Why do the arts matter?

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      As we enter a landmark arts season, severe provincial cutbacks are reminding people that culture is crucial

      There’s an anecdote about Winston Churchill making the rounds lately. The story goes that during World War II, the British prime minister was asked by fellow politicians to shut down theatres and cultural institutions in order to save money. “What are we fighting for then?’’ his response is said to have been.

      As we enter a new arts season, the province’s artists are facing severe budget shortfalls by way of cancelled gambling grants, decreased B.C. Arts Council support, and the prospect of an 89-percent cut in the province’s core arts-and-culture spending in the next two years. In response, the cultural community has been galvanized into action. But, as the Alliance for Arts and Culture’s executive director, Amir Ali Alibhai, points out, support from the general public is crucial if the province’s cultural sector is to survive: “We need to remind audiences that the reason they can have access to the work is because of the very generous core support provided by various levels of government.”¦We need to start that dialogue with the public, so that it’s not easy to see the arts as a frill or a luxury.”

      To that end, the Straight asked a cross section of local people to channel their inner Churchill, and explain why the arts matter so much.

      Jay Hirabayashi (executive director of Kokoro Dance):
      “I think that most people take the arts for granted without really realizing how much it contributes to their quality of life. I think that everything—the clothes people wear, radio, television, newspapers—is coloured and influenced by the arts. And if there wasn’t that creative stream of artists feeding what we see all around us, it would indeed be like the grey square that we [protesters against the province’s cutbacks to arts funding] have adopted as the symbol of life without art.”

      Jim Green (cultural and developmental consultant):
      “Why do people go to Venice, Italy? Do they go there because they’re looking for a better Wal-Mart? They go there because the whole city is dripping in culture. Thirty-three percent of the economy of London, England, is based on arts and culture. When it comes to Vancouver, a lot of people who are not progressive in their thinking about tourism use the concept of the three Ms: mountains, moose, and Mounties.”¦But it’s not who we are. You can live in Vancouver and never see a moose in your life, but you can also go see Robert Lepage or you can go see Stan Douglas’s work or go to the Vancouver Opera. That is the calling card of cities.”

      Barbara-Jo McIntosh (director of the board of the Cultch, and owner of Barbara-Jo’s Books to Cooks bookstore):
      “What nurtures me is live performances of music and theatre.”¦It’s wonderful to watch a good movie and it’s wonderful to see a good TV program or something funny on YouTube or listen to a good record, but there’s nothing like being in the room where something live is being produced right in front of you, and you get to feel every aspect of it. I think it does integrate into your soul and make you a better person.”

      Gregor Robertson (mayor of Vancouver):
      “The arts are at the core of Vancouver’s identity and spirit. Beyond that, arts and culture are a huge economic driver here.”¦Particularly right now, with the 2010 Games coming, the world coming to Vancouver, it’s critical for our cultural sector to be ready and poised to break through on the world stage. That was part of our [Olympic] bid, and there’s an expectation that our artists will shine alongside our athletes. The cuts will make that much more challenging. They may undermine the work of many great organizations that are supporting artists and preparing to make a big splash in 2010.”

      Adrienne Wong (artistic producer with Neworld Theatre):
      “From a personal point of view, art helps me to figure out my wider philosophy about who I am and where I fit into society—as well as giving me an opportunity to see, even if only briefly, what it might be like to be someone else. And so in some ways, not to sound totally cheesy, practising art has become very spiritual for me. It serves the purpose that the church would have served, or schoolteachers would have served, when I was younger. It’s about just being aware of what it is to be an individual inside of a larger community, and the responsibilities of that.”

      Marcus Youssef (artistic producer with Neworld Theatre):
      “What happens in that moment in Grade 7 when the teacher says, ”˜Okay, we’re going to do improv?’ The bad kids suddenly become good, acting out suddenly becomes a good thing, and there’s a way of engaging and an excitement about people being together that doesn’t exist in the same way as when we’re doing a math class or we’re doing other things like that.”¦Arts and culture is a real, living, breathing industry which, like sport and education and medicine and social service, grows the economy, provides for families, pays taxes, and is an integral part of the majority of our lives.”

