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Digital centre plan: “naive, desperate, a hoax”

Opinion by Robin Maconie
“Naive”, “desperate”, and “a hoax” are among disbelieving responses to the Grow Wellington launched Lilburn Studio Trust bid to garner funds for a curiously styled $20 million digital centre for the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra to record music for the movie industry.

Supported by empty statements and a postage stamp sized artist’s impression, the front-page announcement in the Dominion Post for Friday was timed to attract a minimum of attention from copy editors, inquisitive journalists or members of the Wellington workforce preoccupied with thoughts of the coming weekend.

The designated site of the proposed new building, the former Williams and Adams location near the corner of Abel Smith and Taranaki Streets, is a busy intersection of an inner city artery and State Highway 1. In addition to access and parking issues, the choice of location means that a significant amount of any projected build figure will be devoted to strengthening and soundproofing a structure not only to be built on a fault line but also subject to constant and ever-increasing heavy traffic. Experts say it makes no sense to build on a city centre site when larger, quieter, and less expensive alternative locations are more conveniently available nearer the Peter Jackson movie complex in Kilbirnie.

Critics point out that the press release in its present form is nothing more than a pipe dream and comes with no guarantees or endorsements from the audio or movie industry, the NZ Film Commission, nor any of New Zealand’s internationally recognized movie makers. Many interpret the proposition frankly as a last gasp attempt by members of a cultural clique involved in the failed Massey-Victoria Schools of Music merger, to recoup funds previously earmarked by Michael Cullen in 2007 for the now indefinitely stalled development of a new school building and 800-seat auditorium originally planned to occupy the handkerchief Ilott Green site adjacent to the City Gallery and opposite the NZSO head office in Civic Square.

Sharp criticism has also been voiced at the brazen attempt by Grow Wellington to cash in on the Lilburn Trust name in an attempt to give its proposal brand recognition and legitimacy, and sell the project to unsuspecting arts charities.

The real Lilburn Trust is a charity with impeccable educational and cultural credentials, but it does not have $10 million to invest, let alone in real estate speculation. And as a demonstration of marketing ineptness, while the Lilburn name has sentimental value for New Zealanders, it has absolutely no pulling power for the sort of big ticket international investors in the audio, movie, or games industries whose endorsement is essential if an initiative of this kind is to succeed.

By their conspicuous lack of involvement, Wellington-based financial institutions already invested in similar schemes overseas, for example a vast and highly ambitious British BBC-ITV sponsored educational centre of excellence and media technology research already under construction in the UK in partnership with the University of Salford, are showing little confidence in the viability of any local building plan advised by local arts and classical music figureheads.

Concerns remain that the selfstyled Lilburn Studio (or Studios) Trust, and build cost figure of $20 million are no more than marketing devices for a body that has no capital of its own; its aspirations to charitable status, and undertaking to fund half the build cost, mere gestures forming part of an elaborate bluff mounted in the hope of accumulating sufficient private venture capital for the Trust to gain leverage to bid for the currently frozen $11.14 million Cullen Fund.

Professionals report that the business rationale for the NZSO sound stage does not add up. Elizabeth Kerr’s stated belief that the planned facility “could help New Zealand be seen as a total solution for film production, right through to musical scoring” revealed a naïve miscomprehension of the way the movie industry industry actually functions. Grow Wellington’s Laurence Greig’s assertion that “the city needed to make more financial gain from its reputation as a creative centre for films and electronic games” was simply an attempt to make money on the backs of local talents whose national and international success might actually be put in jeopardy by the ill-conceived actions of property speculators.

If the movie industry wants it, they can pay for it

Wellington should rather be focused on training and education to professional standards employable by industry, and not get caught up in building expensive white elephants that are too costly to hire and demand constant infusions of new capital in order to remain competitive. A world class facility aiming to be attractive to the movie industry is by definition a business proposition that should be designed, equipped and paid for by the industry, not by amateur property developers in Wellington with no understanding of the dynamics of the movie business.

But for former Creative New Zealand manager Elizabeth Kerr and NZSO CEO Peter Walls who are fronting the new promotion, the digital home concept may well be seen as a last gasp attempt to rescue some personal credit from an ill-fated privatization package for classical music that began with the merger announcement in 2002 of the two university music schools.

Under Stuart McCutcheon, the unsuccessful Destiny Church-style makeover of Wellington’s musical culture has implicated a large and constantly circulating cast of key players in positions of influence in the universities, national libraries, local and national government, the orchestras, and Creative New Zealand, selling itself to a disbelieving public as a recipe for success and guarantee of international excellence and global recognition for classical music under the Wellington City of Culture brand.

A crucial element of the original McCutcheon game plan was to persuade the government to ratify “creative” music composition and performance as academically on a par with research. At the time this would have enabled an independent New Zealand School of Music to market itself as a Centre of Excellence in “creative research” and qualify for substantial government research funding. Responding to pressure from the scientific research community, in 2004 the Tertiary Education Commission refused to sanction music composition or performance as research in the sense intended by funding regulations. This critical setback led almost at once to a well-publicized career move by McCutcheon leaving Massey and Victoria in disarray in 2005 to take over the vice-chancellorship of Auckland University, there to launch a second, more successful attempt to market the same formula under the acronym NICAI with a succession of controversial appointments to positions of influence in music and architecture. In turn, the scientific community was punished for its noncooperation by the Humanities Research Council appropriation and diversion of Marsden Fund resources to well publicized PhD projects in nonscientific subject areas.