For anyone who follows local politics on Twitter, you may have seen the discussion regarding Boon Street Art Festival and Hamilton City Council funding. It stemmed from a council report recommending that Boon Street Art Festival’s application to the Major Events Sponsorship Fund should be declined.

The reason cited by the staff assessor – the event did not meet the fund criteria.  To give a bit of background about the fund, organisations can apply to the Major Events Sponsorship Fund for funding towards an event’s overall running costs. Hamilton City Council defines this as a sponsorship arrangement.

The scope of funding is large, with some successful applicants receiving over $100,000.  The grant is selective and competitive. Only one local arts event has successfully received funding every year for the last five years, the Hamilton Gardens Arts Festival.

Balloons Over Waikato has also maintained a good record, receiving funding every year for those five years. A majority of national events (for example a national sporting championship event being hosted in Hamilton) have also been successful in receiving large funding grants towards operating costs to host in Hamilton.

Although the Major Events Sponsorship Fund is open to all organisations running events, most local organisations running events will likely be recommended by Council staff to apply for the Community Event Fund. Under this fund, organisations can apply for up to $5000 towards the event.  This can be particularly troublesome if you run free public events (often in public Council spaces no less!) with a large growing audience and mounting operational costs to cater for the event growth.

For organisations to apply for the Major Events Sponsorship Fund, they have prove the following points:
● Exposure and promotion of Hamilton-events that raise the awareness of Hamilton and receives
media on an international/national and local level
● Economic benefits for the city-events that increase the number of people coming into Hamilton
for the duration of the event and providing economic benefit to local businesses
● Promote pride and a sense of place for Hamilton residents –the event gives local residents and
those living outside of Hamilton, additional entertainment choice and recreational choice.

And this is where the criteria gets tricky. A festival like Boon Street Art Festival is a public festival, it is free over three days and the public can come and talk to artists as they work. Some of these artists are from outside Hamilton, some are even from outside New Zealand.  The Festival continues to grow every year, and as of last year started to work in with other organisations like Pecha Kucha and the Buskers Festival, to create a large collaborative event. The Festival itself has received publicity on a national and international scale. RNZ often does features on it. The artists themselves have their own followings, and often promote the event on social media. During the event they take photos, updating their artwork progress on their social pages all the while tagging in Boon and Hamilton.

When Boon secured New York based artist Askew One, he promoted the event and his work to his 250,000+ followers on social media. It is celebrated artists like Askew One and Gina Kiel (whose work is on The Meteor) which are showcased on mega international sites like Colossal and it is this site which shares the artist’s work to over 1M+ followers.

Artwork from Boon has been seen in national music videos, magazine shoots to everyday selfies from locals and tourists. The long-term tourism benefits the festival provides is inarguable. What can be argued is how Boon can quantifiably measure attendance. Under the current assessment criteria, Boon would have trouble measuring the numbers they attract during the event’s weekend. It is central city wide, sprawled among various streets, sometimes suburbs like Frankton, with people actively moving around checking out the work. It is not in a confined space or with ticket holders.  It doesn’t have a huge impact on hotel and motel bookings, as the event only has 7-8 artists travelling in from outside Hamilton. Small numbers compared to some events which have hundreds of active participants coming from outside of Hamilton for the weekend to compete in sports and recreational events.

However if you have been in town during Boon, you will notice the streets bustling, with large groups touring the city and checking out the artworks being created. Those people sit at cafes, come by with lunch and watch the artists work, or do other shopping and family events while they’re in town.

While it is hard for Boon to demonstrate its direct economic impact on the central city economy, it has already put Hamilton on the map as an arts destination and made the central city and Frankton a place to visit.

In order for Hamilton to grow as a tourism destination, we need to encourage the development of new events and support those events that are on threshold of transitioning from a local event to a nationally significant event. Sometimes these events will not be able to show an immediate economic benefit to the city with hotel stays or number of active participants travelling into Hamilton from other parts of the country or overseas. They are long term projects, designed to increase Hamilton’s visibility as a growing vibrant city.

They are often free outdoor events like Wintec’s Te Ruru Light Festival, which made its debut during Matariki in Garden Place. Events like these have the potential to grow and become signature events for the Waikato region, if they have the right financial support. Some of these events appear to have lower operating costs in their first few years because there are a lot of people volunteering their time and services to get exciting events off the ground. This good-will is not sustainable long-term, and project costs are almost always likely to rise as a result, especially as these events grow in popularity.

The Major Events Sponsorship Fund criteria has a reference to sponsoring emerging new events with long-term growth potential for the city, but this point is open to interpretation. What defines an emerging event? How will it be measured especially if it is free to the public? How is that call made and how are recommendations to be funded assessed?

I hope that the next council will consider the establishment of an events funding committee as they previously had for the large Performing Arts Contestable Fund. This would include independent expert assessors, rather than the current situation where it appears a single general manager is responsible for the assessments and recommendations of the Major Events Sponsorship Fund.  However, the decisions of a funding panel are only as good as the criteria allows. At this stage maybe an entirely new funding model is needed. If an event like Boon does not measure up to criteria, it is likely that other emerging festivals will also struggle to develop and grow due to the lack of financial support from the Council.

Luckily for Boon, there was a silver lining… councillors did not accept the staff recommendation, and voted 12 to 1 in favour of giving Boon $26,000. This amount was subtracted from the large grants that were recommended to Balloons Over Waikato who had originally received $120,000 and the Hamilton Gardens Arts Festival which had received $140,000.

I hope the next council will learn from this situation, and make a commitment towards designing a more sustainable events funding model, where future events like Boon would not fall between the cracks.