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Opinion: Why CNZ's Auckland Flooding Censure Matters

21 Sep 2023

It's been the talk of the creative community this week - but what does CNZ senior management's "significant failings" mean to those it looks to serve? Andrew Wood gives his thoughts.


Recently it has come to light that during the catastrophic storm in January, nearly 30 Creative NZ (CNZ) staff were left stranded and abandoned at the flooded Auckland Airport while their senior management - including CNZ Chief executive Stephen Wainwright - sought more comfortable digs in airport lounges and the Koru Club and commandeered the first available taxis.

You couldn’t script a more perfect metaphor for the way many creatives view the organisation. It’s allegory at its finest.

Wainwright was officially censured by CNZ’s governing board, and rightly so.

Why, you might wonder, am I bringing this up here? Surely, I am not merely gossiping or indulging in base Schadenfreude? 

I submit that what this incident may reveal is an absence of substantive guidance and engagement by CNZ senior management with staff and processes at the coal face.

This, in turn, might reflect a particularly dysfunctional managerial culture that hardly seems capable of serving vulnerable creative communities. 

In short - the organisation tasked with preserving our cultures can’t even preserve its own.

If CNZ’s senior management can’t treat its own staff with decency and respect, what hope have funding applicants?

And just to be clear here - my sights are firmly on senior management. Those below them clearly cannot do their jobs with full efficiency and effectiveness if they do not have the full support of their leaders.

When one considers what often appears to be the lack of any obvious interest by CNZ senior management in the unglamorous, grassroots level of cultural development in Aotearoa; the common opinion of lacklustre guidance offered in the filling out of funding applications; and the strangely unprofessional assessor feedback in need of a PR filter - this begins to make sense.

Consider how funding decisions are made. Panels of external assessors make funding recommendations, internal CNZ staff moderate those afterwards. 

Strangely, this doesn’t extend to moderating assessor comments, resulting in such howlers as Shakespeare being declared “locked within a canon of imperialism” and irrelevant to Aotearoa and its people. But I digress.

CNZ’s chief executive then makes recommendations to its governing body - the Arts Council - which signs off on final decisions.

You can see why a dysfunctional work and management culture would have a direct run-on impact for New Zealand’s creative communities.

It is entirely debatable how independent the assessment panels are. In 2019, a CNZ senior assessment adviser emailed one such panel in 2019 questioning the scores it had given Dance Aotearoa (DANZ) and asking that they be lowered to match corresponding criteria.

This resulted in DANZ not being granted the requested funding, leading DANZ to launch a lawsuit against CNZ. The funding organisation stood firm that they acted lawfully and that their processes are robust. 

The case was dismissed. Nonetheless, it does highlight potential weaknesses in the system. The integrity of the organisation’s processes is only as good as that of the management tasked with overseeing them.

Even then, those processes can be as robust as a double-brick proverbial dunny, but if they aren’t getting the money to the right places - grassroots cultural production - it is entirely reasonable to ask whose interests are, in fact, being reflected and what good they are in the first place.

If CNZ’s senior management can’t even be bothered to make sure that their own staff are safe, comfortable and kept informed, while they themselves seek sanctuary in the Petit Trianon of the Koru Lounge, with what sort of indifference do they regard funding applicants?

Especially those applicants who are not high profile, well-connected, big names with impressive organisations backing their applications. Not all important creative production is shiny, profound, international, or business-orientated.

The nature of the anecdotal neglect suddenly becomes clear. Dare I suggest that senior management may need to venture forth from Mahogany Row to the rather more mundane realm of creative practitioners where the champagne and canapés are less ubiquitous?

This is hardly the first example of CNZ’s senior management’s bizarre decision-making in recent memory. We may recall their business dealings with digital agency We Are Indigo, despite significant concerns raised by others outside of the organisation.

It speaks of a certain degree of distance and arrogance that we can only hope is now being addressed.

The board’s review of the Auckland Airport fiasco noted that “senior leaders failed to uphold the core organisational values of mahi tahi, tauutuutu and manaakitanga.”

Mahi tahi – partnership.
tauutuutu – reciprocal communication.
manaakitanga – kindness, hospitality, support.

Given that these values are intrinsic to the cultural identity of Aotearoa which CNZ is tasked with developing and promoting, it is a sad indictment on those appointed kaitaki of that culture. 

If the senior executives of CNZ cannot manage their own culture while upholding those values, what hope do they have of managing the development of the national culture?

RNZ reports that CNZ employees told of “their anger, betrayal, and shock at the lack of leadership and poor communication from CNZ management during the event.”

“Staff felt abandoned, and a number said they had lost trust in the senior leadership team and the organisation.”

Ironically that is how many creatives have reported feeling in dealing with CNZ’s application process – cast adrift, left to stumble through the process and not much the wiser should their application be rejected, and forced to gratefully scramble for crumbs.

Consider that many of New Zealand’s creatives are in the financial precariat, particularly those marginalised groups – including Māori, Pasifika, LGBTQIA+, creatives with disabilities – that CNZ is tasked with facilitating.

Clearly CNZ’s senior management has a long road ahead rebuilding the trust of their staff.

While they are doing that - while they permit themselves some introspection over what they could have done better - they might consider a similar reconciliation with New Zealand’s grassroots creative community who have similarly lost trust in them and the process.

The creatives of Aotearoa are tired of being abandoned in their own flooded airport of disinterest and financial precarity.