Redefining the funding of arts

It isn’t how much money but rather how much benefit the city receives from a vibrant arts community

Of Canada’s two most prominent mayors Rob Ford and Naheed Nenshi which do you think has the best record of support for arts funding? By my calculations Ford has Nenshi beat.

Here are the facts: in 2011 during 2012-2014 budget deliberations Nenshi was one of seven members of council to vote against a modest increase to Calgary Arts Development’s budget to deal with unprecedented growth in demand for funding from small and diverse arts organizations around the city. In that same budget Nenshi voted against three years of startup (temporary) funding for cSPACE Projects and the King Edward School transformation and in favour of a temporary $400000 increase to the Epcor Centre’s annual operating budget due to the expiration of the naming sponsorship.

Meanwhile in Toronto in January 2013 Coun. Gary Crawford issued this statement following Toronto city council’s unanimous decision in favour of a new $22.5 million investment in the arts: “I want to thank the executive committee and specifically Mayor Rob Ford for supporting the motion and for understanding how important this investment is as we continue to grow and mature as a world-class city. As you can see there were a lot of hands and time invested in this.”

What if any conclusions can we draw from these true but Bizarro World-esque facts? Simple: “How much of our municipal taxes should be put into the arts sector?” is the wrong question especially if we’re looking for big ideas. Want proof? Look no further than two studies that specifically asked about the priority that should be given to municipal arts support vis-a-vis other things that a city council could choose to support with tax funds.

A 2007 Canada West Foundation study in cities across Western Canada asked about the relative priority of “providing funding support for local arts and culture organizations” compared to 12 other issues including “reducing traffic congestion” “reducing crime” and “protecting the environment.” The study concluded: “Arts and culture funding sits at the bottom of the priority list for all cities except Regina where it occupies the second last position.” During the 2013 municipal election race the Manning Foundation released a similar study about how “concerned” people were with various municipal matters. The matter of “adequate support for local culture and arts in Calgary” was offered against “traffic congestion on Calgary roads” “the cost of living for average families in Calgary” and “the personal safety and security of passengers at C-Train stations after dark.” Guess what? Culture and arts support is at the bottom of the list of concerns in this study too.

Why did these studies put the focus on “funding” instead of the outcome of the funding? It takes money to reduce traffic congestion improve safety and protect the environment but different words were used in the studies. I’d suggest that a concerted effort be made starting now to find compelling ways to show the outcomes of investing in the arts instead of spotlighting the investment itself.

(This is urgent. As I was writing this council debated a cut to the budget of Calgary Arts Development with at least one member of council justifying the cut with the argument that the arts “aren’t essential” for the city. The proposed cut lost 11-4.)

Government funding is one of many means to an end and should never be treated as the end in itself. Nenshi has and deserves a reputation as a strong and influential advocate for the arts because he can speak from authentic personal experience and because a thriving arts sector is a key part of the kind of city he wants to build: inclusive creative and attractive to human capital from around the world. During my time at Calgary Arts Development in particular during consultations for our bid to be named a 2012 Cultural Capital of Canada and during the Citizen’s Reference Panel for the Arts Plan process we began to note that elements of the mayor’s vision resonate deeply and widely across the city: Calgarians want (some might even say are entitled) to “live a creative life” in a city with opportunity for all.

A quick survey across Canada shows what is possible when city council sees the arts as a fundamental contributor to the success of their city. When Toronto’s council was given new power to levy taxes through the Toronto Act they levied a tax on billboard advertising and then unanimously voted to use those funds to substantially increase arts investments to better position their city globally. Edmonton Arts Council’s budget recently hit $11.5 million after three years of major increases to achieve goals set out in their Art of Living cultural plan (adopted after their year as a Cultural Capital of Canada). In April Vancouver (population 600000) announced a total of $7.45 million in arts funding plus several enviable policies and city-supported spaces to foster artistic activity.

Where does Calgary stand? In 2014 city council is anticipated to direct just over $9 million to the arts ($5.5 million to Calgary Arts Development $2.5 million to Epcor Centre and at least $1.2 million in subsidies for city services used by festivals) or just less than $7.50 per capita. This per capita number is lower than Toronto Montreal Vancouver and Edmonton and is especially problematic given the fact that Calgary has the largest gap in Canada between the average incomes of artists and the rest of the workforce. Total funding though growing slightly hasn’t been keeping pace with the growth in our population the growth in demand for creative activity in suburban regions or the growth in the importance of cultural vitality as a labour and tourism attractor. In short it hasn’t kept pace with the vision Calgarians have for the place they live.

Gaining the level of investment required to realize this vision for Calgary will be extraordinarily difficult in the current political environment. With only the blunt instrument of property tax at their disposal even the biggest arts champions on city council will struggle to find significant new annual funding for this purpose. Success will require unprecedented collaboration amongst those who wish to see Calgary’s cultural prosperity match its economic prosperity.

And if all else fails someone should really consider playing the Rob Ford card.

Terry Rock is the past president and CEO of Calgary Arts Development.