By GREGORY McGUIRE
If nothing else, Carnival 2011 will surely be remembered for two things— the return to the Savannah and the big money prizes. While the restoration of the Savannah infrastructure has received popular acclaim, the big money prizes, made in fulfillment of an election promise, has been met with widespread criticism. As important as these decisions may have been in the context of Carnival 2011, it is imperative that Minister Winston “Gypsy” Peters and his People’s Partnership Government ( PPG) understand that these initiatives are merely scratching the surface of larger issues of development of a national policy and strategy on culture and creative industries. The 2011 initiatives have started the conversation and provided the PPG with an opportunity to transform the role of culture and the creative industries in the economy and society.
There is no doubt that the $2 million first prize payout heightened interest in the competitions among artistes and the general public. Both the International Soca Monarch and Chutney Soca competitions had the largest ever number of entrants. Chutney Soca promoter George Singh says “The first place prize money had created such a frenzy that for the first time in the competition we have recorded over 200 participants”. The prospect of winning a windfall lured the biggest soca stars back to the competition . The combative presence of Machel Montano, Destra Garcia, Bunji Garlin Faye Ann Lyons, Iwer George and Kees Dieffenthaller along with the marketing tagline: “race to $2 million”, stimulated public interest and drew large crowds to the events. The promoters may have made the proverbial “mint”, while the winners would know exactly what Kees is feeling when he sings the opening lines of “Wotless” —“Ah feel like ah just win a million dollars”.
It is however difficult to spot any other tangible fruits from the big money tree. On the other hand several negative outcomes can be identified. These include charges of inequity from other interest groups, reinforcement of the view that more money is the solution to our woes and the heightening of competition to the point of ugliness as represented in the reprehensible response to loss of chutney singer Ravi B. Moreover, the big money prizes did nothing to stimulate innovation and creativity, without which Carnival will sooner or later be dead.
Like his immediate predecessor, there is a grave danger of Minister Peters falling into the trap of claiming premature success from the outcome of his various initiatives in Carnival 2011. Success or failure depends critically on the framework and criteria used to make the assessment. Our Carnival, and indeed our wider cultural landscape- cannot progress on the basis of adhoc, whimsical or egotistical decision-making. We need to move beyond the simplistic—changing the dates of Carnival in Tobago, or flirting with Ms. World, to address the more strategic issues of cultural policy and the serious development of the cultural industries. One can only hope that after the bacchanal is done, Minister Peters would have the right conversations with the population by moving expeditiously to fulfill another election promise, this one “to produce and release for public comment a draft national cultural policy”. And even more important, that having released it, he’ll be prepared to really listen and engage the dialogue. Leadership, he should know, doesn’t always have to be confrontational and impatient.
The National Cultural Policy should provide a framework for, and sharper focus on the state’s interventions in the culture and the creative industries. However, several potentially contentious issues are likely to surface. What are the overarching goals of the cultural policy? What are the boundaries of the cultural policy? How is the concept of multiculturalism to be embraced?
How can we shape our culture so that the different strands can serve to integrate our people rather than exclude or divide them? How much protection and or what incentives should be given to the domestic cultural industries? What should be the priorities? What is an adequate budgetary allocation to culture and cultural industries? How does CSME, EPA, or WTO impact on the cultural policy? What legislative changes are or would be necessary to support the cultural policy goals? What is the role of State-Owned media in developing, promoting and distributing local content? What is the role of pan in schools? In which areas should the Government make investments? What is the role of the private sector in building a national culture? The role of intellectual property legislation in promoting cultural industries? What are the implications of the global digital convergence and the mobile revolution on cultural goods and services?
These are but some of the challenging conversations that must take place if the society is to grow and blossom to achieve its fullest potential. The policy document should form the framework for a more specific strategic plan for the development of the cultural or creative industries.
The approach to cultural policy in a few countries is instructive. In Canada, from which the concept of multiculturalism was borrowed, the national cultural policy has been one of cultural affirmation through sustained intervention, private sector involvement, inter-governmental cooperation and mixed public- private sector partnerships. The overarching aims of the policy are (1) Creation of Canadian content and performance excellence; and (2) sustainability of cultural expression and participation. Cultural creativity and expression are supported by national subsidies to artists, community organizations and festivals These goals are reinforced by a commitment to “the reservation of cultural shelf space for Canadian Content”.
