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State of the arts: how arts funding affects our communities

By in Features

Nexus (Camosun College)

VICTORIA (CUP) — When Stephen Harper famously declared that “ordinary people” don’t care about arts funding during the 2008 election campaign, artists and arts groups were quickly forced to prove their worth.

In 2009, $45 million was cut from the federal arts budget, and not long after, the government of B.C. made serious cuts of its own. Since those serious cuts to arts funding in 2009, many artists and arts groups in B.C. have had to find innovative ways to generate money while struggling to make ends meet.

The Victoria Spoken Word Festival is one of the affected groups, and is coming into its second year without any government funding.

Missie Peters, festival director, said it’s the only one of its kind in Canada, but that their application for a government grant was denied. The festival pairs emerging poets with professionals from across the country to help them develop new skill sets. In lieu of government funding, Peters was inspired to fundraise for the festival herself and decided to register it with IndieGoGo, one of the biggest online funding platforms.

“The idea really was for me to be able to connect with the spoken word community, and the people who love the art form across the country,” she said. “In this way, we can pool funding on a national level, get people excited, and get some exposure for the festival, in addition to getting funds.”

Beyond the funding, which at press time was only $50 short of its $1,000 goal, Peters said she’s received community support in the form of billets, drivers, and other volunteers.

“To me, getting people who may not have otherwise had an opportunity to get involved is almost as valuable, or more important, than the money,” she said. “It’s really made us build that local network.”

The Spoken Word Festival’s situation is not unique. This festival has had a positive experience without government funding, and although it hasn’t been easy, Peters said she’s proud that the festival has been able to succeed without any grant money.

Public investment equals public enjoyment

Keith Higgins, a Vancouver-based artist, has been involved in artist-run organizations since the ’80s. He has helped create all sorts of institutions, including Artspeak Gallery, The Pacific Association of Artist-Run Centres, and continues to run Publication Studio Vancouver, a small publishing house, among other initiatives.

He believes that although there are ways for artists and arts groups to generate income, public investment allows artists to be more experimental in their work.

“We’re quite lucky to have an institution like the Canada Council [for the Arts], which awards money based on the perceived merits of the work, and exists at an arms length from political imperatives,” said Higgins. “That really allows a multiplicity of voices.”

Higgins said that when it comes to discussing arts funding, the focus often tends to revolve around whether or not artists can produce work, but said that’s not necessarily the issue.

“You’re going to see art made,” said Higgins, “but you’re not going to see it. What public investment often ensures is that the public will have access to the culture that’s being made.”

Whether it’s paintings, sculpture, plays or writing, the access to culture is an important distinction. Although there’s some truth to the “starving artist” stereotype, having poor artists doesn’t necessarily serve the community.

“If I see it from my point of view,” said Higgins, “I see the arts as a welcoming space. Quite often in theatre, music or dance, you find a haven for people who, for one reason or another, find they don’t fit in somewhere.”

Higgins also said that exposure to arts and different culture can enhance communication within a community.

“We’re more able to get along as communities and as societies when there’s access to culture,” said Higgins, “especially when there’s culture being produced that’s actually responsive to the community.”

According to Higgins, the importance of the arts isn’t often acknowledged. The debate about the value of art can be a heated one. Opponents of public arts funding say an unfair advantage is given to people who get grants over those who don’t. Beyond that, it’s hard to place a monetary value on something as subjective as art. That being said, Higgins maintains that culture is worth investing in, for both social and economic reasons.

“The provincial government in British Columbia, regardless of its political stripes, has rarely stepped up with adequate or reasonable levels of support, especially when it comes to access to culture,” he said. “The unfortunate thing about that is people without access don’t know what it’s like to have those facilities in their communities.”

Higgins feels that the underinvestment in culture has left us in a negative cycle. One result of this historic lack of appreciation is that many artists have left their communities in search of a place where they will feel valued.

It’s also hard for artists to lobby for federal money, either from the Canada Council for the Arts, or the Canada Cultural Investment Fund, when they haven’t received previous investments at the provincial or municipal level.

Artistic independence

Ian Case, general manager of the Intrepid Theatre, said they’ve had to make administrative changes, including the reduction of staff, to keep up with funding cuts. Case has been working at Intrepid for almost 10 years, and said the loss of provincial gaming grants and cuts to arts funding in 2009 has had huge impacts on the arts community in B.C.

When Case started, government funding made up 45 to 50 per cent of Intrepid’s annual budget; now it’s about 30 per cent. The theatre company increasingly relies on earned revenues, donations and sponsorship to make ends meet.

“As the company has grown, it’s become less reliant on [government funding],” said Case. “Having said that, government funding is still really important, not only for Intrepid Theatre, but for all the non-profit arts organizations, because it allows them to maintain the accessibility and affordability of their programs.”

