The focus of the presidential campaign turned to culture and arts funding on Thursday, and, while it was great that such a subject was thought worthy of presidential involvement, it also showed what has long been wrong with cultural administration in Taiwan.
The three candidates spent an hour offering their ideas and taking questions at an event sponsored by the Preparatory Institute of the Foundation of the Inaugural Year for Culture, and without getting into the specifics of what the candidates pledged, the name of the event’s sponsor sums up what is wrong with the cultural industry in this nation: It’s too bureaucratic — and too political.
It is great that the government supports the arts, but far too often the running of arts programs is left to politicians or others who have no background, and sometimes very little interest, in arts administration, theater, dance, music or the other forms of art.
For example, the government, over several administrations, has spent a lot of money building cultural centers and performance venues, but these centers are underutilized, because the funding has focused on the facilities, not what goes on in them.
Funding has also become very political, with little regard to long-term planning, which is the key to arts management. Former Council of Cultural Affairs minister Emile Sheng (盛治仁) lost his job because the amount of money spent on the rock musical Dreamers (夢想家) — NT$215 million (US$7.1 million) — was excessive for a show that ran for just two nights as part of the Double Ten National Day and Republic of China centennial celebrations.
However, one of Sheng’s predecessors, former council chairwoman Wong Chin-chu (翁金珠), came under attack in October 2007 from then-Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) legislator Diane Lee (李慶安), who felt the council was being “daring, ridiculous and extravagant” for having the temerity to propose a four-year budget when Wong could not be sure the then-Democratic Progressive Party administration would be in office for those four years.
An arts and culture administrator having the nerve to think long-term — what a heresy, given the year-to-year funding that most government agencies live by. However, arts and cultural management needs to be long-term. One of the problems with the programming for the National Theater and Concert Hall is that there is so much staff turnover every time a new head is named. Foreign companies and orchestras plan their international tours three to five years in advance, not for next year.
Speaking of shortsighted planning, one of the council’s proposals that will hopefully be rethought now that Sheng has gone is the plan to offer post-show grants based on 75 percent of overall box-office take, not just pre-show grants. Sheng said the new scheme would give performers a stake in the financial success of their shows.
Obviously, Sheng had very little contact with the performers and creative people he was supposed to represent. They always have a financial stake in their shows, because the council’s grants rarely cover the entire budget for a show or pay for enough rehearsal time. This proposal would ensure that directors and producers play it safe with things they know will attract large audiences.
The dance collective Horse (驫舞劇場) would not have been able to mount its three-weekend-long production of Successor (繼承者) at Huashan 1914 Creative Park last month if it had not received a grant ahead of time, a grant that was less than it had asked for and that did not cover all its up-front costs.
Sheng’s “play it safe” thinking is why promoters invariably want foreign ballet troupes to perform Swan Lake instead of another classic or modern romantic ballet. Audiences in Taiwan are already drowning in a sea of swan feathers.
Audiences for all artistic genres lose out as a result of such shortsightedness and political stratagems, and the nation is poorer for it.
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