Funding crisis frustrates fest

The Vancouver International Children's Festival is in "dire straits", according to executive director Lindy Sisson. On November 1, city council passed over the 28-year-old event for a supplementary grant, which might have helped with the organization's $125,000 deficit. It was the latest in the kids' fest's 2005 list of funding gremlins, which have included a $65,000 cut from the Canada Council for the Arts; a $50,000 loss from the federal sponsorship program; and $45,000 down at the gate this past May, due to bad weather.

"We're constantly asked to do more with less, and told we have to get better each year. Well, with what?" Sisson told the Straight. "They [city council] could have thrown us any kind of a bone; $10,000 and we would have broke even [for 2005]. Our overall fiscal picture was not taken into account."

This spring, city council voted to give the Office of Cultural Affairs an extra $1 million to distribute as supplementary grants. After office director Sue Harvey conducted a public consultation process, a committee was struck to recommend which groups would get the cash. The criteria included programming that reflects multiculturalism and evidence the organization had been historically neglected in the funding process.

The children's fest normally gets the most direct civic money of any arts group: $116,500. Harvey told the Straight the new money decisions were "a matter of rebalancing. We wanted strategic investments. This was an opportunity to address funding imbalances, and diversity."

But Sisson said the children's festival fits that criterion, and then some. The 2006 festival includes Canadian I Love You Forever author Robert Munsch; Ranganiketan, a music, dance, and martial-arts group from India; three children's entertainers from Australia; a full en franíƒ §ais Québécois program; and more diverse programming. She also claims that her event-though a model for festivals worldwide-gets the smallest amount of civic funding of any similar fest in Canada.

She pointed out that the festival lends out equipment and warehouse space to smaller groups, often for free; trains new technicians; and develops new works with emerging artists, in French and English.

Unlike other festivals, Sisson said, hers cannot jack up the prices or pursue high-profile sponsors, because it targets children.

Next year, city council plans to allocate at least $1 million and possibly $2 million in supplementary grants again. Harvey said she'll conduct another public consultation on how the grants should be distributed. Sisson argued that Vancouver's big festivals need to be recognized and valued-especially because so many of them are underfunded and in debt.

"There's a human casualty to all this," she said. "Do they want us all to volunteer? I've got two kids and I'm divorced; I'm not going to volunteer."