Increased reliance on commercial or box-office sales means looking less at pushing the boundaries and more at marketing towards mass appeal.

“Having government funding means we can offer work that you might not see otherwise,” said Case. “It also encourages artists to test their limits, and create work that is more exciting than regular commercial fare.”

The B.C. Liberal party recently reinstated $15 million in gaming grants, bringing the total to $135 million annually. They’ve guaranteed the same amount for the next fiscal year, but still haven’t outlined a sufficient long-term strategy — at least not in the point of view of Higgins.

“Anybody whose lived here will tell you that the provincial government works on a sort of binge-purge cycle, as far as budgeting goes,” said the artist. “About a year and a half before an election, they suddenly have money for things. Abruptly after the election they say, ‘By the way, our budget forecasts weren’t quite right,’ and the austerity measures roll out.”

Art economy

The B.C. Arts Council (BCAC) is a provincially funded peer-review panel that gives grants to artists and arts groups. The government appoints its members but the panel operates under its own mandate.

“Once the government gives us the money they do not interfere in how we distribute it amongst the disciplines and applicants,” said Stanley Hamilton, BCAC chair.

The BCAC acts as an advocate for the arts, and has a different funding pool than the gaming grants or the Ministry of Community, Sport, and Cultural Development, another provincial contributor to arts funding.

Last year the BCAC contributed almost $17 million in arts grants, across 225 communities in B.C. Hamilton said almost 80,000 people are employed in the arts sector in B.C. The economic impacts of the arts are felt regionally, as well, and it’s not just the employment of the artists. Hamilton points to the Belfry Theatre and the Victoria Symphony, both of which receive operating grants from the BCAC, as supporters of the local economy. Their audiences tend to spend money on dinner or drinks when attending shows, as well as parking, public transportation and cabs.

Case also knows the effect of the arts on the economy and he’s often asked to argue for the arts from the economic point of view. He cites the 2010 Greater Victoria Arts and Culture Sector Economic Activity Study, completed by Dr. Brock Smith of the Peter B. Gustavson School of Business at the University of Victoria, as a great example of the success of arts.

“It’s not a small industry,” said Case. “It creates a lot of jobs, and it’s an economic generator municipally, in terms of activity downtown.”

The study said the total economic activity generated by the Greater Victoria arts and culture sector in 2010 was $170 million in net income. This takes into account all expenditures by part-time artists and hobbyists, full-time artists, arts businesses and organizations, as well as money spent by arts patrons, and is the equivalent of $21 million in property tax revenue.

The report shows that money invested in the arts scene in Victoria not only stays in the community, it draws people here. The vibrancy of a city rich in culture entices investors and tourists alike.

Higgins, too, applauds the economic impact of the arts, but said wages are still pretty low when compared to the provincial average, and a lot of artists are struggling. Higgins is also the executive director of the UNIT/PITT Projects, formerly the Helen Pitt Gallery, and said they almost had to close their doors due to gaming grants cuts in 2009. When the gallery moved, the only premises they could afford in Vancouver didn’t have plumbing or heat.

“We’re managing, but I wouldn’t ask somebody else to work in these circumstances,” said Higgins. “I’ve got full-time work here: publishing, presenting exhibitions, putting on public programs. But my salary works out to about 10 bucks an hour once you break it down over all the work I’m doing. The ability to apply for the [gaming grants] again is going to ease a lot of pain.”

All points to public funding

Jo-Ann Roberts, host of All Points West on CBC Radio One in Victoria, said exposure to and involvement in the arts fosters our ability as a society to think creatively.

“It’s always been my feeling that the arts allow us to think about bigger issues,” said Roberts, “and to see things in a way we haven’t seen them before. The arts often show us a creative way forward when faced with tough times.”

She makes the case for publicly funded art and includes some of CBC’s programming in that category, although not everyone agrees. Opponents of the CBC say taxpayers’ money would be better spent elsewhere and the market should dictate art consumption.

The issue with this, said Roberts, is that when left in the hands of private media corporations, the focus becomes generating profit, rather than the public interest.

“Because [CBC] is not tied to meeting just what shareholders want, we can often present what is not commercially viable, at least initially,” said Roberts.

She cites CBC Radio 3, which promotes independent music, and their annual literature competition, Canada Reads, as two of many examples of how CBC makes art accessible to the public.

The bottom line when it comes to arts funding, according to Roberts, is providing avenues for arts groups to be heard. She said arts cuts directly impact the state of arts in Canada.

“If art isn’t publicly funded,” said Roberts, “there’s less reason for private news or broadcast organizations to cover and support the arts, because they’re not feeling any competitive pressure.”

Photo: Carol-Lynne Michaels/Nexus

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