Funding for Vancouver Playhouse, Museum of Vancouver approved in-camera

City council approved nearly $1 million in financial assistance to the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company and $300,000 in funding to the Museum of Vancouver during in-camera meetings last spring.

The City of Vancouver released confidential documents outlining the funding today (September 16) after information on the in-camera discussions was leaked to the Vancouver Sun.

“Discussion of these issues was conducted by Council in-camera in March 2011 and June 2011 to comply with the Vancouver Charter and the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act,” a statement from the City of Vancouver indicated.

“The media’s release of this information is without the full context of Council’s consideration and therefore, we are releasing the two files with appropriate redactions as required under the law.”

City manager Penny Ballem confirmed that council did accept all the recommendations contained in two reports on assistance for the two cultural venues, which included $500,000 in emergency funding and over $400,000 in debt relief for the Vancouver Playhouse.

“The Playhouse has a critical role in our arts and culture sector in the city….they support many small organizations through their production facility,” Ballem told the Straight by phone.

“Basically the combination of cuts in provincial funding and…the difficulty that the whole arts community is facing, they found themselves at a point where without any intervention by the city, they would not have been able to continue producing their season.”

An administrative report dated March 28, 2011 recommended the city approve a one-time emergency grant of $100,000 to the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company, to be sourced from the city’s Contingency Reserve.

A second report from June 10, 2011 recommended council approve up to $400,000 in funding for the Playhouse from the Cultural Precinct Reserve, and forgive over $426,000 in outstanding debt owed to the city by the theatre company.

A cash advance of $300,000 to the Museum of Vancouver was also recommended, as well as an advance on the museum’s 2011 operating grant of $84,750, scheduled for October.

The approval of the emergency funding for the Playhouse was panned by arts advocate and Non-Partisan Association city council candidate Sean Bickerton.

While Bickerton called Playhouse artistic managing director Max Reimer “a visionary leader”, he said the theatre company’s budgetary issues date back many years.

“My concern is with this million-dollar, taxpayer-funded bailout of an organization that has traditionally lost its way, and it’s not up to the taxpayers to correct that mistake,” Bickerton told the Straight by phone.

“It’s inequitable for all of the other arts groups in the city that are doing the right things.”

Bickerton also criticized what he called a “back-room deal” on the funding.

“What were they afraid of that they didn’t bring this out into the light of day, two and a half months before an election?” said Bickerton. “What are they hiding?”

Suzanne Anton, the NPA’s mayoral candidate and sole representative on city council, was in attendance at the in-camera meetings.

“I did support it,” she told the Straight by phone. “I will admit it was not something that was easy to do, and it’s the kind of decision you make that’s a little disappointing to have to make, but I think the choice was between letting them go bankrupt or not, and we decided to help them.”

Anton said moving forward, she wants to see a discussion around the use of the civic Playhouse facility.

One of the staff reports released today recommended that council require the Vancouver Playhouse and the Museum of Vancouver to submit quarterly reports to the city, and that an advisory committee be convened to make recommendations for support to major cultural institutions by the end of September 2011.

Vision Vancouver councillor Heather Deal said the Playhouse has been showing an “upward trend” and that the city is making other changes with regards to the facility.

“We sent in some financial people from city hall to work with their people, we’re changing the nature of the relationship of their board, so that we’re much more closely-linked, and we’ve sent in a consultant to work with their board and their management to make sure that the systemic problems that may have led them here, if there are any, can be repaired,” she told the Straight by phone.

“All arts organizations are important, but when one this large that has production space that many other people use, it has young actor programs, it has young theatre-goer programs, it was just too important to let go, and I’ve got a lot of faith in Max’s ability to turn things around,” she added.

Ballem said staff will update council on the issue within the coming months.



Sean Bickerton

Sep 16, 2011 at 8:11pm

Last year Councillor Deal's "plan to save the Playhouse Theatre Company was to give them control of the City-owned Playhouse Theatre, a multimillion dollar civic theatre, despite concerns they weren't able to manage their own much smaller budget, let alone a major city asset.

But now, just a year later, we're told by Councillor Deal that the only way to save the organization is to give them $1,000,000, and another theatre as well. Never mind that the funds to do so have been purloined from the Cultural Precinct Fund meant to help promote all of the tenants of the cultural district.

What is worst of all is that this was done in secret, based on yet another plan coooked up by Councillor Deal, who knows all of the same background I do, she does hold the arts file for her caucus.

Councillor Anton is one of the most hard-working councilllors of them all. She works tirelessly and ceaselessly, reads every report conscientiously, studies every proposal, visits sites, and despite the traps set for her by those more interested in playing politics than good policy, Councillor Anton always tries to do what's right and what she believes is best for the city.

