The Battle Over Arts Funding in B.C. and Canada

Tough guys don't dance, eh? The old battle over arts funding flares up in B.C. and Canada.


Tough guys don’t dance, eh? The old battle over arts funding flares up in B.C. and Canada.

In B.C. hundreds of arts groups are losing their share of gambling grants as the government struggles to reign in a growing deficit. Many of these small groups depend on these grants for their existence. Meanwhile, nationally, a perennial argument about arts funding is being waged by the Financial Post and arts groups after a savage circus-geek-style rant by a columnist against grants driven Canadian writing — which she clearly didn’t like much. The stir-up-controversy approach worked, and writers, including Vancouver’s Steven Galloway, leaped forward to advance the case for arts subsidies. The Canadian cultural industry is unique and fragile, they say, and so should be protected from the juggernaut American and British cultural industries. Just as predictably, the FP editorial board, which never misses a chance to trumpet its free-market, “contrarian” persona, demanded to know why taxpayers should be funding literature. Their argument goes that if a book is “good” people will pay for it. All this is evidence that the tough guy free marketers are once again chipping away at or outright attacking traditional funding for what they consider artsy-fartsy writers, dancers, musicians and others with artistic bents. This has always been an argument between two distinct groups: the economics-oriented, and the culturally oriented. The first group thinks arts purveyors should operate within the Darwinian confines of the marketplace, i.e. winners and losers, while the second sees the arts as a special case that needs government support. This debate, which has been going on for decades, rises to the fore in tougher times, when larger arguments rage over who should sip from the dwindling bowl of government money. Commercial industry thinks it deserves more because it nurtures wealth creation; the arts thinks they deserve it because they nurture the soul. Government tends to weasel around the issue, slipping to the commercial side when they’re pressed by economics or political bias, and to the cultural side when there’s more in the kitty to buy the adulation and photo ops that come with supporting the arts. Will this latest argument come to anything? I doubt it: Governments are under financial duress so will lean to the Darwinian side right now, no matter what the voices say. When times improve, they’ll probably return to being patrons of the arts. Positive publicity is hard to resist. But they and others in the tough guy crowd should reconsider today’s inclinations. Leading society is more than just being a prudent hard ass: It’s also about imagining, and understanding that the human spirit is more than a sum on a balance sheet. When you toughen up, you lose forever a piece of what it is to be human. And, in hard times, that humanity might be more important than any financial loss.