WATCH: Behind the emotion of Aotearoa's pioneering literary festival's heart-breaking decision and an insightful, insider's guide to the creative community's funding crisis.
This video is made with the support of NZ on Air Public Interest Journalism Fund.
Watching your legacy arts organisation beach itself on the reef of declined funding applications is nobody’s idea of a good time.
But that’s what happened to James Littlewood, the director of the Going West festival. Here’s his inside story of how it all went wrong, and how extreme pressures of lockdowns and a funding crisis allowed some ugly truths to emerge.
In 1996, Naomi McCleary and Murray Gray chartered a steam train, rolled it onto Auckland’s then largely disused western line, stuck a bunch of writers on it and made literary whoopee all the way from the old Central Railway Station out to Helensville and back.
Going West began – literally – with a hiss and a roar. So the recent announcement that the much-loved festival was going into a forced hiatus hurt like hell.
Back in the before times, we were the darling of Aotearoa literati. We partied. We argued. We made literary shenanigans in trains, stations, churches, halls, pubs and paddocks. We had the time of our lives.
The shindigs were memorable. Poets Glenn Colquohoun and Serie Barford gave an electric double act on a country railroad platform; Graham Brazier made fart jokes, and then broke into song so resonant it made your hair stand on end; a room of 200 people all threw paper darts at each other; Keri Hulme made us shift our dates to accommodate whitebait season … every year, something new, something different, something strangely memorable.
But that was then.
The first surprising truth is that contrary to all predictions, the pandemic years were exceptionally good for Going West. Like the government of the time (remember them?), we ditched hard and early in January 2020.
I’d only grasped the steering oar less than two months previous. Cancelling was hard, and I still owe some drinks around town for that. But we realised – almost immediately – that cancelling our annual festival would enable a range of great things: some things we’d always wanted to do, some things we always should have done, and some things we never dreamed of doing - which turned out to be highly valuable.
The first thing we did was a complete re-org. We made a decision to become remote-by-design, which meant closing down the daisy chain of people’s individual Google drives, and building our own one. Now, for the first time, we had work emails!
Next, we started podcasting. It just so happens that virtually every word spoken into a microphone at every Going West festival has been recorded and archived by our beautiful friends at Auckland Libraries. We loaded this terabyte-sized collection onto our shiny new working platform and published 50 episodes of literary gold between 2020 and 2022. We’d always wanted to make use of the archive like this, and the lockdown made it possible. We also turned a bunch of those recordings into this awesome book, with the help of our other beautiful friends at Oratia Media.
Digital success tasted splendid, so our next step was to get into the movie business.
Inspired by the films of westy poet Dominic Hoey and digital artist Martin Sercombe, we repurposed our funding to commission five pairs of poets and filmmakers to just go out there and make stuff. The resulting films are beautiful. We commissioned two seasons of them, and the second season landed a resounding hit at this year’s inaugural Aotearoa Poetry Film Festival. Several have found success in other festivals around the motu and the world. We also made a couple of short but sumptuous documentaries with Nathan Joe and Freya Daly Sadgrove. Well worth a watch.
All the while, we set about nothing less ambitious than reinventing the whole idea of what a LitFest is, and does.
If anyone was going to take that challenge on, it was us. Going West is like the OG of LitFests. In 1996, we were the only one north of Pōneke, and the only independent festival dedicated exclusively to literature across the motu. But by the time lockdowns rolled around, every town in the country had its own quaintly eccentric, locally familiar book fest. Hamilton, Hawkes Bay, Nelson, Wānaka, Dunedin – hell, Auckland alone has at least six. Six!
So, like everyone else, we did a few livestreams. I love them, but the format is hard to make good. While we missed our big live festivals, we had success programming more–and–smaller shows in their place, which were easier and cheaper to postpone if lockdowns came. And lockdowns most certainly came. We rolled with it all. Agile was our middle name.
In short, we innovated our arses off.
We transformed the very idea of what a LitFest is and does. We never let go of the idea of bringing people together to champion all things bookish. But we also recognised that there is an awful lot of that already.
So our focus shifted quite naturally, and very valuably, towards content: both commissioning and publishing. This is what really changed things for us. Coming to see ourselves as a content-led organisation enabled us to make a tangible and direct contribution to both the cultural discourse and the creative economy of Aotearoa. Our audience mushroomed, and sharing our content with Auckland Libraries, The Spinoff and RNZ grew it further, exponentially. We soon cracked a 100,000, easy.
