More Cuts in B.C. Arts Funding

Even minor cuts to provincial funding can be devastating to grassroots ?groups that are the lifeblood of arts in B.C.

B.C. Arts Funding Cuts
B.C.’s arts and culture sector is losing grants and leaving a devastated community in its wake.

Even minor cuts to provincial funding can be devastating to grassroots 
groups that are the lifeblood of arts in B.C.

In October 2009, Vancouver’s Helen Pitt art gallery was forced to close its doors. After losing its $32,000 gaming grant from the provincial government – nearly 40 per cent of its estimated annual revenue of $87,000 – the 35-year-old artist-run gallery had to give up its Gastown space. “We were no longer able to pay staff and no longer able to bear the cost of our lease,” says Keith Higgins, a visual artist who also serves as the organization’s administrative co-ordinator.

Closing the gallery created a domino effect: without a public exhibition space, private and self-generated revenue subsequently dropped. Higgins is now working to drum up as much private fundraising support as he can to keep the gallery afloat and attempt to rebuild, but without provincial government funding, the Helen Pitt faces an uncertain future. 

Similar stories are playing out across the province: not only are artists losing crucial financial support, but gallery workers and arts organizers are losing their jobs in the wake of provincial funding cuts that started in 2009 and continue to have an impact on arts and culture workers today.

B.C.’s arts and culture sector lost $12.1 million in gaming grants from the B.C. Ministry of Housing and Social Development in the past year as the provincial government struggled to rein in a $2.8-billion deficit (for the 2009 fiscal year ending in April). In addition, funding from B.C.’s Ministry of Tourism, Culture and the Arts went down from $37.8 million in fiscal 2008 to $18.4 million in 2009 and now stands at $24.6 million for 2010. 

Arts and culture community members say the cuts have devastated the sector, resulting in a radical reconsideration of how to make a living in the arts in B.C. Some organizations have been forced to close their doors, others have left the province and still more struggle to reinvent themselves and seek alternate funding at home. The struggle is almost Darwinian: it’s survival of the fittest, the most strategic and, often, the richest.

While 2010 arts funding appears to indicate a slight increase from 2009, critics say the provincial budget isn’t as generous as it seems. According to March 2010 calculations by the Alliance for Arts and Culture, the budget includes a new $12-million item for the Royal B.C. Museum that inflates the numbers. A new legacy fund, derived from the 2010 Games and Cultural Olympiad, will contribute $10 million a year for three years to regional events, internships and growth sectors such as digital media, but critics argue the fund does not adequately address the drop in gaming grants.

Word of cuts started to spread in late August 2009, when the Ministry of 
Housing and Social Development announced that it had lifted its four-month freeze on gaming grants in advance of last September’s interim budget announcement. The ministry had instated the freeze in order to conduct a review of the granting program, and when the freeze was lifted funding priority went to social service organizations, not arts and culture groups. This despite confirmation many of these arts groups had already received that they could count on steady, multi-year gaming grants.

Adding to the confusion was the fact that notification of the cuts seemed haphazard; arts administrators received surprise notice of the funding losses through phone calls, emails and media coverage. At the time, Rich Coleman, B.C.’s minister of housing and social development, told media that non-profits – including artists and organizations representing them – are not guaranteed gaming grant money and that whatever funding is allocated is assessed annually on the basis of merit. 

Concerned that the gaming grant cuts would lead to further losses, members of B.C.’s arts and culture community sprang to action. Protests took place across the province, and arts and culture workers expressed their vocal opposition to the cuts during public consultation prior to the 2010 budget last fall. Based on those sessions, the government’s own Select Standing Committee on Finance recommended in a November 2009 report that arts and culture funding be restored to 2008 levels. The finance committee’s recommendation was not reflected in the 2010 budget, announced two days after the Olympics ended. The opening and closing ceremonies alone had a $40-million budget, only about $6 million less than B.C.’s total arts funding for 2010.

“We literally don’t have any money,” Kevin Krueger tells me on the phone from his Victoria office. The MLA for Kamloops-South Thompson – best known these days for his role as B.C. minister of tourism, culture and the arts – is sympathetic to the funding difficulties of arts and culture groups and artists, but the reality, he says, is that times are tough all around. 

“The fact that we’ve been able to continue to support arts and culture in a very substantial way, you would think, would be held to our credit, rather than being criticized,” Krueger says. “When governments are in pressing times like this, there’s a responsibility to deal with those who are actually the most desperately in need 
first. . . . We have more people unemployed presently, and we have more people needing social assistance than we’re used to having.” The best answer to poverty is a job, he adds, and the current fiscal plan is helping create new ones for those who need them most.

Small arts organizations affected by the budget cuts are often ground zero for the experimentation and creativity that move the medium forward, says Jay Rankin, executive director of Ballet BC. “That’s where the creative stewing pot is: in the trenches,” he says. A case in point is Vancouver 
choreographer Crystal Pite, renowned for her innovative approach to dance. The 
former Ballet BC dancer moved her dance company, Kidd Pivot, to Frankfurt, Germany, earlier this year, after Frankfurt’s regional and municipal governments offered 
Pite two years of funding that exceeded government support she could have received at home. “We’re cutting ourselves off from a lifeblood,” Rankin says of the provincial funding cuts. Government funding “powers the creativity that everybody says we’re so supportive of.”

Pite’s relationship with Ballet BC has endured, and she choreographed one of three dance pieces that comprised Re/Naissance, a three-night production in April this year that marked Ballet BC’s anticipated return from the edge of bankruptcy.

