Games’ cultural legacy will disappear if arts funding cuts continue

Article by Miro Cernetig in the Vancouver Sun, Friday, January 29, 2010

It’s good news Bramwell Tovey will stay another five years conducting the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. The maestro took over a faltering orchestra, steered it to a Grammy, a critically acclaimed tour through China and proved classical music has a place in Vancouver’s cultural life.

Similarly positive is the success of the Cultural Olympiad, the dozens of cultural events surrounding the 2010 Olympics.

Some its notable events are the upcoming Blue Dragon by Robert Lepage, the Vancouver Opera’s Canadian premier of Nixon in China and dozens of others performances making the Olympics about more than gold medals.

It’s all planting the seeds for a cultural legacy. But will it all evaporate after the Games leave town?

Possibly so.

As most people know, when the world economy hit the rocks last year, the provincial government took the scalpel to arts funding, cutting some grants by 90 per cent. The bean counters in Victoria deemed the deep cuts a fast way to lighten the deficit.

At the moment, the bureaucrats in finance seem to be continuing with that strategy. The expectation — and fear — in the B.C. arts community is the next provincial budget, due out shortly after the Olympics is over, will continue with the $19 million in cuts to arts funding, hitting the slim operating budgets of galleries, theatre groups and orchestras from Victoria to Dawson Creek, and everywhere in between. It’s a serious policy error on both political and economic grounds.

First, the dollar-and-cents argument: Investing in the arts doesn’t just improve the cultural fabric of a community or province, it’s good economics.

It’s generally believed by economists that arts subsidies, if spent wisely, generate more spinoffs than the initial public investment.

For every dollar that’s invested, the treasury gets back $1.36 to the treasury in taxes. That’s from the B. C government’s own report, the Socio-Economic Impacts of Arts and Cultural Organizations in B. C.

The arts also have a multiplier effect. The Conference Board of Canada and the City of Vancouver estimate that every dollar spent on the arts at the municipal level generates between $7 and $13 in spinoff economic activity.

Sure, there are other industries that may generate more of a multiplier effect. But the point is the arts are hardly the sink hole some might suggest. Rather, public investment in culture is undeniably a net-positive to the economy and the fabric of a community.

More importantly, despite what some politicians think, it’s good and shrewd politics to support the arts. That’s what Prime Minister Stephen Harper found out in Quebec, when he suggested cutting arts funding, a reflexive move that stopped his progress in la belle province overnight and may have cost him his majority government in the last election.

The popularity of the arts is probably why there’s even support for restoring funding to the B.C. arts community within the B.C. Liberal government’s own ranks. The Finance and Government Service Committee recommended unanimously that arts funding be restored to 2008/09 levels, roughly $40 million.

As the final details of the next provincial budget are hammered out, there’s little word from the Liberal government about rethinking its course. But one final fact may help them reconsider.

The average arts group in British Columbia gets about seven per cent of its budget from the provincial government. It’s the lowest in Canada. The national average is 13 per cent, according to the ProArt Alliance of Greater Victoria. In Quebec, one of the most vibrant arts centres in Canada, the government contribution is 26 per cent.

The facts are clear. Arts groups are not the drain on the treasury as some might suggest. They generate economic activity. In fact, it might not only be wise to restore funding, it’s probably smart to increase arts spending, as many provinces are doing in these tough times.

Last word to the VSO’s maestro: “Arts funding is not a grant. It’s an investment. It’s a guarantee that taxes actually come back to the province. . . . I’ve heard talk of 80-and 90-per-cent cuts in grants. If so, that’s not sensible strategic sense. That’s almost wilful damage.”

mcernetig@vancouversun.com

© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun

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