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.”