And then the Creative New Zealand (CNZ) money started to stop.
We scaled back our plans and reallocated some budget. More cutbacks, we struggled on. And we still landed some wins. We made more films, and they started getting traction both near and far. People started approaching us for more – and more complex – content-sharing deals. Then another funding application got declined. Again, we scaled back and reallocated, and leaned harder on our remaining funders. I told my board they might need to invoke the “no funding, no deal” clause of my contract.
One after another, the CNZ grants dried up. Each decline hurt twice, and each hurt more than the previous. First, you miss out on the money, and you can’t do the project you hoped for. But the organisation has overheads, and each application included a contribution towards those overheads. Since overheads are ongoing, those bills bite deep when there’s nothing to fund them. Then, as applications get declined, it becomes necessary to increase the overhead budget within each one.
That looks fine on paper, but no funders are really interested in funding overheads. All funders are alike in this regard: they all want their name attached to the show, in front of the punters. The back office work that delivers the show is both completely invisible and profoundly uninteresting to them.
If there was one thing I’d like to see change in the funding environment (besides mega-ramping the amount of money in it), it would be that. Our funders need to recognise that while they love the outputs, it’s the inputs which cost arts organisations. A good funding environment would recognise this. Justifying – say – an annual audit from the point of view of audience benefit is so pointless it’s embarrassing.
Meanwhile, the unfolding crisis challenged the strength of our team. Not everyone stood firm, and there were times when discussion and debate gave way to allegations and blame. Things got mean. It’s understandable. Everything sucked. When people are feeling it hard, they’re more likely to lash out in unpredictable ways.
People will look for anything on which to lay blame but themselves, and I’m talking about myself here as much as anyone. At the same time, I’ve found that the more dire the circumstances, the more important it is to carry the big strategic goals in mind.
Once you’re in a lifeboat, it’s more important than ever to navigate towards safety. But sadly, for many people, strategy is the first thing to go.
But there is a funding crisis, people are getting hurt and artists are becoming divisive. One trick that emerged during the lockdowns was complaining to the media when CNZ declined. There were some well-known examples I’m not going to traverse here, but I know of at least two instances when this was seen to work quite well. I’ve heard of people making the funders’ lives hell, and I’ve even heard of a blackmail grift, and was urged to do the same. We couldn’t help but be impressed, but we’re just not those people. But we have to wonder which is really the best approach.
Eventually, a third CNZ application got turned down. No more scaling back. No more reallocating. My contract was terminated, and Going West is now in a phase of – let’s say – deep healing.
I’ve pondered whether the changes that CNZ has recently announced would have made any difference if they’d come a year earlier. I suspect, probably not. The anonymous assessor model is still in place, and I find the idea of writing an application for an unknown assessor utterly demoralising, a worse attribute even than the roundly despised former 250-applicant cap. We obtained our assessors’ comments and scores, but they don’t add up to much. For the most part, they’re bursting with fulsome praise, identifying our innovations, celebrating our new direction.
But the main thing that hasn’t changed, of course, is the money. CNZ has less now than they did throughout COVID. And while they had a boost then, we should not see that boost as any kind of surplus, but really, just a less insufficient fund than it was before, and since.
Meanwhile, Going West’s got a new challenge.
A year ago, the previous Auckland Council handed them the keys to the house once owned by the writer Maurice Shadbolt. They’re rehabilitating it after years of neglect by Auckland Council, who inherited it as a going concern from the now defunct Waitakere City Council, who bought it off Maurice’s family to turn it into a writer’s residence, which Going West is now doing.
The plan is a good one. A great one, in fact. It’s unique and powerful and will – once again – see the commissioning and publication of more great new literature that simply doesn't exist anywhere else. You can give them a hand over here, because – in case you missed it – they could really use a little help right now.
As for myself, well, I’ve had four incredible years. I’m proud of what we achieved, and incredibly grateful to the board and the team for their incredible skills and knowledge. Like many arts workers, I was never actually employed. I was a contractor, saving my client the costs of employment. I paid my own tax, my own ACC, worked on my own computer in my own office inside my own house. Now, instead of one big client, I’m re-building my portfolio of lots of smaller gigs. And yes, I’m open to offers.