Tough Times for the Arts in BC

October 1, 2009

The current arts funding crisis in BC has reignited embers of debate that have been recurring as long as our forest fires. I recently attended a closed-door rally for artists and arts administrators held at the Museum of Vancouver to strategize an industry response to the government’s recent draconian cuts to arts funding in BC.

I was in a room with a whole bunch of people facing a future without revenue they were certain was theirs, furious with a government also facing a future without revenue they were certain was theirs. Ironic, eh?

I see no value at all in anger. If we get angry and try to communicate, the people with whom we are trying to communicate will respond to how we are speaking, not to what we are saying. If we want to be heard and understood, we have to communicate calmly and with all the cleverness and relevant information we can muster.

So I am not angry with our government. The government is us; we put them there. The trouble is, we artists are part of a larger we – the people of BC. And we artists justifiably feel that the people of BC do not value the arts enough. We see our collective lack of respect for the arts in BC in the priorities of our educational and political agendas and budgets.

And now, as the shock waves of the global financial meltdown ripple through our society, we find ourselves in an urgent and critical situation. Hard decisions have to be made now by every economic ecosystem: individuals, families, small businesses, large corporations, cities, provinces and our nation. No one is exempt.

When hard decisions have to be made, it takes time to make them fair, and when a crisis takes hold of the whole world, there is not time for wisdom, and a lot of decisions are made in panic. And in times of crisis, sadly, it is often the loudest or most aggressive (or corrupt) of us who win, not the most deserving.

When times were good, I learned a lot about the arts working at the Arts Club Theatre. At the time, under the inspired and visionary leadership of Bill Millerd, both the man and the institution seemed pathologically averse to debt. Most, if not all, of our peer organizations, however, seemed not to be. They routinely amassed debt and were bailed out by government.

I loathed this public policy of rewarding fiscal malfeasance while punishing responsible arts administration, but now that very policy is being applied to the banking and automobile industries worldwide. I abhor this policy, yet it is deemed wise by many experts; so suddenly, a lot of long-held social covenants seem to be being turned upside down.

We seem to be suddenly surrounded by paradoxes. What has long been deemed wrong is suddenly right. There are contradictions everywhere. Frankly, I find the current times frightening and not only because of the financial crisis.

Besides the financial meltdown, I am seeing a social meltdown. Manners are virtually gone. The concept of what is polite has disintegrated. I see elderly disabled people forced to stand on buses while young and able bodies people sit. And I hear hate and anger constantly spewing from the media.

Worse, I see an emerging population of people robbed of their futures. Instead of degrees, they get debt, a lost hope of owning property, impossible odds for the establishment of a life-long career and the probability of divorce. Where and how, exactly, do we foster a love and respect for the arts in the next generations?

And how do we expect government arts subsidy policy to change, exactly, in the face of the current financial and social problems? As I said, wise decisions take time. Our current government is in panic.

The arts community of BC has to think about what we want in the way of arts funding policies and express it, not just vent our anger. And we have to face that things are going to change. They have to. And government has to think about what is best for us – not about what’s best for their party and the retention of power. Stephen Harper learned the hard way from the people of Quebec that cutting arts funding was not acceptable. He heard from everyone, not just artists. Gordon Campbell must hear from the people of BC that we value the arts. But we must also communicate wise and practical direction.

We must fight to restore a higher level of funding for the arts in BC: the cuts have been far too severe, too sudden and too many. But we must also make practical and difficult decisions about changing past practices. Artists and arts organizations are going to have to adapt the same way that all families and enterprises are.

More than ever, the things we make and do will have to consider the market. Our audiences and customers are going to have to support us more, and we are going to have to figure out how to make that happen. The coming HST, the decimation of corporate largesse and these government funding cuts mean more than ever that it will be individuals who will have to support the arts.

Tough times are ahead. We are the solution the arts need – all of us; each one of us, every day. We must buy as much of our entertainment as possible locally, just as we move to do our food shopping locally. Turn off your TVs, get out of the movie theatres and get involved with our concert halls and galleries and get as many people as you can to do the same.

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