Why public funding for the arts?


For an interesting review of how arts have been funded historically and why BC should publicly fund art, read Vancouver Sun Columnist Douglas Todd on
Why govt funding is important.

Cutting arts funding is not about saving money. This has been well-established. Cutting arts funding not only doesn’t save the government money, it actually brings a cost. Why? Arts funding is a strange thing – the government spends a dollar on the arts, and gets it back about $1.36 within a year through an economic phenomenon known as the multiplier effect. The government does not believe in this effect, even though this effect is clearly indicated by the government’s own reports. Believe it or not, it’s real. It has to do with economic spinoffs, and in fact some studies show the return is more like $5 – $8. So recent arguments about cutting arts funding to feed “hungry children” do not cut it – the government would feed more hungry children by supporting the arts, as it turns out, not to mention that the culture sector, a net contributor to the province’s GDP, largely lives close to the poverty line. Why is the government chopping the arts – and itself – off at the knees? The answer can be only one of two things: the government’s actions are either ideological, or they’re arrogant incompetence. Or both.

As you may know, the BC Liberal government originally announced it would cut more than 90% of BC arts funding by 2011. That figure is now somewhere between 50 or 60% but seems to be growing. It should be noted that no other province has made any substantial cut to arts funding during this recession. Many provinces have actually increased funding, because it is proven that this is a strategy that works for the whole economy, recession or no. Furthermore, the culture industry is a lucrative and growing industry, one that is quickly overtaking many failing traditional sectors, in BC as well as around the world. Seed investment doesn’t just make sense; we cannot afford not to stimulate culture. Why in a recession are the BC Liberals saying they can’t afford this negligibly small subsidy, when they are contradicted by all the available research, including their own? And they are capable of finding large sums of money for other projects that please them, even in moribund industries where they continue to throw good money after bad.

Even prior to these cuts, the BC arts and culture sector received almost the least arts funding of any Canadian province, a miniscule 1/20 of 1% of the provincial budget. That amount, while crucially important to the arts sector, is generally considered a negligible portion of the budget. The actual numbers: $47 million will be reduced to $3 million in two years, and down to about 2.65 million by 2012. This news made planning nearly impossible for arts organizations in BC. Now the government has restored a little of the 90% that it cut, but in the form of a non-arms-length slush fund the arts minister can give out in any jurisdiction he chooses – vulnerable ridings, perhaps? And for the sake of comparison, cuts in other sectors range from 9%-29%. (For specifics on how and where the cuts were carried out – and it’s complicated – see this post.) Why are the arts being made the whipping boy in the BC economy?

These cuts implicitly tell us that the BC government does not see any value in arts funding, that it in fact feels vengeful toward the cultural sector, and that the government is aiming for a corporate model of governing, rather like the very US Republican model whose economic performance has recently proven so disastrous. Why are we following this outmoded and failed policies in BC now, unlike every other province and the US? These cuts won’t just harm all British Columbians economically. It will harm us in other ways, too, eliminating our uniquely British Columbian identity which derives in part from our homegrown music, writing and art, and our democracy, because culture is where we learn to think creatively and critically. How do we know who we are as British Columbians without any expression of that identity? Songs, books, paintings, our own art? As it says on our twenty-dollar bill, how can we know ourselves in the slightest without the arts?

Why should we fund arts & culture?

There are both economic and social arguments for supporting the arts. They are equally compelling. There has been much discussion about which of these arguments makes more sense for us to advance, but the obvious conclusion is both. They are equally important and they are also intertwined.

1. Economic Arguments in Favour of Public Arts Funding

Arts funding, as studies worldwide and in BC have repeatedly shown, is a lucrative investment that makes strong economic sense. According to the government’s own calculations, every dollar given to the arts comes back immediately as $1.36 in general revenue, and that figure is actually much higher when you take into account spinoff industries that rely on the arts (tourism, IT, film etc.) – studies show it’s anywhere from $6-$12 and sometimes higher. These are whopping returns on investment – certainly better than playing the stock market. Oddly, the government knows that the arts sector is a productive economic driver and a major employer, that culture is central to social well-being and liveability, and that the arts are inspensible to tourism, and yet it persists in deceptively implying the arts are a “frill.” Why? Is it that the arts sector been singled out for demolition because the government is pandering to a certain type of voter, or because its economic focus ignores small business and smaller organizations (as we’ve seen with the HST which is going to cripple our theatres, music venues and artists and make local culture unavailable to anyone but the rich?) The government won’t say, so we are forced to speculate. But it’s clear the arts cuts certainly are not being made for economic reasons but rather ideological reasons. It is also interesting to note that since we pointed out this contradiction, the BC arts ministry has removed its own study proving arts funding is lucrative from its website. However you can still find the study here.

It is an incorrect but widely-held view that the arts get a “free ride.” In fact arts & culture are effectively no different than other any other sector. All other employment/industrial sectors in BC receive public economic investment in one form or another – whether as grants, tax advantages, the building of roads for forestry, etc. Why single out the arts and culture sector – a particularly productive and efficient sector contributing over $5.2 billion to the provincial tax base every year – for exclusion from public investment? There is incontrovertible evidence that elimination of this major employment and industrial sector – which employs over 80,000 people – will be harmful to the whole economy.

Arts and culture is a growth industry, and furthermore it provides key support to other growth industries. Many of BC’s older industries are failing or are unsustainable. All lucrative growth industries are or should be supported with seed money investment – no responsible government does otherwise. Worldwide, culture ranks increasingly highly in national gross domestic products. Canada and BC are very well-positioned in this regard, so failing to invest in culture now is economic suicide. Read about culture’s growing economic importance here.

