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Monday, November 30, 2020

Taranaki Arts Festival Trust will not present WOMAD NZ 2021 but there may still be a reprieve!

Photo by Mckenzie Jennings-Gruar

Two conflicting messages were release today from the teams behind WOMAD 2020.   The current organisers of WOMAD New Zealand, The Taranaki Arts Festival (TAFT) said in a press release today that it had little choice but to pull out of the upcoming 2021 event.  They said the decision was 'gut wrenching' but given that it stood to lose millions of dollars and risked being declared bankrupt if Covid-19 disrupted the festival. 

In their own accompanying statement WOMAD UK, which oversees the event internationally, however said it was pushing on with plans for a New Zealand festival in March, drawing on Kiwi talent. 

For two decades sounds from around the world have rung around the Bowl of Brooklands in New Plymouth, attracting tens of thousands of people from around the country to the three-day WOMAD festival. 

The Taranaki Arts Festival Trust (TAFT) has until now held the contract to put on the event, but, sadly this wont happen next year.  At a press conference Chief executive Suzanne Porter said there had been a difference of opinion between TAFT and WOMAD UK about the risk Covid-19 posed to events in New Zealand. 

"Our government will close things down," she said, "as we've just seen recently in Auckland with just two days' notice.  We analysed what that financial risk was, modelled it right through.  We could carry that risk through until about February and in February we start going over the $2 million mark and I need to be very clear here - TAFT carries the loss, so we couldn't take that risk." 

My Baby at WOMAD 2019 - Photo Tim Gruar

Suzanne also said it would only take Auckland going into lockdown for WOMAD to fall over completely. If that occurred in the final week leading into the festival the charitable trust's exposure would have been closer to $3.5 million. "We would be committed to paying the artists. They'd be in town. We'd be committed to paying for the hotel rooms because they'd be in the hotel rooms. Our site would be set up...we wouldn't be able to honour our debts which is not the way TAFT works. We are not people who would simply not pay our debts and close up shop, it's just not kaupapa." 

Porter said the trust had looked at every avenue and even made a plea to the government for it to underwrite the event.  Howver that was not successful. 

An so, she said in the press release "that really is the essence of the decision. It has been gut-wrenching. TAFT has been here since the beginning, it took risks, it took losses for a number of years.  We were happy to take a rest year in 2021 and come back in 2022 when hopefully our borders were open at least to some countries and promote the full WOMAD experience again." 

Although TAFT has recently had to let two full-time staff go and reduce contractors' hours they were not sitting on their hands and are already planning a new international event for 2022. 

So what of WOMAD?  WOMAD UK director Chris Smith, however, thinks that New Zealand's risk to Covid is much less than the UK and the rest of the world.  "We have looked at what is happening in New Zealand and certainly we can see there are a lot of events that are still happening and selling very well and there's clearly a demand.   The situation in New Zealand is very positive regarding the pandemic and the advice we received was that there was good reason to carry on." 

Reb Fountain -WOMAD 2020 - Photo Tim Gruar

According to their press statement WOMAD UK was now working with multinational concert producer Live Nation on the New Zealand event. 

Porter told Radio New Zealand today that she believed that TAFT had lost its hosting rights indefinitely.  She suspected that Live Nation had swooped in and would call for a multi-year deal in return for carrying the festival. 

Smith, however, says WOMAD UK was open to working with TAFT again.  The press release he issued today said WOMAD New Zealand 2021 would be different and feature an almost exclusively Kiwi line-up. "There's a very rich range of artists from different cultures resident in New Zealand playing creatively and to a high standard and that's the model we've developed in Australia and we are looking to use in Spain and the UK. So we're very much moving during this difficult period to actually trying to keep the spirit of the event alive and to keep the spirit of cultural exchange alive, but mining the resources that are within the countries we are working in." 

"Not surprisingly," he continued, "the format for 2021 will be somewhat different but will present the usual diverse programme of artists with all or most of them based in New Zealand.  This is possible because of New Zealand’s richly diverse population and cultural heritage."  

New Zealand, he said, has had fantastic and enviable success in controlling the pandemic, and whilst this means it’s all but impossible for artists to attend from overseas it means a a local all Kiwi WOMAD festival could go ahead in its place - "with all the features we know and love."   "By promoting WOMAD in New Plymouth for another year, we will be able to offer employment opportunities to many of our longstanding crew and supporters in the toughest of years for our industry, and to continue to support local business with a festival that injects millions of dollars into the economy in a region we now call home." 

So, Groovers.  Watch this space!

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