Vancouver Playhouse bailout sparks funding debate

Max Reimer, artistic managing director of the Vancouver Playhouse, is defending the $1-million bailout the company received from the city.

Last week, the city was forced to make public details of the financial assistance approved by council during in-camera meetings in March and June of this year, after confidential documents were leaked to the press.

An administrative report dated March 28 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 recommended council approve up to $400,000 in funding for the Playhouse from the Cultural Precinct reserve, and forgive more than $426,000 in outstanding debt owed to the city by the theatre company.

Reimer said that the money simply helped level the playing field for his organization, because of its inability to access operating grants in the past, and because its civic-theatre grant does not cover all of its rent. “It’s got a certain amount of rent, after which it has to pay full retail and no one else does,” he said. “All we wanted was two things: commensurate operating assistance from my municipal government, plus we’ve got to figure out a way that we can use the facility more and not have the costs skyrocket when we try to do more.”

Vision Vancouver city councillor Heather Deal said the Playhouse was too important an organization to let fail. “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 theatregoer programs—it was just too important to let go,” she said.

But Sean Bickerton, arts advocate and Non-Partisan Association city-council candidate, said the decision set a dangerous precedent. Noting that the city had given the Playhouse a residency arrangement, he added: “The result is they’re too big to fail. We couldn’t allow them to go under because, ‘Now they run the theatre and 100 groups depend on them.’ That’s an exaggeration, but it’s partly true, only because Coun. Deal put them in charge of that theatre a year ago. Now we have to double down with $1 million.…They’re not forgoing rent for the [Vancouver] Recital Society or symphony or anybody else.” He added: “There’s no certainty we won’t be asked for more next year. Once you’ve given them a theatre and invested $1 million, what do you do next year when they’re sitting looking at a $200,000 deficit? Do you pour more in because you’ve already invested $1 million? Where do you stop?”

Bickerton also expressed anger that the funds came out of the Cultural Precinct reserve, leaving it with an unallocated balance of $2.9 million. “That money was a provincial grant to help the city create a cultural precinct,” he said referring to the proposed zone for the blocks around the Queen Elizabeth Theatre plaza. “This erodes that, and that’s the kind of thing that’s visionary, long-term, builds infrastructure, assists with marketing that we should be doing for our local arts industry. This robs money from there. We’re robbing from the future to pour money into this hole they’ve created over 20 years.”

Amir Ali Alibhai, executive director of the Alliance for Arts and Culture, said that the bailout highlights the need for the city to rethink its relationships to resident arts organization. “When that starts to become necessary, the relationship the city has with organizations that run those city spaces probably needs to be examined and looked at, so those organizations are not put into those positions,” he said. “I think there’s probably systemic things in the relationship, or this may be an old model that needs to be re-examined of how, on an ongoing basis, the city supports those organizations.”




Sep 22, 2011 at 10:38am

Vancouver bails out art, not banks. Sounds alright to me.

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Rob Roy

Sep 23, 2011 at 4:46pm

"Too big too fail"?

That was the excuse we heard when the US government bailed out incompetent banks.

There are a lot of arts groups that would like the same sweetheart deal that Heather Deal gave to the Playhouse. Dozens of groups could have made very efficient use of $1 million.

Something's gone wrong here. Heather Deal's explanation for what she did is very weak. Favoritism is never welcome in our public officials. Lots resentment out there.

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Nik Black

Sep 25, 2011 at 10:26am

The Vancouver Playhouse, under the leadership of Max Reimer, is a pathetic company - surely not big enough to be allowed to fail. It should fail and the whole thing should be reconsidered. The Playhouse hasn't been a contending artisitic force since Christopher Newton ran it in the 70's and a few amazing years under Larry Lillo in the 90's. Previous artisitic directors have run it into the ground and Max simply doesn't have the artistic vision to lift it out of the deep, dark hole it's fallen into.

Let it fail and start again. There will be a few years of dismal activity, but then again, there has been over thirty years of dismal activity anyway, so a few more won't matter. Then, a new, more visionary company will rise from the ashes with a mandate and a leader capable of making the Playhouse an important Regional theatre again.Until then, nobody really cares about the Playhouse.

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Not a good deal

Sep 25, 2011 at 10:48am

Deal's argument that Vancouver Playhouse has young actor and youth theatre programs is weak, Many other professional theatre companies in Vancouver have extensive youth programs, work with young actors and consistently provide youth programming and/or classes. The Playhouse provides one youth playwrighting class and, for the first time this coming season, is presenting a production for youth. Hmmmm...

D. Zaster

Sep 25, 2011 at 11:18am

What's interesting about the grant to the Playhouse is not how much criticism it has attracted, but how little.

The Playhouse is the tent-pole of the city's theatre sector. If it goes, something very important will have been lost, and many theatre professionals and theatre companies will suffer. Co-productions with other companies will end, which will affect companies in other provinces.

