Why the B.C. NDP should pay attention to Christy Clark's newfound interest in arts and culture
On Monday (October 21) morning, Premier Christy Clark will be at the Vancouver Art Gallery along with Mayor Gregor Robertson to announce a major Chinese art exhibit.
It’s part of her government’s ongoing efforts to woo the arts community. But unlike her recent decision to induct Vancouver Symphony Orchestra conductor Bramwell Tovey into the B.C. Entertainment Hall of Fame, this visit with Vancouver Art Gallery director Kathleen Bartels may have a few awkward moments.
That’s because on October 17, Clark’s minister of cultural development, Coralee Oakes, told reporters that there will be no money in next year’s provincial budget to finance a new Vancouver Art Gallery in downtown Vancouver.
That has the potential to kibosh plans to convert the city-owned block bounded by West Georgia, Beatty, Dunsmuir, and Cambie streets into a major tourist destination.
Oakes’s comment came even though the legislature’s finance and government services committee won’t release a report on next year’s budget until November 15.
Fang Zhi of the Chinese government-owned China National Offshore Oil Corp. Limited will also be at the Vancouver Art Gallery with Clark and Bartels.
CNOOC took control of Nexen, which is a major Canadian energy company operating in the tar sands.
Everyone knows that this takeover was designed to feed China’s seemingly insatiable demand for natural resources.
It’s safe to assume that Nexen is a financial backer of the yet-to-be-announced Chinese art exhibit at the VAG, given Fang's presence.
At the same time, Clark appears to be clearing the way for lots more of that tar-sands oil to come to the West Coast, judging from a recent agreement with the government of Alberta.
This deal indicated that if pipeline projects by Enbridge and Kinder Morgan aren’t approved, Alberta bitumen could be shipped by rail. From there, it would go on tankers, bound for Asia.
Arts, politics, and business will all come together under one roof on Monday.
Rising importance of the arts
Reporters in the Victoria and Ottawa press galleries rarely pay much attention to the impact of the arts on elections. Even though some of them enjoy attending cultural events, they’re often blind to its political impact.
But smart politicians have recognized the importance of the cultural community ever since the federal Conservatives missed winning a majority government in 2008, thanks to Stephen Harper’s asinine comments on the topic.
At a campaign stop in Saskatchewan, Harper ridiculed the types of people who attend arts galas. This elicited a furious reaction in Quebec, and the Conservatives were left with their second consecutive minority government.
After the 2008 election, Harper tried to patch things up with a series of moves. His government maintained funding levels at the Canada Council, much to the surprise of many observers.
Harper also appointed James Moore as the minister of Canadian heritage—and Moore went out of his way to ingratiate himself to the arts community.
There was a huge artistic component in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, which the federal government supported. And Harper suddenly started playing the piano in public, most notably when he performed a Beatles song at a National Arts Centre gala that he had previously expressed such contempt for.
Lo and behold, Harper finally won his majority government in 2011, thanks in part to relentless efforts to downplay his previous image as a cultural troglodyte.
B.C. premier repeats Harper’s approach
As a talk-show host on CKNW Radio, Clark never seemed that interested in the arts. But since becoming premier, she has paid much more attention to this file.
Most notably, the premier announced a $115-million grant for a new campus for Emily Carr University of Art + Design. It was a high-profile indication that she recognized the importance of the creative economy.
In this year’s budget, Clark increased funding for the B.C. Arts Council by 40 percent to $24 million. Her government also introduced the B.C. Creative Spaces program, which distributed $1.25 million to organizations across the province.
In addition, Clark is making a point of being seen at the symphony and the art gallery. Don’t be surprised if she shows up at more events in the future, such as Bard on the Beach and a Ballet B.C. performance. You can also bet that Clark will make appearances at fundraisers for the Sarah McLachlan School of Music.
These actions will leave Vancouverites feeling that Clark is not like those other B.C. Liberals from the Fraser Valley. You know the types—the ones who see funding for the arts as a subsidy rather than as an investment that can yield enormous economic returns.
B.C. NDP takes a step backward
As Clark has ramped up her focus on the arts, the B.C. NDP has gone in the opposite direction. Leader Adrian Dix transferred the party’s most effective culture critic in history, Spencer Chandra Herbert, to become the critic for the environment.
It can be viewed as a well-deserved promotion for Chandra Herbert. But it has left the Vancouver cultural sector in the lurch. In Chandra Herbert’s place is Saanich South MLA Lana Popham, who is rarely seen in the arts capital of Western Canada. The NDP’s deputy critic is low-profile rookie MLA Jane Shin, who represents Burnaby-Lougheed.