Over the last 15 years, Brazil has experienced what is being called a renewal of Brazilian culture as seen in art, music, literature, film and an extraordinary media phenomenon. The growth and success has been due in no small way to the approach used in financing culture. The policy supports artistic and cultural activities by means of fiscal incentive legislation enabling private investors to deduct, in the case of cinemas, 100 per cent of their investment and in the case of other cultural areas between 66 per cent and 76 per cent, depending on the nature of the companies. The contribution could increase to 100 per cent in relation to the scenic arts, learnt and instrumental music, art books, museums, touring exhibitions. Most important of all is the philosophy that lies at the heart of the Brazilian policy for the Arts which acknowledges that the state has a fundamental role to play in financing culture without any return, particularly in areas which, because of their very nature, are not attractive to the market.
It is the type of conscious, systematic and deliberate approach towards strengthening culture and promoting the growth of cultural industries from which T&T can learn. Extemporising will not do the trick. For years we have recognised the need for policies and entrepreneurial strategies that focus on the quantifiable benefits of creative endeavors on the economy. All political parties and Governments speak of the culture and creative industries as if it were the flavor of the month. Thus far, none has been able to get it right. Where effort was made, as in the case of the last Manning administration, it seem to have been informed more by personal interest and egotism than by national imperatives. How else can one explain NAPA and Divine Echoes as priorities for expenditure?
In its 2010 Global Creative Economy Report, UNCTAD notes the while the economic and financial crises provoked a drop in global demand and a contraction of 12 per cent in international trade in 2008-9, “..world exports of creative goods and services continued to grow, reaching $592 billion in 2008- more than double their 2002 level, indicating an annual growth rate of 14 per cent over the six consecutive years”. UNCTAD advises that “the creative industries hold great potential for developing countries that seek to diversify their economies and leapfrog into one of the most dynamic sectors of the world economy. Hopefully, this evidence of the global growth potential of the creative industries as well as the imperative of diversification of the Trinidad and Tobago economy should inform a radically different approach by the Persad-Bissessar administration.
The Minister does not have to put everything on hold while developing policy. There are a number of equally important short and medium term imperatives to be addressed, which can have a direct impact on the economic contribution of the creative industries. Several fiscal incentives on the books remain inoperable, either because the enabling legislation or the administrative machinery is not in place. These include the 150 per cent tax deduction for sponsorship of audio-visual content which remains a source of confusion for almost everyone: Is it or is it not in effect? And if it is, how can it be accessed? Also caught up in the bureaucratic web are matters like the removal of VAT and Customs duties on new film stock to be used by production companies, and the production expense rebate which requires more finessing. Rules around freedom of movement within Caricom are not observed in all member countries and artistes still complain about being harassed by customs officials when returning with works recorded outside.
With specific reference to Carnival, Minister Peters has shown the temerity to take a tough stance on issues that he perceives are inimical to the national interest. Such qualities can be laudable and engender progress when tempered by consulting with and listening to key stakeholders.
If such consultations are done, the Minister may well discover broad consensus around many long standing ideas that previous Governments have failed to implement.
For example he may learn that instead of giving artistic patronage, his Government may be better appreciated for creatively using its fiscal muscle to promote entrepreneurship and innovation in mas; further development of the steelpan, our national instrument; define the role of state-owned media in promoting local content; determine ways of multiplying the benefits of Carnival throughout the year and preserving our rich Carnival heritage for the benefit of current and future generations.
As a practitioner in the field, the Minister has already demonstrated a recognition of the importance of preserving the heritage. He has spoke in several places about the need to have a National Carnival Museum. It is my personal view that the National Carnival Museum could be the most important cultural legacy that his Government could leave the people of Trinidad and Tobago.
At this juncture, the Ministry of Arts and Multiculturalism may well be the most important ministry in Trinidad and Tobago. This will not be represented in its budgetary allocation. However, according to UNCTAD “the creative economy has the potential to generate incomes and jobs while providing social inclusion, cultural diversity and human development”.
No other sector can make this boast. We are relying on Minister Peters to grasp the historic opportunity.