Looked at strictly from the city's point of view, the decision to put the Playhouse on a firmer financial footing and relieve its rental deficit makes good business sense. The loss of the major tenant at the Playhouse theatre would cause financial losses extending years into the future. Vancouver already has one white-elephant theatre, The Centre, just a block from the Playhouse. We don't need another. $1 million is a small price to pay to keep a vital theatre - and a major piece of this city's cultural life - open and functioning.

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East Van Arts

Sep 25, 2011 at 1:28pm

D. Zaster, referring to the "white elephant" theatre, The Centre, appears not to know that the City does not own it.

It is owned and operated privately.

The City could have tried to pick it up, I suppose, but they were too busy destroying our dazzling heritage theatre, the 650-seat Pantages.

Another very bad Deal.

Arts Cassandra

Sep 25, 2011 at 3:17pm

Every arts organization in this city has stories of being treated unfairly by the Cultural Planning Department - it is legion for its problematic funding and policy decisions. What the answer is is to find a reasonable, fair way of dealing with the fallout of previous actions that everyone, even if they don't agree with them, can understand.

Unfortunately, this action by City Council does not do that: it is plainly a political move so that what was once the flagship civic theatre company doesn't go down in Vision's tenure. If as Mr. Reimer states, this bail out is just to level the playing field, then why were these meetings held in camera and not open to the public where we could all discuss it on an open playing field?

It is true, to be fair, that Vancouver and BC woefully underfund the arts, and this is what ultimately happens to systemically underfunded organizations. That being said, is it not possible that Vancouver is too small for 2 regional sized theatre companies, especially given the current economic situation? And really, the Arts Club has been the true regional theatre in Vancouver for more than a few years now, and not just in size and scope, but also as a supporter of small and young theatre companies and young artists.

The cultural community has been side swiped by an action that doesn't take the whole arts ecology into account and makes us all wonder how we can get more money out of Council on our own. This decision jeopardizes the entire granting process, as it side steps the city's own jury's decision (the Playhouse applied for and was turned down for an operating grant by a jury of its peers in the last round of granting) and makes Vancouver arts funding obviously NOT an arms length process. And, believe me, we would all be fine with that as long as EVERYONE knew that that's how it worked, and we could all stop filling out 25 page operating applications and just go to Council by ourselves instead.

The Playhouse has been largely irrelevant since Susan Cox held the reins for many reasons, not the least of which was Susan Cox. But really, for whatever the reason is that it is irrelevant, bailing out the company doesn't solve the much larger issue of how Vancouver's arts organizations function, it only exacerbates an already difficult situation by not dealing with the real question: how should a culture fund its culture?

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Sep 27, 2011 at 12:02am

the artistic director is a corporate technocrat they parachuted in from Ontario. somehow he is allowed to direct and stage his own plays, probably with this money.

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Arts Cassandra

Sep 27, 2011 at 11:37am

@ derp - Much as I would love to be able to agree with you on this, it's simply not true.

Max Reimer, the Playhouse's Artistic Director, while having been parachuted in from Ontario, is actually not a corporate technocrat. He started as a dancer and a performer in live theatre, and moved to Artistic Direction from there.

The real problem in this slightly sleazy mess doesn't lie with Max at all, who is desperately trying to make the best of a really bad circumstance. It lies in the bad funding decisions that have been made for many years around culture in general. And to try to be a little fair here, the City isn't the only one who has been remiss in this - government bureaucracy of all levels have not dealt with the many thorny issues around cultural funding (and I am not slagging the bureaucrats here - they have been dragged back and forth by bad political decisions that have caused huge difficulties). This situation is what has helped to cause the financial and artistic crisis at the Playhouse (and at many other companies as well), without actually developing a rational plan for dealing with the mess that the bad decisions have left in their wake.

Just to be really clear here - funding the arts is not the problem. All sectors in our culture are funded in some way or another, whether through having $500 million dollar retractable roofs built for them or having the City pick up the policing tab for a sporting event's celebration gone wrong or getting tax breaks and grants for product research and development. What is wrong here is how it was done: behind closed doors, and against the wishes of the peer assessment committee which until now was the only process that led to arts funding at the civic level - or so we believed.

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Sep 27, 2011 at 1:41pm

If we stop using terms such as bail out and entertain for a moment that a ship that has been sinking almost from it's inception MIGHT not be due to mismanagement but perhaps a badly built ship. This money then CANNOT be a bail out but rather a repair to something that has always been broken by no fault of itself. To throw our arms up and so "oh well maybe Vancouver can't support that many theatres" will NEVER help us develop into more of a vibrant city. As an artist and a producer I am thrilled that another arts organization is getting the same kind of support afforded many other theatre companies in the city and in the country. Shame on us for our own jealousy an in fighting. We should be proud to live in a city that recognizes when it is wrong and is willing to do something about that and we should be thrilled that a fellow arts organization is getting some needed support.