Then there is the issue of “economy of scale.” BC is a relatively remote region with a small population, and it’s next door to a commercial and cultural behemoth. Under such conditions public cultural funding is always essential. The alternative is to be swamped by someone else’s culture and lose the ability to create (and profit from) our own. This is why Canada, like many other countries with smaller populations, has historically awarded an industrial subsidy to its arts and culture sector. It ensures a healthy, lucrative, home-grown culture industry and helps to alleviate our cultural trade deficit with our neighbour and other trading partners.

Brain drain and damage to arts infrastructure are extremely costly to the economy – a proven fact. The arts are a key training ground for innovative and creative workers across many sectors (think of Jonathan Ives, head designer for Apple; he went to art school). Creativity, skill and innovativeness are absolutely key to BC’s ability to compete in a global economy. We must not only foster homegrown creativity; we must ensure we don’t lose that human investment to other regions. Damage caused by 90% funding cuts to cultural infrastructure will be almost impossible to repair – starting from scratch is time-consuming and very expensive. In a hostile environment brain drain happens almost immediately, because people need to pay bills immediately. Furthermore any rational worker will obviously prefer to work in a favourable environment. And brain drain quickly escalates – the greater the number who flee, the more the creative sector stagnates and the more others want to leave and seek a vibrant creative centre elsewhere. Killing arts infrastructure is permanent; you can’t just glue Humpty Dumpty back together again. To avoid this future for BC, arts funding must immediately be fully restored. If it isn’t, it will take us three to four decades to restore what we have built, and BC’s much-envied leading position will be lost.

2. The Social Arguments for Public Arts Funding

Ideally the social arguments for arts support would take priority over economic ones, but when we are talking about money, they tend to come second. Countless books have been written on the crucial role of the arts in society; we can only give a short summary here. Loss of a vibrant cultural sector has been proven in study after study to correlate to diverse social problems including poor psychological and even physical health, lowered intellectual ability, damage to peace and civil society, and lowered socioeconomic health. This is why UNESCO states that access to culture is a basic human right.

Culture’s contribution starts early. Lack of exposure to the arts is clearly correlated to problems in children: lowered intelligence, lower academic performance, as well as problems with truancy, social interaction and concentration. Loss of a healthy cultural sector is clearly related to the social ills of prejudice, intolerance, violence, delinquency, poor critical thinking, groupthink and the stagnation of towns and cities. These social ills are just as worrying as the economic ills of lowered innovation and productivity across the whole economy. When a region has no distinct cultural sphere of its own, it also suffers a general loss of public pride, cultural sovereignty, and identity. Whether people realize it or not, the arts help determine who we are as citizens and British Columbians, and they expand our individual potential. Douglas Coupland is right: a culture without a stable arts base is a parking lot. And as musician Dan Mangan points out, BC, despite its tiny population, has been a heavy hitter on the cultural world stage. British Columbians can be proud of this fact. Let’s not erase it.

3. Arts and Culture & the Olympics

To help win the bid for Vancouver’s 2010 Olympics, the BC Liberal government boasted about the province’s vibrant arts and culture scene. It supported the claim that culture was the “second pillar” of the Games. Now the BC government seems willing to tarnish BC’s image in the eyes of the world, chopping the arts off at the knees not five months before the Olympics begin. Meanwhile, Olympic security and a new stadium roof alone cost upwards of a billion, and the BC Liberals have the nerve to say that they had to choose between supporting the arts or feeding starving children. The dishonesty of the government’s arguments is beyond galling. It borders on the ridiculous.

Here are some of the peripheral Olympics expenses, quite apart from the main costs which approach 8 billion: $1 million for tickets for politicians, $2.86 million for Torch Relay parties, $486 milllion for BC Place Stadium roof upgrade, approx $1 billion for Olympic security. The government can find $47 million + for the arts.

Our position

The BC Liberals recently stated that there’s a choice to be made between supporting the arts and “feeding starving children.” Even according to the government’s own studies this dichotomy is entirely false, and the BC Liberals know it. This government has almost the worst record in Canada regarding child poverty, and it earned that title many years before we were hit with the recession and the Olympics. In actual fact, despite the massive $5.2 billion contribution made by the arts to the provincial GDP, arts workers tend to live at the poverty level themselves, and they too have families and bills to pay. Furthermore, it has been proven in multiple studies that arts workers and a healthy arts sector help to ameliorate the social conditions of poverty for others. Arts funding costs the province virtually nothing, and it certainly does not take food out of the mouths of children. We will not tolerate damaging falsehoods from a poverty-creating government. You can’t spend 100’s of millions on Olympic security and 486 million for a gleaming new retractable stadium roof and then invoke starving children.

We are calling on the minister responsible for the Arts, Kevin Krueger, to either start sincerely defending the arts sector, or resign. Stewarding the culture sector is, after all, his job. And unless our sector’s already tiny – but crucial – level of arts funding is fully restored, we also call for the resignations of the de facto Arts Minister Rich Coleman, head of Gaming; Colin Hansen, Minister of Finance who controls tax revenues; and Premier Gordon Campbell. The people of BC, at least 75% of whom support arts funding, have never given the BC Liberals a mandate to cut the arts and culture sector by 90%. If the BC Liberals go through with these cuts, they’ll be seriously betraying public trust.

To contact us, click here.

Email the Premier of BC, Gordon Campbell.
Email the arts minister Kevin Krueger.


2 responses to “Why public funding for the arts?

  1. Pingback: “Arts Cuts Memo” contest submission is a striking data visualization « Stop the BC Arts Cuts

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