      Yulanda Faris (arts philanthropist, chair of the Vancouver Opera Foundation, honorary chair of Judith Marcuse Dance Projects, and past president of the Vancouver Opera Association board):
      “I think of how we teach in the very early years. We use song, we use dance, movement, storytelling, we read to our children. All the elements of what I consider the arts are the most effective methods of teaching. Studies prove that children that do not get that stimulation do not develop as well.”¦If it matters when you’re a child, it doesn’t matter any less when you’re an adult. It’s how you form a civil society.”

      Dominic Lopes (philosophy professor and associate dean of arts at UBC):
      “There’s no question that the arts bring tourists to town, that they generate all kinds of spinoffs.”¦We also get things from the arts personally; it’s consolation, for instance. [Henri] Matisse thought of the arts as providing a safe space for us from the trials and tribulations of life. At the same time, the arts provoke us. They challenge our basic assumptions.”¦But really, at the end of the day, the fact is that we couldn’t imagine our lives without the arts.”¦Anthropologists have found ornamentation in archaeological sites going back hundreds of thousands of years. The earliest paintings in Chauvet are 30,000 to 40,000 years old, and we have musical instruments that are that old. So the minute that we had minds that were sophisticated enough to make art, we used them to make art.”

      Lukas McCormick (16-year-old member of the Cultch’s Youth Panel):
      “Personally, life would be rather boring without the arts. There are so many opportunities for so many people to work and have fun doing it. I think it would be a tragedy without it. I’ve found the youth panel is an amazing opportunity just to get out there and have a chance to try all sorts of things.”

      Cyrena Huang (Vancouver Academy of Music cello teacher):
      “As a self-employed cello teacher, the funding cuts don't directly affect me. What they do affect is society’s attitude towards art, especially that of future generations. I don't want to live in a city without art. A city without art is a city devoid of humanity, and I don't care how pretty the mountains are.”



      Steven Merchant

      Sep 17, 2009 at 6:53am

      These are all great arguments, but don't forget, not only does the heavily indebted provincial government have no money to spend on anything (it will take years for the province to pay off their current liabilities) but BC citizens are also adamantly opposed to tax increases that could pay for such programs. What the government needs to do is ask the citizenry if public arts do indeed matter to them, and if so, then convince voters to increase public revenues to take the steps to fund them in perpetuity; and create something similar to the National Endowment for the Arts: a solid, long-term plan for public art funding. Having a yearly funding debate is not a solution and is not a sustainable strategy for a provincial government.

      Trevor Hargreaves

      Sep 17, 2009 at 11:36am

      They have plenty of money to spend, it's simply that they have decided to spend it on two weeks of global grandstanding with the Olympics.

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      Fiona Bowie

      Sep 17, 2009 at 12:04pm

      But Steven, the thing that most people do not understand with regard to funding the arts in British Columbia, is that it is a MONEY MAKER. The arts contribute over 60 million a year back into revenue for British Columbia. For every dollar spent the arts returns 30% on investment. So the BC government is not only short sighted from a cultural perspective - it's cutting off the nose to spite the face. here are some stats:http://bit.ly/Ky7lp

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      Binden Shovel

      Sep 18, 2009 at 12:04am

      It is absolutely true that Churchill resisted closing down theatres at the beginning of the war, when plans for the blackout were being discussed.
      He argued that the populations of the cities needed theatres and cinemas to help them have a little enjoyment amid the agonies of war.
      There is a copy of a memo on the subject at the back of his WW2 memoirs.
      He also argued with the transport planners to allow enough capacity on the trains to deliver flowers to the cities so that the ladies could be cheered up.

      As an accomplished painter himself Churchill knew the value that the arts bring to a community.

      I came across these nuggets whilst researching Churchill for a book I recently published called Churchill's Secret Skills.

