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.