By LARRY SMITH
THERE has been a flurry of discussion lately over the $400,000 annual contract given to Ian Poitier by the former government.
This comes after Tourism Minister Dionisio D’Aguilar revealed in Parliament that Mr Poitier received over a million dollars since 2014 to consult on cultural matters for Perry Christie and Obie Wilchcombe.
A high-flying St Anne’s alumnus, Mr Poitier obtained an international baccalaureate in Canada before studying law at Oxford. In 1985, he switched to musical theatre, at the Arts Education School in London.
He worked as a performing artist in Britain, and began directing and coordinating shows and events in the 1990s. He also worked in advertising.
After three years as an investment manager at the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts in London, Mr Poitier began focusing on freelance projects.
Beginning in 2008, he directed the annual Cacique Awards in Nassau, and he was responsible for the creative content of the 2014 independence celebrations.
So there can be no argument with the fact of his exposure to, and experience in, the arts and creative industries - both here and abroad.
Not surprisingly, Mr Poitier called Mr D’Aguilar’s recent statements in Parliament “inaccurate, incomplete and misleading…If (his) quarrel is with the previous administration, then it is regrettable he did not make that clear.”
Before considering all this, it’s worth pointing out that a little more information is available on the circumstances of this particular contract compared to others that were aired recently in Parliament.
According to the new minister, no signed agreement exists, but in a 57-page summary report that was published last year, Mr Poitier styles himself “head of cultural development”.
Mr Poitier admits to having been “impressed” with former Prime Minister Perry Christie’s “vision” for culture, and says his chief role under the previous administration was to pursue a sustainable creative economy.
Along the way, he directed some national events, acted as a policy advisor for the prime minister, and helped the government with communications - including speechwriting for Mr Christie.
“People seem to think that I am some sort of crook,” Mr Poitier said recently in his published response. “Nothing could be further from the truth. Voters may criticise a government for its decisions and actions. But to attack a private citizen for his lawful, ethical commercial activities is baffling.”
Unfortunately, it seems to have been a pattern of the former Christie administration to hand out large contracts, with no transparency and no regard for fiscal responsibility.
The terms of Mr Poitier’s contract were never made available, just like the terms of the Renew Bahamas landfill contract or the agreement with Power Secure, or the construction contracts for BAMSI, or so many others. So we don’t really know what the deliverables were and are unable to judge whether value was received for money.
David Burrows, who heads the Ringplay Productions local theatre group, had this to say about that in a social media comment last week: “A tiny percentage of that money would have gone a long way to fix things at the Winston V Saunders Theatre, for example. We prefer the cultural discussion in the abstract, but while we study, the thing we study dies a slow death.”
Nevertheless, it’s interesting to read Mr Poitier’s Summary of the Cultural Development Strategy, which recommends using culture as a key tool for national development. This document is apparently an overview of a broader programme he was working on - one which requires feasibility studies and business plans.
The summary calls for a national school for the creative and performing arts, after-school arts programmes, and creative partnerships with both the public and private sectors. It also advocates the crafting of a cultural narrative that can offer a compelling way to communicate our national identity.
In fact, the document is chock full of good ideas and marvelous intentions. The problem is we have heard so much of it before, and very little has ever been realised in concrete terms.
As early as 1987, a UNESCO report authored by a leading cultural expert urged the government to write legislation and set a $5m annual budget for development of our creative industries.
In the early 1990s, the Senate held a series of hearings on cultural development. Those sessions resulted in a draft law that sought to create a national arts council. But the exercise went nowhere.
Most notably, in 2002, the first Christie administration appointed a National Commission on Cultural Development with much fanfare. Its 60 members met regularly for two years under the leadership of Charles Carter and the late Winston Saunders. This body revised the earlier Bill and sent it to Cabinet in 2004, where it promptly died.
The draft law called for a semi-independent arts council with a mandate to raise funds, operate creative facilities and schools, give grants, produce shows and fund research - much like Ian Poitier’s current recommendations.
The Cultural Commission also came up with a comprehensive policy document for the arts. And all this was unveiled and ballyhooed at a grand National Cultural Conclave in 2006 - over ten years ago.
The goal of the policy was to give “a coherent strategic national context for planning and decision-making about culture”. And there were loud calls for an urgent redirection of resources to the cultural sector, which was said to be “one of the least developed” anywhere.
Of course, the risk is that by subsidising cultural industries we open ourselves up to yet another massive public sector gravy train - like the millions wasted on carnival or the hundreds of thousands lost on the Caribbean Muzik Festival.
So perhaps the first question to consider is whether we are on the right track with our existing spending.
In contrast to the dismal track record in cultural development, is our annual multi-million-dollar spend on overseas advertising and PR (not to mention bricks and mortar Bahamas tourist offices) to generate tourists.
No policymaker has seen fit to justify the worth of this massive expenditure in recent memory, yet most of us would agree that the visitor experience on the ground (especially in Nassau and Freeport) is dreadful and only getting worse.
Meanwhile, multiple studies confirm that cultural heritage travellers stay longer and spend more than other types of tourists. So we should be able to generate more return by investing more in cultural activities and product development.
Perry Christie’s “visions” are just that. All the work on this issue was done during his first term in office and trumpeted from the rooftops - but absolutely nothing happened. And he was still happy to throw around more public money to talk it up again in his second term.
On this ground alone, both Mr Christie and his former Tourism Minister Obie Wilchcombe have proven their incompetence and insincerity beyond a shadow of a doubt.
And a big public fee for repetitive information that will never be acted upon is clear justification for criticism, I think.
At this point, a cultural strategy for The Bahamas is not some daunting technical project requiring in-depth research. All the legwork has already been done. Something just needs to be implemented.
Perhaps Dionisio D’Aguilar, whose own family established an arts foundation years ago, will be able to pick up the slack.
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