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      Steven Merchant

      Sep 18, 2009 at 9:11am

      Trevor Hargreaves: The exact opposite is true. The province doesn't have money for Olympic spending, or anything else, for that matter. Just two weeks ago, they announced that they've never been further in the financial whole -- to the tune of 2.8 billion dollars. Spending is way too high and/or taxes are way too low in this province; our balance sheet has never been more unbalanced. We need to decide on more cuts or more taxes and then do it now.


      Fiona Bowie: Interesting link, but I would really like to the see the stats he cited in that video. If you could truly generate a 30% return on investment, then RBC, BMO, TD and Scotiabank and ever other firm on Bay Street would be throwing money at it like it's the biggest bar mitzvah in history. Even I'd take all my mutual funds out of my RRSPs and give it to the. To put that in perspective, Berkshire Hathaway, probably the best managed company in the world just recorded a 14% profit increase. I hate to say it, but there's no way that anyone's doubling that with government spending.


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      M Berger

      Sep 18, 2009 at 9:52am

      It seems, Steven, that you have missed an important point of this story. The funding to arts and culture is not TAX money (or at least not a tax the incumbents admit is a tax). It comes from gaming/gambling money: money that we were assured was somehow transmogrified into a moral source by the act of giving it to the community, to fund arts culture, and charity.

      Suddenly, it is simply all right to exploit people. Whatever you think of that, it constitutes a radical change in philosophy which hasn't been addressed in any way.

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      M. Jewell

      Sep 18, 2009 at 11:16am

      Why is an individual fine artist/visual artist not part of the Straight's "cross-section" interviewed for this story?

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      Steven Merchant

      Sep 19, 2009 at 10:36am

      M Berger: I completely agree that the government would never refer to gambling proceeds as taxation, and because, in this case, the funding sources emerge from a crown corporation (The BC Lottery Corp), it does indeed create a strange game of accounting juggling for the government.


      This might sound like a trite detail, but the government should make arts commitments directly through the Arts Council, instead of attempting to juggling around funds they don't have from departments that have no interest in dispersing them. In the end, it seems to constitute a bizarre, unintended arrangement where wealth is transfered from one group of largely economically marginalized citizens (gamblers) to another (artists). If they could balance their revenue and expenditures in the first place, they wouldn't be in this mess when it turns out there isn't enough money to foot the bills.

      As for the idea of laundering money from immorality into morality... well... I think you're definitely onto something there. That's certainly an interesting, provocative and necessary idea that someone should explore -- I'll take a note from the Obama playbook and gladly admit that it's way above my pay grade.

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      Keith Higgins

      Sep 19, 2009 at 4:22pm

      Steven: actually, the gaming grants referred to don't come from the lottery corporation. Revenues from licensed commercial gambling establishments are split, as a condition of their licenses. Take a look at Susan Marsden's article on the diversion of gaming money away from charities, published here just a few days ago.

      Are casino-goers "economically marginalized"? I'm not aware of any studies to that effect.

      However, I am aware of the BC government's own study that concluded for every dollar spent on grants through the BC Arts Council, between $1.05 and $1.36 was returned to the provincial treasury. I expect that this is largely due to the contribution of unpaid and underpaid labour by artists and cultural workers, which enables additional spending associated with grant-supported organizations and projects.

      But none of that is "why the arts matter". It is simply one side or another of a rather petty argument that doesn't get at the core of the issue. The arts matter because they are part of what makes us human, part of what makes life more liveable, a means for social and political discussion to take place, a way for ideas to be communicated outside of the protocols and restraints of business or bureaucracy or authority, a means for us to viscerally understand the thoughts and feelings of others, an arena for celebration and for mourning and for things we cannot ourselves find the words to say.

      And that is beyond the value of money. But without public support, less of us have access to the arts. Without public support, the arts will only be easily available to the very wealthiest among us. And that is why, I think, agents of social repression make the arts one of their first targets.

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