Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Analysis & Thorny Issues: Canada's $44-mil in arts cuts

Well, it looks from the news like $44.8-million has been slashed from federal arts funding in the past two weeks, with more arts cuts coming.

I’ve been holding off on a post on this rather massive matter, as I’ve been trying to get a sense of what the response has been across the country since the beginning of the cuts were announced. I also, quite frankly, have my own cynicisms about the arts, and was unsure how to rationalize (beyond the usual "art is important"!) to non-arts lovers why spending on these things is important, how it serves us all. (More on that later on in this post, where I outline some challenges to reversing these cuts.)

So far it seems most of the outcry is from the traditional arts centres (and traditional non-Conservative political sectors) of Toronto and Montreal. There have been a few op-eds decrying the cuts from Edmonton , Ottawa and St. John’s . Vancouver alt-weekly the Straight gave a little coverage to recording industry outcry, but little response as far as I can see from the websites of Vancouver dailies.

The best coverage as far as I can see has been from the French media, like La Presse (who tracked down our erstwhile Heritage minister Josee Verner first). The Globe has also done a good job on tracking the story, and the franco and anglo CBC's okay too. Internationally, there's been little on view except for the post I found at Art Fag City -- a blog written by a Canuck.

Some of the orgs who have publicly criticized the cuts so far include: the Canadian Independent Record Production Association , l’Union des Artistes , Movement pour les arts et les lettres , l’Association nationale des editeurs de livre , Regroupement Quebecois de la Danse, the Bloc Quebecois, the Liberal Party , ACTRA (the national performers’ union), the Directors Guild of Canada, and the Canadian Museums Association.

A town hall-style meeting on these cuts is slated for September 3 at Toronto Free Gallery the Theatre Centre in Toronto.

It’s clear to me that there are many challenges to the arts community in effectively reinstating arts funding. Here are a few:

1) As evidenced by the media coverage of this issue, there is little linkage right now between outcry in the Conservative government strongholds of the West and more rural areas of Canada and the traditional arts/Liberal party/NDP strongholds of Toronto and Montreal. In order to defeat these cuts, it is crucial that linkages be made between cultural communities across Canada regardless of past regional rivalries. We need a statement from the Glenbow Museum. We need a statement from the Art Gallery of Alberta, the Art Gallery of Calgary, and Calgary artist-run centres. We need letters from their board members, from their patrons, from those who collect art, and from those who sell it. We need editorials—or at least letters to the editor-in the Vancouver Sun and the Calgary Herald from these people.

2) Another challenge will be connecting anti-cut endeavours across disciplines. It’s not just visual artists who are affected by these cuts, but the book industry, the magazine industry, dancers, theatre artists, and musicians. These are groups of people who tend to have their own associations and factions in their respective creative communities. They will need to bond together for this one, and get out of their usual circles to create a wide-ranging movement.

3) All artists in every discipline (film, music, literature, art or performance) against these cuts needs to get better at explaining the importance of the arts to those who are not involved in them. This explanation needs to be multipronged, with emphases on economics, educational benefits and community development as well as on aesthetics and the intangibles of art. The explanation also needs to apologize for (or at least recognize) the elitist way in which many arts have been presented to the public in the past. It needs to link the pleasures of big-ticket hits like Juno and Bon Cop Bad Cop and Arcade Fire and Cirque du Soleil to the funding systems that have been cut. (Ellen Page got her start in Canuck-funded TV and film, dontcha know. If it weren’t for that, even given all her talent, she might be barista-ing it up in Halifax like so many talented young people.) This explanation also needs to talk heritage, like the memories that will be lost from generations past—we’re talking historical artefacts, not art--through cuts collections digitization program.

4) Efforts from the arts community will need to put pressure on both the Liberals and the New Democrats, who up to this point have been loath to come together in vocal and concerted opposition to Conservative policies. I understand the Dems don’t want to give any votes to the Libs, but come on, we all have to start somewhere in actually acting like an opposition instead of like warring siblings. This goes for matters on the climate change and job creation fronts—which the Conservatives have handled horribly--as well as on the cultural ones.

These are my thoughts on the matter so far. I look forward to hearing what others might think, especially on how to rationalize arts funding to the unconvinced.

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