They sprang this on her suddenly in a secret in-camera meeting where she was completely alone, and said it was an emergency. But Councillor Deal has been working on this file extremely closely for several years now, so why did she let it deteriorate to the point a civic theatre was endangered before taking action? (A civic theatre endangered only because Councillor Deal put the theatrical company in charge of it.)

I like Heather, she's a nice person, but this is disgraceful stewardship of the city's cultural assets and funds. What will Councillor Deal propose next year when they come back for more? Who else qualifies? Will they replenish the funds for the cultural precinct? Are they leaving the theatrical company running the city-owned, what-was-once-revenue-generating Playhouse Theatre?

What about all of the other groups in the city that are doing everything right and filling their theatres with new audiences - the Arts Club Theatre for instance, which will need a new theatre within the foreseeable future, or Music on Main or the Opera or Symphony, which needs a mid-sized concert hall, or Children's Theatre Co?

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Rob Roy

Sep 16, 2011 at 11:12pm

When it's good news, politicians are the first to step out and take all the credit. When it's bad? They hide behind public servants, in-camera meetings, and censored documents.

By bailing out two groups, to the tune of over $1 million, VISION has opened the door to dozens of other bailouts. What about Vancouver Opera? They're $750,000 in the hole. Are they less worthy?

The destruction of Gaming Grants forced dozens of other arts groups into deficit, courtesy of the BC Liberals. They are now facing ruin. Will Heather Deal bail them out as well? If not, why not? Is she playing favourites?

Three years ago, VISION promised an independent Arts Council. They have broken that promise. Instead, they hold meetings in secret and spend ONE MILLION DOLLARS to bail out a favoured twosome.

It's very nice for these lucky two. The rest of the arts community, left out of this deal, might feel differently.

Heather Deal? Meet Pandora Box.

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Mike Puttonen

Sep 17, 2011 at 12:57pm

From this article, it looks like half the money is for back-rent owed to the city. The other half can also be assigned to pay the rent, again back to the city. Free rent for the city theatre's resident company. Not such a radical idea. How about making it permanent?

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james green

Sep 17, 2011 at 1:08pm

Firstly, all of us need to support increased funding and support of the arts.
Secondly, for this council and mayor to spend or commit to over $1,000,000 of spending of tax payer's money without public input and consultation is unforgivable and all of these pols should be voted out of office next election.
A committee should have been set up, studied the situation and make recommendations regarding this problem at the Playhouse.
It's called democracy and not spending taxpayers money without theie knowledge. It just gets worse at city hall. Good Motivation Deal and others but wrong process.

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Sep 17, 2011 at 6:52pm

What dosn't get argued here is the fact that the overwheliming majority of theatre goers are middle to upper class, and are rapidly aging (judging by the number of grey heads I observe at their performances). This begs the question of why the vast majority of lower income earners need to subsidize plays for their neighbours who, if they want live entertainment, should likely pay for it themselves. At this point comes the inevitable argument that investment in the arts pays tremendous dividends to society, which is always coupled with the other argument that artists are starving and we need to support them. Could it be that artists therefore don't pay taxes sufficient to cover their subsidy, and are proliferating beyond what the market needs because of said subsidies???

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Arts Lover

Sep 17, 2011 at 7:25pm

Disappointed to see that Council has also approved an operating grant to the Playhouse out of 2012 funds, especially as the most peer assessment committee did not recommend the Playhouse for Operating Support. City Council has effectively delivered a cut to every other arts group on operating funding in Vancouver by approving this, as the money will come at the expense of other companies. It will seriously jeopardize many small companies as a result.

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james green

Sep 18, 2011 at 12:35am

Does anyone remember the deal the city made with the Storyeum and how much they lost in back rent and other costs?

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Sep 19, 2011 at 1:44am

Disappointed to see that one company is getting a million dollars... whether it's the city's "theatre company" (which is debatable anyways) or not.

There are a MULTITUDE of smaller theatre companies in Vancouver (many who feature emerging artists and scripts) who would be thrilled with 5% of that money.

If the Playhouse cannot program work that appeals to their patrons or manage their budgets with their many donors, sponsors and grants, why should the city trust them with another million dollars? Why not give $50,000 to 20 emerging theatre companies in Vancouver? I guarantee the odds of success would be greater.

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Sep 19, 2011 at 9:45am

I've lost track of the accounting practices regarding public money at 12th and Cambie - is this simply another "drop in the bucket"?

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Dear Jas

Sep 19, 2011 at 11:56am

Dear Jas,
Lower-income owners don't pay, because you mainly don't own homes and don't pay City property taxes.
A middle-income earner

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