100 concerts per year with an annual grant of NZ $17 million. However, the paper questions whether it could flourish as a non-government organisation.

The report considers four “scenarios”: creating one company to administer all orchestras; appointing a “funding assessment panel” to work in conjunction with Creative New Zealand and the Ministry, centralising government funding to CNZ with an industry body assisting the delegation of funds; and stripping the NZSO of its official status, while fostering city-based orchestras ­– at least one operating at an international standard.

NZSO chief executive Christopher Blake said he welcomed the review. “We were particularly pleased to see the ministry’s commitment to retaining an international-quality orchestra for the whole country to enjoy, and the acknowledgement of the importance of a touring orchestra to reach diverse New Zealand communities, including in smaller centres,” he told Fairfax NZ.

The release of the discussion paper, and concomitant rumours of cuts to orchestras, have sparked comment internationally. UK critic Norman Lebrecht wrote on his blog: “The minister denies it, says it would be ‘unthinkable’. That, in political speak, usually means they are thinking about it […] And cuts are seen as inevitable.”

Minister Finlayson has downplayed the significance of the paper. “The state of the orchestral sector in New Zealand is very strong. It is in that context that the discussion document on orchestras was released”