Vancouver’s arts community is greeting this week’s provincial budget with trepidation, worried about cuts to core funding over the next few years and questioning a promised one-time infusion of $15 million.
Amir Ali Alibhai, executive director of the Alliance for Arts and Culture, is most concerned about the long term. The February 17 budget announcement reduced general arts and culture funding from $19.5 million to $11.8 million. At the same time, the Liberal government’s three-year budget-planning document projected further cuts to that funding, down to $9.6 million in 2010-2011 and $9.8 million in 2011-2012.
“That takes us back to pre-turn-of-the-last-century funding, and that type of ground, once it’s lost, is almost impossible to gain back. It requires much more investment just to catch up again,” Alibhai said to the Straight.
The promise of a one-off, $15-million boost did little to quell fears. In his February 17 speech, Finance Minister Colin Hansen said, “With this budget, we are injecting $15 million in strategic one-time grants to support arts and culture, and for conservation of the province’s historic places.”
Minister of Tourism, Culture and the Arts Bill Bennett clarified to the Straight that $7 million of this money will go directly to the B.C. Arts Council. “So their budget will be actually a little bit higher than what it was last year, in terms of dollars on the ground,” he reassured, indicating the money would likely go toward operating grants. His government hasn’t yet determined how the remaining $8 million will be spent. Why a one-off? “We’ve got this money this year that we don’t think we’re going to have next year.”
But the money isn’t exactly new. Bennett confirmed that much of the total is simply coming from funds that were promised to—but not spent on—the arts last year. The 2008-2009 budget set aside about $27.8 million for arts and culture. But the government only handed out about $19.5 million of that.
The opposition is calling for more sustained core funding. “Yesterday, we had the lieutenant-governor talking about a creative economy and how the government wants to support such a thing,” said Vancouver-Burrard NDP MLA Spencer Herbert, referring to the throne speech that preceded the budget. “Today, we see with this budget that they’re doing everything but—you know, taking us back to levels of support for the arts that we haven’t seen for about 15 years. I think if the strategy is to pull a Stephen Harper, it didn’t really work for him—in Quebec, anyways.”
The mood is different from the optimism that greeted the provincial budget one year ago. Throughout the 1990s, B.C. received criticism for constantly ranking among the provinces with the lowest per-capita arts funding. By the 2007-2008 budget, after years of hard advocacy work, the situation had improved, with the Alliance placing B.C. at seventh in Canada. Last year’s budget boosted it to sixth (behind Quebec, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Alberta, and Nova Scotia, in descending order): core funding went up to $15 million plus a brand new $150-million BC150 Cultural Fund endowment that was expected to generate about $8 million per year for the arts. This year, it’s expected to kick in just $3.3 million—with similar projections for the next two years.
“There was such excitement about the endowment, but it feels a bit like a Trojan Horse now,” Alibhai said.
Asked whether the projected cuts to core arts funding could have been a strategy for the Gordon Campbell government to court the suburbs and rural areas at voting time, Herbert said that if it was, it underestimated the importance of arts to those communities. “I think it has a lot to do with not understanding how many people the arts and culture industry employ in B.C.,” he added.
Alibhai said governments should be boosting arts funding as a way of stimulating growth. A 2004 City of Vancouver report found that, for every dollar the municipality pumps into arts organizations, those groups raise an additional $12.75 that gets reinvested in the regional economy through salaries, services, and “the continuation of the creative cycle”.
A recent study by Hill Strategies, a national research group, found that 42 percent of Canadian artists are self-employed—a fact that could carry repercussions if funding to projects is cut over the next few years. “A lot of work is project-based, and if there are fewer projects, there’s less opportunity for them to be employed, and that will put more strain on our social safety net,” Alibhai said.
With files from Charlie Smith.