Book industry shocked at $500000 grant for unknown literary project –

There is frustration and confusion in Aotearoa’s literary sector about a $500,000 grant given to an organisation to improve Kiwis’ access to books.
Literary industry groups were blindsided by the Ministry for Culture and Heritage Manatū Taonga​’s grant made to Narrative Muse, a registered New Zealand business headed by Brough Johnson.
The money was from the ministry’s Cultural Sector Innovation Fund, part of a wider $374 million package it was given to divvy up among the sector to help it recover from Covid-19.
“I do feel really astonished,” said Claire Mabey, director of Wellington’s annual Verb festival and LitCrawl, who was an unsuccessful applicant for the grant.
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The decision raised concerns the policy-heavy ministry is out of its depth doling out funding – something arts funding authority Creative New Zealand had significant experience in.
Mabey said without seeing details of the application, she could not see how the funding would benefit Aotearoa artists and the literary community, which was “so interconnected with independent booksellers”.
“It feels really confusing. … An online platform doesn’t seem particularly innovative to me. … It feels like the money could’ve been used more wisely.”
Mabey wondered whether Narrative Muse would employ people within Aotearoa’s literary community and when they were starting consultation.
The ministry’s deputy chief executive for investment and outcomes Joe Fowler said questions about Narrative Muse or its business model were best directed to it.
“Manatū Taonga can speak to the potential we saw in it as a start-up with a strong proposal to develop audiences for diverse literary, movie and TV content, including Māori, Pasifika, Asian, rainbow, women, and gender-diverse, and to enable access to diverse content,” Fowler said.
The project had potential for audiences to find content where they saw themselves and their stories represented–“and in doing so create an additional avenue for New Zealand content to reach global markets”.
The ministry was looking for new ideas that solved sector challenges and brought about transformational change.
The funding was awarded after the idea was pitched at an open presentation session with ministry officials.
Narrative Muse “scored highly” for having a clear proposal which would deliver for its sector, community or audience, Fowler said.
Publisher of Victoria University of Wellington Press Fergus Barrowman said it was “impossible” to see how the project would benefit the sector. “If there is evidence to support this being well-spent, I’m yet to see it.”
Writers and “proven” community-driven literary organisations were not getting support, Barrowman said. “Everyone’s doing it hard at the moment. I’m particularly concerned for writers’ festivals and public programmes which keep getting hit hard by the pandemic.”
Booksellers NZ chief executive Dan Slevin said there was “considerable outrage” about the grant. Slevin did not want to be “anti-new people”, however “none of the established [literary] organisations” were aware of Narrative Muse’s pitch, and there were fears the established organisations would be excluded from future involvement.
“The literary sector’s share of Government funding has been dropping progressively over time,” he said. “What this has done is exposed a pretty raw wound … It’s showing the inequities built into the system.”
Narrative Muse’s Brough Johnson has been approached for comment.
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