Rankin left his spot as managing director of the Toronto Dance Theatre to help rebuild Ballet BC in November 2009 – no easy feat considering the company lost its $50,000 gaming grant that year. Its BC Arts Council grant for the 2009 fiscal year was $236,000, down from $290,000 in 2008. At press time, Rankin said it was too early to tell how the 2010 budget would affect Ballet BC, and the company’s budget for the year had yet to be approved by the board. The estimated company budget for the 2009 fiscal year was $1.35 million, compared to $3.2 million in fiscal 2007. Provincial government support comprises about 17 per cent of Ballet BC’s total budget.

Ballet BC currently employs 13 dancers who earn an average of $723 a week, plus an artistic director, a company manager, a rehearsal director and four administrative personnel – a skeleton staff, according to Rankin.

While Rankin and his team are up for the challenge of reinventing Ballet BC, he notes the company can’t go far without government support. “That’s why it’s more fun to live in Quebec,” he quips. “It’s important to [Quebec Premier] Jean Charest to make sure that the artists are on side. . . . I would very much like to create a condition, starting with Ballet BC, where people take pride in Ballet BC, and it becomes important to the people and, by extension, it becomes important to the politicians.”

If people learn to recognize the arts and culture sector as an economic and social driver, the funding landscape will improve, says Amir Ali Alibhai, a visual artist and executive director of the Alliance for Arts and Culture in Vancouver. Right now artists are treated like complaining children who need to shut up, he says. 

“I don’t want to be like that,” Alibhai says. “I’d like to move to a place with the government where we’re trying to find solutions together, where we’re actually thinking together.” The Alliance for Arts has cut staff hours and introduced user fees for services it provides – such as posting on its online job board and using its boardroom – to make up for lost provincial funding. The arts advocacy organization lost its $32,000 gaming grant in 2009, which comprised about 12 per cent of its annual operating budget, Alibhai says. That loss meant the Alliance started 2010 with a deficit, and dealing with the effects has left Alibhai with little time to focus on much else during his first year as the organization’s executive director. The Alliance is likely to survive, but, even though he doesn’t mention it in our interview, it’s clear that Alibhai is exhausted.

Without government support, artists often work multiple jobs to make ends meet and eventually burn out, says Spencer Chandra Herbert. As a former producer with DanceArts Vancouver and the Vancouver East Cultural Centre, the 28-year-old NDP MLA for Vancouver-West End draws from personal experience in his capacity as opposition critic for tourism, culture and the arts. “There’s a romantic notion of the starving artist in the garret, but you can’t live like that, nor should you,” he says. “B.C. artists are already some of the lowest-paid workers in Canada. Most of the studies show they live below the poverty line. Yes, you love your job, but if you can’t afford to eat or you can’t afford to keep a roof over your head, you’re going to quit.” 

Reece Terris has no illusions about making a living as a visual artist. The 41-year-old supports himself and his artistic pursuits through his work as co-owner of a contracting firm with business partner Warren Lightfoot, whose company loaned Terris money to get by during the year he took off work to complete an installation commissioned by the Vancouver Art Gallery. The project, called Ought Apartment, occupied the gallery’s rotunda for five months last year and was Terris’s largest solo exhibition to date. The installation consisted of six full-scale apartments, one on each floor. Each suite was furnished with items representing different decades from the 1950s to present day. “The day job has really helped me create a lot of what I’m doing with my [artistic] practice,” Terris says over an after-work beer at an East Vancouver café. “As an individual artist, I’m not making a living, by any means, by what I do,” he says. While some artists achieve financial self-sufficiency by getting picked up by supportive galleries, Terris says such circumstances are rare: “It’s like winning the lottery. It’s like being in a rock band that makes money.” 

Terris’s work ethic is commendable, but his ambitious schedule – construction work by day, art by night – isn’t sustainable for everyone, especially artists with children. But mixing business and creative pursuits could be one path toward a more sustainable future for the arts in the wake of funding cuts. In Gastown 14-year-old Biz Books is staffed with local actors. The store focuses on film, television and theatre resources and operates as a community hub. Owner Catherine Lough Haggquist has been a professional actor for more than 20 years, and she views the provincial cuts to arts funding as an occasion for reinvention. “I think this reality is forcing artists to come back to a place where they have to take responsibility for their own commercial well-being,” she says. Funding cuts have necessitated 
cutbacks on big-budget productions, but, in response, actors are making short films instead of working on big features 
or performing in found spaces instead of theatres, Haggquist says. 

This fall Haggquist and three colleagues will mount a local production of ’Night, Mother, a Pulitzer Prize-winning play by American playwright Marsha Norman. While they’ve applied for a Canada Council grant, Haggquist says the group has been careful to plan the production so that government funding will neither make nor break the show. They’ve already launched small fundraising efforts and have started planning the production 
earlier than usual.

Provincial arts funding cuts present obvious challenges, but they won’t wholly decimate the sector, Haggquist says. Besides, artists never lacked the will to go on in the face of adversity. “People are tired of feeling their art is threatened and are trying to find a way to make it 
happen anyway,” she says. Artists who can think like businesspeople and entrepreneurs will succeed in the new reality, she says. And taking responsibility for one’s own financial success can be a good thing for the arts and culture sector, notorious for labours of love, not money. 

“All of the safety nets are eroding . . . and that’s not to be negative or doomsday,” Haggquist continues. “I think there’s 
going to be a shakeup, and there’s going to be new things that synthesize and come out of it.”