Fading To Black …?

UPDATED 9/25/09 (see related articles below)

Lighting of the Olympic Flame
Lighting of the Olympic Flame

In just five months, thousands of the world’s greatest athletes will be gathered inside BC Place from every corner of the globe, all of the world’s nations standing together, waiting to compete peacefully on a global Vancouver stage.

Imagine, if you will, the opening ceremonies for those 2010 Olympic Winter Games, with tens of thousands of spectators from more than a hundred countries waiting expectantly in the stands for those first electrifying strains of the Olympic fanfare. Picture the sight of that massive crowd, packed to the rafters. Think about the billion-plus viewers watching on TV and online for the lighting of that ancient torch, symbol of Athens, cradle of democracy.

Now imagine that … but without any music. Without any musicians. Without any lighting or choreography or dance or movement. Without costumes, sets or decorations. Without performance of any kind – no one to entertain or enlighten us. No text or symbolic meaning, no poetry, no actor’s soaring rhetoric  … nothing.

What are we left with? A cold, dark stadium of athletes standing in silence listening to politicians give speeches. As much as I love politics, that has to be one of the more depressing and Orwellian sights one could imagine.

Yet that is the world we seem to be contemplating as we start to face the real costs of a worldwide financial crisis triggered by the profligate greed of financiers not satisfied with just fleecing the world’s consumers.

Here in Vancouver, the effects are just starting to be felt as governments at all levels slash support for the arts.

Canadian $20 bill
Canadian $20 bill

To give credit where it’s due, the federal government got into the act first, demeaning the arts and its contribution to Canadian culture during the last election campaign. According to The Toronto Star:

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has sparked a culture war in the federal election campaign with a claim that “ordinary people” don’t care about arts funding.

Under fire for his government’s $45 million in cuts to arts and culture funding, the Conservative leader yesterday said average Canadians have no sympathy for “rich” artists who gather at galas to whine about their grants.

“I think when ordinary working people come home, turn on the TV and see a gala of a bunch of people at, you know, a rich gala all subsidized by taxpayers claiming their subsidies aren’t high enough, when they know those subsidies have actually gone up – I’m not sure that’s something that resonates with ordinary people,” Harper said in Saskatoon, where he was campaigning for the Oct. 14 election.

These comments caused a great hue and outcry, and audiences jammed all-candidate forums to discuss the arts and their importance to a country overwhelmed by a commercial culture to the south that is oblivious to our values, history and our place in the world.

Some went so far as to question how it’s even possible to assert Canadian sovereignty without a unifying culture that makes us that very thing – Canadian. Compounding irony upon irony, this question is actually inscribed on our Twenty-Dollar bill, in the words of Gabrielle Roy, one of Canada’s many internationally-celebrated writers: “Could we ever know each other in the slightest without the arts?” Nonetheless, Mr. Harper’s government was re-elected, and the cuts went ahead.

Surprisingly, the City of Vancouver joined in. As a longtime advocate for the arts, I was proud to take part in a civic election which confirmed the broad and unanimous agreement among all three major parties of the centrality of the arts to a healthy, vibrant society, and the unique importance of the arts to Vancouver’s emerging economy.

Device Sun
Device Sun

The party I ran for, the NPA,  has a long history of strong support for the arts. The last council increased arts funding significantly and undertook a number of creative new initiatives. These include a new program of cultural tourism, the new post of Vancouver’s own Poet Laureate, public art programs, the international Vancouver Art Biennale now underway and Vancouver 125 – a cultural celebration of Vancouver’s 125th birthday in 2011.

The NPA also conducted a highly-successful, inclusive and consultative city-wide review of arts programs to streamline and reduce administration costs for granting programs while increasing funding. The NPA also approved a $150,000 study in an effort to help save the Pantages Theatre project.

Our main opponents during that election, Vision, agreed with our assessment of the arts’ centrality to a liveable, economically-vibrant, creative city. According to Gregor Robertson:

A world-class city needs to foster artistic creativity, and attract innovators from all sectors around the world. It’s time we ditched the red-tape, ‘no-fun city’ label and embraced a culture of creativity, entrepreneurship, and innovation, to help our artistic and small-business sectors thrive in a competitive economy. Together, we will make Vancouver a creative capital in North America.

Vision campaign literature stated: “A successful city … invests in talent. It has the courage to reward creativity and celebrate innovation.”

72387-LayoffsLYet the first act of the new Vision council after the campaign was to cut arts funding by 8%. No increase. Not even the status quo. An 8% cut.

Now, it wouldn’t really be fair to say they’ve done nothing for the arts. As their campaign literature proudly notes:  “Vision openly opposed arts funding cuts in the 2008 federal budget.” And I suspect they’ll make a show next week by ‘openly opposing’ the arts funding cuts in the new provincial budget as well.

But the motion we’re sure to see passing the next council criticizing the province will accomplish nothing more than reducing the arts to a political football useful only to those interested in scoring points against the BC Liberals. It will do nothing to provide leadership on the arts sector now so sadly lacking, and worse, it won’t do anything to put their money back where their mouth was during the campaign.

Incredibly, the Mayoral debate sponsored by the Alliance for the Arts between Peter Ladner and Gregor Robertson was actually billed as a debate about Gregor Robertson’s new plan for the arts. Unfortunately, we now know what his real plan was. But before the election, here’s what the Mayor promised:

Based in part on those campaign promises, Vision won a resounding political victory which presented a unique opportunity to bring the entire city together in a united effort to address the many challenges our city now confronts.

Instead, the Mayor appears to have emulated the Pythonesque political lunacy of Yes Minister, adopting Sir Humphrey’s motto: “In Defeat, Malice. In Victory, Revenge.” He could have dealt with the international financial crisis now rocking our world by seeking a broad consensus on the best way forward. But our Mayor chose to use the crisis and its impact on the Athlete’s Village to launch an attack on the already-defeated NPA, politicizing a situation resulting from mandates imposed by three different administrations. As a result of tactics like these, our City remains divided at the very time we face some of the most serious challenges in decades.

How do those challenges affect the Arts sector of our economy? That brings us to the Province. Last in, but taking the biggest kick at the can. I’m completely sympathetic to those elected officials handling our Province’s finances at a time of financial crisis and fin-de-siecle, epochal global change. Their first obligation has to be ensuring the province’s families have healthcare and education along with the other crucial services relied on by all.

Vancouver Conference Centre
Vancouver Conference Centre

But in recent years, we have spent billions of taxpayer dollars on infrastructure projects, including the spectacular new Conference Centre which was, ironically, built on land long promised for a public concert hall. Businesses have received millions more in tax reductions and direct subsidies. Hundreds of millions more are scheduled to pay for the new roof of the soccer stadium, a subsidy to benefit the private owners of the BC soccer franchise.

Yet once visitors get here for their conference, won’t they want to take in a play or a concert, the way tourists do in every other major city on earth? Who will be left to perform in our new retractable-roof stadium?

In general, tourism to Canada is sadly crashing, dashing our fond hopes for all those green, tourism-related service jobs. The aquarium I love is not enough. What will attract the tourists of the future to come here?

In the past two and half years, I’ve seen great artists perform in Vancouver that I was never able to afford in New York. During a recent performance by the Jerusalem String Quartet, I spoke to a woman who had flown all the way from Japan just to hear that performance! A friend who operates cultural tours in Europe tells me that business is booming. Why can’t we bring those tourists here?

Our vibrant arts economy has made Vancouver an international leader in film, music, game design and other related fields. Yet, according to the Globe and Mail, the provincial Arts Council budget is being reduced from a paltry $22 million – already one of the lowest per-capita in Canada – to some $2.2 million over the next two years. A 90% reduction.

knife-holderI’m sorry, but that’s not a budget cut. It is a knife-edge applied to the throat of the arts in this province and inimical to the kind of province I want to live in.