Dix has also named Popham as the critic for tourism and small business. By combining tourism, arts and culture with small business in a Victoria MLA’s responsibilities, Dix has ensured that Vancouver’s creative industries will take second place.
Anyone familiar with the work of academic and consultant Richard Florida knows that the economic health of cities is integrally linked to the vitality of its cultural sector.
Clark didn’t combine cultural development with small business in one cabinet post, so why would the NDP do this with its shadow critic? It doesn’t make sense in the 21st century.
If the B.C. NDP wants to have a chance of forming the next government, it should appoint a critic with sole responsibility for arts, culture, and the film industry.
New Democrats interested in seeking the leadership should recognize that Chandra Herbert’s outstanding work is one reason why their party captured 11 of the 16 seats in the Burrard Peninsula.
By downplaying culture in the future, the B.C. NDP risks not faring as well in urban areas in the next election.
Meanwhile, the B.C. Liberals have deployed the wily MLA for Vancouver-False Creek, Sam Sullivan, to advance the government’s charm offensive on the local arts community.
Sullivan’s constituency is home to numerous arts organizations, and he has gone out of his way to get up to speed on issues affecting this sector.
It’s almost as though Clark has spotted a weakness on the Opposition side of the house, and is zeroing in for a kill.
Where the B.C. Liberals are vulnerable
No one should underestimate Clark’s love of politics, which often comes at the expense of good public policy. As a result, she leaves herself exposed by advancing poorly thought-out initiatives.
A prime example is her new $3-billion bridge to replace the George Massey Tunnel. Another is an ill-advised referendum on transit funding, which has the potential to turn hundreds of thousands of bus riders, not to mention environmentalists, against her government.
We also saw it with the B.C. Liberals’ multicultural-outreach strategy, which has resulted in an RCMP investigation.
Similarly, her arts policies appear to have been entirely guided by politics.
The B.C. Creative Spaces program distributed 37 grants last year. Of those, 30 were outside of the Lower Mainland, where half of B.C.’s population lives.
An effective NDP culture critic would figure out a way to make hay of this in Surrey, which is home to nearly 500,000 people, or in Burnaby, Richmond or North Vancouver.
The B.C. NDP could easily find allies in these centres to raise a ruckus in the local community papers if the party doesn’t want to be seen to be criticizing arts grants in other areas of the province.
These community activists or municipal politicians could demand to know why their cultural spaces aren’t as important as those on Lasqueti Island or Wells or any of the other tiny communities where Clark has been distributing money to win votes.
Is this happening because Clark has appointed an arts minister from Quesnel and a tourism minister from Prince George—and wants to play politics with arts funding?
The B.C. Creative Spaces program also channels arts money into aboriginal friendship centres.
Meanwhile, the Vancouver Aboriginal Friendship Centre’s homeless shelter is consistently turning people away. Vancouver is home to the largest aboriginal population in the Lower Mainland.
Why isn’t the Ministry of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation providing sufficient funding to friendship centres?
Why is the B.C. Liberal government cannabilizing arts funding—and then telling the cultural community that it is increasing the amount of money to this sector?
And why isn't there any transparency in the allocation of money from the B.C. Creative Spaces program? There's certainly no peer-review process in place.
At an October 17 news conference in Vancouver, the minister of cultural development, Oakes, prattled on about how her government is using arts money to restore the community of Barkerville.
But why is the B.C. Liberal government lumping heritage preservation in with funding for arts organizations? The federal government doesn’t divert arts funding in this way.
The government’s achilles heel continues to be its approach to the digital and film industries. No matter how much it spends on a new Emily Carr University campus, investments in these areas will continue flowing to Quebec and Ontario as long as B.C. maintains an uncompetitive tax regime.
The B.C. NDP has an opportunity to help enhance the largely urban-based cultural sector by devoting as much attention here as it’s focusing on resource industries and health care.
But this won’t occur unless it takes it takes this issue as seriously in the future as it did before the last election.
A good start would be for members of caucus to pick up copies of Florida’s books.
Stephen Harper learned in 2008 that there is a high price for politicians who ignore the importance of the arts.
Successful Lower Mainland mayors—such as Burnaby’s Derek Corrigan, Vancouver’s Gregor Robertson, and the City of North Vancouver's Darrell Mussatto—have ensured that culture received ample attention from their governments in recent years.
At this stage, the B.C. NDP can’t afford to be making mistakes in this regard, particularly in light of the premier’s recent enthusiasm for this sector.