Tom Durrie: Will Christy Clark’s “change” extend to arts and culture?
It seems like change is in the air. At least “change” was probably the most frequently used and quoted word during Christy Clark’s campaign and in her acceptance speech, which provided headlines with the words, “Change begins tonight.”
Change—and we’re not talking small change—would certainly be good news to the arts community, after experiencing a round of massive cuts to funding as well as the erosion of gaming grants that numerous arts groups and other charities had come to depend on. The good news is that she has promised a review of gaming grants to charities and a restoration of arts funding to 2008/09 levels as recommended by the select standing committee for two years running.
We know this because Arts Advocacy B.C., working the Alliance for Arts and Culture, posed four questions to all leadership candidates. The questions, which could have been answered with a simple yes or no, were:
1. Would you restore arts funding to the 2008/09 levels?;
2. Will you honour the 1999 agreement to allocate 33.3 percent of gaming revenues to non-profits, or agree to re-negotiate that agreement in good faith?;
3. Would you take measurable steps during their first mandate to raise BC’s per capita funding of the arts to at least the national average?;
4. Would you engage in an arts-community-driven consultation to create a cultural development and arts funding policy for BC?
We would be naí¯ve to expect any politician in their right mind to skip a chance to lay on the verbiage. I’m happy to say, though, that even if Clark’s answers were more than yes or no, she was reasonably succinct and clear. In short, the answer to number one is “yes”; the answer to number two is “maybe”, but she promises an independent review; the answer to number three is “We’ll see”; and the answer to number four is “yes”. You can read hers and everyone else’s complete comments online. And, guess what, I don’t recall ever hearing a premier say, “As a supporter of the arts, I know the contribution the sector makes.” Can you doubt that the arts community is cautiously optimistic?
Speaking of caution, would the promised return to 2008/09 funding levels ($19 million for the B.C. Arts Council) be a return to glory days, or just a way for the government to side-step appeals for a greater, more realistic, budget for the arts council? Alliance for Arts and Culture executive director Amir Ali Alibhai said that while he welcomed the recommendations of the Select Standing Committee, a return to the 2008/09 B.C. Arts Council budget of $19 million would still leave the province in last place when it comes to arts funding. (In fact, in 2008, the committee had recommended increasing the B.C. Arts Council’s budget to $32 million.)
To return to question number three, the one that virtually every leadership candidate wiggled out of answering directly, no matter how you cut it, B.C. is way down in the cellar compared to other provinces when it comes to per capita funding for arts and culture. 2007/08 figures from Statistics Canada show British Columbia at a measly $9.67 per capita in operating funding for arts and culture institutions—museums, libraries, heritage, film, and many others—well below the $20.91 per person spent by our next door neighbour Alberta. If you think $9.67 is rather puny, consider that this figure dropped to around $6.00 per person after the 2009 cuts. The implication of the “we’ll see” approach to question two is that there might be something fishy about the charts and figures offered by Statistics Canada. After studying these and talking with people there, I came to the conclusion that per capita amounts presented do accurately portray provincial rankings. I mean, hey, if you can’t trust Stats Can, who can you trust?
Many of these questions could be settled, however, if we had an arts and culture policy to guide overall directions and goals of support for the arts. That was the gist of question number four. Some of us have already started drafting and discussing cultural policy; we now need to persuade government to take us seriously and join us in the creation of a policy we can all live with. And, should the government ever take seriously the well-documented contribution that the arts and creativity make toward a healthy and intelligent populace and a vigorous economy, maybe someday we’ll even see a Ministry of Arts, Culture and Heritage.
At the end of the day though, it looks as if the arts and culture community has a potential ally. At this point, we welcome Christy Clark as premier-elect soon to be premier. Like every other “special interest group” (what’s wrong with having special interests?), artists and arts organizations of all stripes, along with their audiences and supporters, will have to keep up the pressure by tasteful, discrete, but unrelenting communication and lobbying. In the fall and winter of 2009, upwards of 9,000 British Columbians registered their objection to the government’s severe cuts to arts funding. That’s quite a few votes, and all indications are that the number is increasing. What will really matter is whether all these people will stand up and be counted by talking to their MLAs, attending all-candidates meetings, writing letters, and actually voting.
Now that we have Christy Clark’s promise of change, we are awaiting the watchword of the NDP leader to be chosen on April 17. We have their answers to our questions, we’re going to be reviewing them, and letting both parties know that we are taking this seriously.