In addition, two factors have combined to make the impact of what amounts to an all-out assault on arts funding even worse. The first is the way it’s been done, in what I can only describe as an irresponsible ‘now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t’ funding debacle:

  • Arts groups may get grants from two sources provincially – the BC Arts Council, and the Gaming / Lottery fund. There are strict conditions and they are reviewed by experts in each field.
  • Last March, the  BC Arts Council announced it’s budget had been cut nearly in half, from $19 million to 11 million.
  • Within a month however, grant recipients were then told that they would get a supplemental grant from the Provincial budget surplus to make up most of the lost arts council funding.
  • Then all the Gaming funds were frozen, leaving many staff working unpaid over the dry summer months and hoping for a reprieve this fall.
  • In late August, arts groups then received three different letters – from the Arts Council, the Minister of Culture and from the Gaming Commission saying that they would receive their grants, but the monies would be paid through the Gaming accounts with restrictions making it harder to use the funds.
  • Then, recipients of the usual annual Gaming grants, who had been waiting since May to learn their fate, were told that they would receive no funds this year from Gaming grants.
  • A few days later, 534 groups who had previously received letters from the Gaming fund advising them of a multi-year commitment of funding, were told that, despite the freeze, they would actually receive their Gaming funds this year as promised.
  • That still left the majority of arts groups, those with no multi-year commitments, with no Lottery funds this year.

Confused? Consider how difficult it is for these cultural institutions to plan for the next week, let alone their usual five-year window.

2388564718_b588f3cb91Where does this leave the arts groups in Vancouver? Internationally-celebrated gems like the Vancouver Art Gallery or the Grammy-award winning Vancouver Symphony Orchestra? This year, now that the dust has settled, many are OK. But next year, they face the prospect of a 92% cut in Provincial funding in the very year the world will be coming to our doors expecting to celebrate our cultural diversity.

The second factor aggravating this crisis is the timing. On top of severe government cutbacks, Arts groups are already taking it on the chin thanks to our new Great Recession:

  • Individual donations are holding, but trends are worrying because of the economic environment.
  • Business sponsorships for the Olympics are dropping like flies. Can you imagine what business support for the arts is like in this environment?
  • Ticket subscriptions – the financial lifeline of all arts organizations – for the largest institutions are doing OK, but are a challenge for smaller groups. People are buying tickets, but to fewer events and buying cheaper seats, so overall revenues are down.
  • The foundations where most well-run organizations keep their endowments have taken a severe hit, facing arts groups with the devil’s choice of going without endowment income this year or having to dip into principal to maintain their budget.

And finally, the fact that the province waited until after the election to tell these groups they weren’t getting anything this year leaves many arts organizations in the red with no time to balance their budget before the end of their fiscal year – for most, the end of August. That unavoidable deficit will now make them ineligible for funding from the Canada Council and other granting agencies this coming year, setting in motion a cascading devastation to the arts sector that will unfold for years to come.

Where is the leadership we need? Our core arts institutions in the City of Vancouver are in crisis. To preserve their viability and badly-needed contribution to our economy and the city’s livability, there must be a non-partisan arts summit that brings together the Arts Alliance, the Vancouver Board of Trade, all three levels of government, arts organizations, granting bodies and foundations to work out a plan to help these core cultural assets survive until the economy recovers. Above all they need predictability and stability.

The Enlightenment happened centuries ago, but it is not, as some think, a fixed event in history that automatically innoculates all subsequent societies forever more. The commitment to Reason and Science, the Arts and Democratic ideals, to the Enlightenment itself, must be renewed by every civilization, each generation, by every person in fact, one individual at a time.

At the moment, those prospects appear to be dimming in the City of Vancouver.

UPDATE I (9/26/09)   RELATED ARTICLES:

Arts-cuts website paints gov’t as ‘disastrous’

B.C. government Report On Socio-economic Impact of the Arts Removed from Arts Ministry Website

Vancouver politicians must unite to fight arts cuts

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