Sunday, September 20, 2009

Vancouver Sun Analysis: Arts Funding is Not a Pretty Picture

Hundreds of grassroots arts groups have been sacrificed to prop up B.C.’s larger cultural institutions.

The provincial government has been scrambling for months to find enough money to maintain grants to the arts — tapping rainy day funds, lottery money and spiriting last year’s budget surpluses forward — but when the music stopped, about 600 groups that normally see funds from the community gambling grant program were left without a chair to sit on.

In contrast, the province’s higher-profile cultural institutions remain protected — at least, for this year — by a firewall of redirected funds, special grants and contingency money. The government has a contractual obligation to fully meet its funding commitments to a core “operating client” base of about 250 arts groups and institutions, and it jumped through hoops to ensure that this happened.

This means that groups such as the Vancouver Symphony (funded this year to the tune of $1.2 million), Vancouver Art Gallery Association ($703,000), Vancouver Opera ($465,000), and Coastal Jazz and Blues Society ($61,000) will receive all of their expected funds for 2009/2010.

Some 130 of the 600 rejected applications did get eventually their money, but when the dust settled, the remaining groups — those lower down on the funding food chain — did not fare so well.

A tangled and complex maze of numbers, changing funding sources and shrinking budgets has led to confusion and, in turn, protests and widespread panic in the arts community and the media, some of which believe the government had slashed funding for the arts by up to 90 per cent in the September budget update.

Even Sex and the City actress Kim Cattrall, who was raised in Courtenay, got into the act, lobbing a salvo at the provincial government from the Canadian Walk of Fame Awards Wednesday: “I would also like to thank the B.C. provincial funding for the arts, something that is lacking at the moment, if you read your local newspaper, something [that]...without that funding I don’t think that I would be standing here this evening.”

Upon closer analysis, the numbers are not quite as bad as Cattrall and many others think. Total funding is down about 11 per cent. But the pain is real, especially for smaller applicants. Funding for hundreds of arts groups has been rejected by the community gambling grants apparatus and those applications will not be reconsidered.

Examples of affected groups include:

- Kickstart: Disability Arts & Culture Society had big plans in development to help disabled people access the Cultural Olympiad in 2010. Ironically, in the letter denying its application for $85,000, the government said it is shifting its priorities to programs that help the disabled due to the global economic downturn and reduced revenue.

- The West Coast Chamber Music Society lost about 30 per cent of its core funding when its grant application for $8,000 was denied, and will cancel its annual children's concert, Prokoviev’s Peter and the Wolf.

- The Shakti Dance Society was denied a $5,000 grant and will curtail its community outreach and reduce the number of performances it will give this year.

Both West Coast Chamber Music and Shakti Dance had received gaming grants for the past several years.

“There is a lot of suffering and it’s not just the arts groups, it’s the sport groups and the environmental groups," said Amir Ali Alibhai, executive director of the B.C. Alliance for the Arts and Culture. “I have been getting e-mails about hourly from organizations saying that they will be shutting down or letting staff go or dropping performances.”

“I know there has been a significant net decrease in the amount of money going into the not-for-profit arts community,” he said.

Julie McIntyre, B.C. spokeswoman for CARFAC, Canada’s national association for visual artists, agreed: “We are having a terrible time figuring out what all the numbers actually look like, but we know what it means: companies and galleries closing and a lot of artists moving out of the province.”

Alibhai and McIntyre are right, but it’s a trick to put your finger on why when the government is spending almost as much on the arts this year as it did last year.

“Even the MLAs are having a hard time getting a handle on the numbers,” Alibhai said. “There’s a lot of uncertainty in the arts community.”

In an attempt to clear the air on some of what’s been happening, reporters in Victoria have been asking for almost three weeks to see a list of organizations that are no longer getting grants.

The constant answer — repeated as recently as this Thursday — has been that such information will not be available until the end of the fiscal year.

And even then, the only information released will be about those groups that got money, not those that were turned down.

“It's never been the practice of government to put out lists of organizations that have applied over the years and not been successful,” Finance Minister Colin Hansen said Thursday.

On Friday, however, Housing and Social Development Minister Rich Coleman said he’s hoping to create a way of reporting that offers more transparency, and allows people to see some of the choices government has made when it comes to the gaming grants.

He said there are a number of hurdles to clear, ranging from technical issues to questions about whether organizations want the fact that they’ve been turned down made public.

But he said he’s asked his staff to look at publishing a more regular list of approved grants, and also asked them to investigate the possibility of reporting on those groups which have been turned down, although he said it’s too early to know what the ministry can actually accomplish.

“We'll get there,” he said. “If we can figure out a way to do it, we’ll do it.”

Trouble brewing

The government knew it had a problem when the budget was tabled last February and anticipated a 40-per-cent budget shortfall for the arts. But using a $7-million surplus from the prior fiscal year, funds were advanced to the B.C. Arts Council to disburse, in advance of the pain, to its operating client base of major cultural institutions and museums, 75 community arts councils and dozens of well-established dance and theatre groups across the province.

Groups were told to hold on to that money because they would not be getting as much in the coming year, said council executive director Jeremy Long.

“The $7 million made up the gap between what were expecting and what we had as core funding the previous year,” Long said.

Without that core funding for the council’s remaining $10.9 million in obligations, the government tapped lottery funds, the same cash pool that funds the community gambling grant program. This has led to a cash crunch in the gambling grant program and a smaller pie for community-based arts, sport and environmental groups to share.

When the gambling grant program was cut to $131 million from last year’s $156 million, and forced to absorb the B.C. Arts Council’s budget, funds ran short and hundreds of grant applications were rejected or reduced. Grants to community sports groups shrank from $29 million to $19 million, with many groups allotted a fraction of their requested funds. Funding to school parent advisory councils has been halved.

“It's a colossal shell game the government is playing,” said McIntyre. “By taking money from the gaming grants and giving it to the B.C. Arts Council it boosts them to their normal level, but the gaming grants were what everyone was living on.”

“Companies that were getting $75,000 and depending on that money are now getting $15,000 or nothing and face running a deficit, cancelling programs and performances, or closure,” she said.

While spending on the arts has almost disappeared as a line item in the budget of the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and the Arts, the provincial government has not been shy about injecting money into the arts and cultural institutions in recent years.

Last March, the government announced that $5.7 million would be given to 64 arts organizations under the B.C. Arts Renaissance Program, including more than $250,000 for the Vancouver Academy of Music and $50,000 to the Osoyoos Museum Society to establish permanent endowment funds.

In 2007/08, the government established a $150-million permanent endowment for the arts, and found another $50 million for the new Vancouver Art Gallery and $9 million for the Vancouver East Cultural Centre.

“When the surpluses were flowing we took a $150-million appropriation and put it in the B.C. 150 cultural fund and turned over responsibility for disbursing funds from that to the B.C. Arts Council,” Tourism Culture and Arts Minister Kevin Krueger said.

If the government has a plan to maintain funding to the arts after this year, there is little evidence in the spending forecasts

“If you look at the budget estimates for 1001/11 and 2011/12 there's nothing there,” said Alibhai. “That's where people are getting the 80- and 90-percent cuts.”

This year’s cobbled-together arts funding package gives little reason for confidence that core funding can be maintained without continuing to raid lottery funds, he said.

With file from Jonathan Fowlie

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