Olympics hangover endangers the arts in B.C.

Our Vancouver correspondent: B.C. arts groups, facing deep budget cuts, are in an uproar over a plan to spend $30 million on post-Olympic 'Spirit Festivals.'
Crosscut archive image.

A scene from 'Dr. Egg & the Man with No Ear,' an upcoming production at The Cultch in Vancouver, B.C.

Our Vancouver correspondent: B.C. arts groups, facing deep budget cuts, are in an uproar over a plan to spend $30 million on post-Olympic 'Spirit Festivals.'

'ꀜThis is the worst it'ꀙs ever been,'ꀝ says Violet Goosen, general manager of the Vancouver Chamber Choir. Hers is one of many organizations reeling from cuts in provincial arts funding — cuts described as "devastating" by B.C. Arts Council chair Jane Danzo, in her recent letter of resignation.

Canada'ꀙs arts funding model is closer to Europe'ꀙs than the United States', relying on heavy government funding instead of private donors. In part, that's because Canada doesn'ꀙt allow the generous tax credits available to U.S. donors. Goosen has been in arts management since 1975 and has worked with governments of all stripes. 'ꀜIt'ꀙs a sad day,'ꀝ she says.

After losing $100,000 in B.C. Lottery Corporation money earlier this year — a big chunk of her $1 million-plus budget — Goosen got walloped with a reduction in funding from the B.C. Arts Council, from $70,000 to $17,500. That was after she had committed to the choir's next season, printed brochures, and set everything up assuming funding would be relatively stable.

'ꀜWe had absolutely no warning there would be cuts of this magnitude,'ꀝ Goosen says.

The B.C. government, wrestling with huge and unexpected deficits, has pledged to make health care and education its priorities. Arts grants from the B.C. Gaming Commission and B.C. Arts Council have been cut more than 50 percent from last year's levels.

Oddly, for a government that prides itself on its business acumen, the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and the Arts has decided to make up $3 million of missing arts funding by creating a new Arts Council-driven bureaucracy to run politically inspired Spirit Festivals — 'ꀜto rekindle the pride and excitement experienced during the 2010 Games.'ꀝ

Vancouver and Victoria will be home to 'ꀜSignature Celebrations coordinated by central organizations to be determined.'ꀝ The festivals will celebrate the anniversary of the Vancouver Winter Olympics, and showtime is imminent: February 2011. Money, coming from Olympics "legacy" funding, will total $30 million over three years.

'ꀜStarting a festival just to access a grant is the same as buying a rope to hang yourself with,'ꀝ wrote dancer and festival organizer Jay Hirabayashi in an online comment.

This is all so short-sighted. The ultimate purpose of hosting the Olympics was to stimulate tourism and the economy. We know tourists and workers in creative industries are attracted to culture, which is why governments at all levels used the amazing Cultural Olympiad to show off Vancouver as a cultural hotbed. Now the province is undermining the same people who make that culture possible. 'ꀜPeople in the arts are leaving in droves,'ꀝ choreographer Judith Marcuse told CBC radio.

The basic flaw with Spirit Festivals (aside from their odious political overtones) is that they have no branding. They'ꀙre a one-off, compared to other festivals and organizations that have worked for years to build a reputation, a following, an infrastructure of equipment, people and volunteers, and databases of committed attendees, donors and sponsors.

Why not just support people who are already creating these artistic miracles on a shoestring budget, instead of saddling them with sudden new deadlines, new application forms, new criteria, and new jury processes piled onto their collapsing infrastructures?

This is more arts-bashing than fiscal prudence. Provincial funding for the arts is down 32% (for some programs it'ꀙs 50%) to $43 million this year, even after including the new Spirit Festival funding. And that'ꀙs from a starting point of contributing only 7% of operating budgets of performing arts organizations, the lowest in Canada, where the average is almost twice that.

The cuts are hitting hard. The Western Edge Theatre in Nanaimo has canceled its 2010/11 season and may fold. A nonprofit gallery in Richmond, The Artisans' Galleria, is about to close, blaming funding cuts. And the See Seven Performing Arts Society, which markets theater in Vancouver, is making "a political statement" by halting its normal activities for a year.

The arts — let'ꀙs say it again — return $1.36 in direct revenue for every $1 invested, with cultural industries employing 80,000 people in B.C. Government funding also leverages other grants and has vast social payoffs in uplifting lives, educating young people, and enriching our understanding of each other and our society.

'ꀜWhat government funding provides is access,'ꀝ says Heather Redfern, executive director of The Cultch (formerly the Vancouver East Cultural Centre) and chair of the Leon and Thea Koerner Foundation. 'ꀜIt makes the arts accessible to anyone, no matter what their economic situation is.'ꀝ

This is the worst time for these cuts, with corporate budgets shrinking and arts-supporting foundations reeling from low returns (including the government'ꀙs own $150 million BC 150 Cultural Fund), leaving many arts organizations unable to meet their traditional commitments.

The government has many happy faces it is trying to paste onto this fiasco, but when the intended beneficiaries are screaming and bleeding, it'ꀙs time for a change in direction.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors