After weeks in crisis mode, Vancouver arts groups say announcements this week offer some hope for staying afloat through COVID-19 shutdowns.
Today, city council unanimously approved regularly scheduled cultural-grant funding for 2020.
That reinforced some rare good news on the federal front yesterday: that the Canada Council for the Arts will kick in $60 million in advance funding—or about 35 percent of annual grants—to the country’s 1,100 core-funded organizations. The same day, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau vastly expanded the 75-percent wage subsidy for small businesses to include nonprofits, to encourage them to keep workers on during the pandemic—a move that will now include many arts companies.
Those acts, along with funding advances from the B.C. Arts Council, will combine to help the Cultch survive, its executive director, Heather Redfern, told the Straight. “It will really help us get through the next couple months and to plan the next season,” she said, adding that when the COVID-19 crisis struck, the organization had been two weeks away from announcing the 2020-21 lineup, which will now have to be totally reevaluated. “Obviously, this is unprecedented, so it’s going to be a matter of having cash flow and whether we can keep the staff that we need to work on this, which is something we’re quite far behind on now,” she said. “We really haven’t had the time to do that [planning] because we’ve been dealing with the immediate fallout. Your financial ability to deal with that crisis is stopped and you have no money coming in.”
Closing theatres down has its own heavy costs, she pointed out; there is still overhead, and staff have spent many hours processing ticket returns and other logistics.
Redfern made an impassioned plea at a special Vancouver city council meeting today in support of 2020 cultural grants.
Rumours had circulated in the community that some council members were getting cold feet about approving the arts funding during a health crisis. The grants included a total of $6,273,590 to 208 cultural organizations, including millions in operating funds for groups from Ballet BC to the Arts Club Theatre.
“The fact that they unanimously approved the funding was what we absolutely need them to do,” Brenda Leadlay, executive director of the B.C. Alliance for Arts + Culture, told the Straight. Also noting the economic benefits the infusion will create, she added the pandemic is reminding everyone about the more qualitative value of arts investment: “Right now people are facing isolation; they’re struggling with their mental health and struggling with being confined with their family. And with that isolation, what are they doing? They’re reading books, they’re watching Netflix, they’re listening to music, they’re playing video games. These are all products created by the cultural sector. If that wasn’t there, it would affect their mental health and ability to cope.”
But she tempered the good news with the fact that NPA Coun. Colleen Hardwick warned the sector not to expect status-quo support moving forward amid the health crisis. “It’s not really our sector’s responsibility to handle the city’s budget,” Leadlay said, questioning the targeting of arts if there are shortfalls elsewhere.
Leadlay stressed that the city grants are not additional money being pumped into the system.
“The cultural sector has been underfunded for a long time,” she said, pointing out the B.C. cultural sector’s gross domestic product is exceeds $6.7 billion (according to the last Stats Can study, in 2014). There are more artists per capita here than in any other province, with the highest concentration in Vancouver. “This sector is going to be needing a lot more.
"When you look at Germany or the U.K., they’ve already committed lots of extra money—and that’s understandable, because they were a couple weeks ahead of us. But it shows that they recognize the value of those sectors inherently. I mean, it was 50 billion in Germany.” (As the crisis hit, that country earmarked that number of Euros specifically to small businesses and freelancers, including those in the cultural, creative, and media sectors.)