Arts Axed: Canada Hacks into Arts Funding

Monday Magazine | September 3, 2008
You may not have heard about them over the din of the Beijing Olympics, but the federal Conservatives have quietly introduced some sweeping cuts to federal arts programs. The cuts, which will total nearly $45 million by April 2010, mean the end of programs such as the Canadian Independent Film and Video Fund -- which provides grants for things like independent documentary films -- the Trade Routes program -- devoted to promoting Canadian culture abroad -- and the website -- devoted to "providing access to quality Canadian cultural content." Most of the cuts will impact the Department of Canadian Heritage, and the Globe and Mail has reported that much of the savings will be redirected to Olympics programs, with $24.5 million going towards the 2010 torch relays.

The federal government claims the cuts are the result of a "strategic review" of Canadian Heritage programs, but Peter Sandmark, the executive director of local film-resource centre MediaNet and board member of the Independent Media Arts Alliance, says if there was a review process, they didn't consult with arts groups.

"If you were honest about reviewing and wanting to be more efficient, you would bring in the arts community as a partner and consult with them and say, 'How should we do this better? We have limited resources, what should we do?'" he says.

Indeed, many B.C. arts groups say the programs being cut are some of the most effective ones. Bob D'Eith, the executive director of Music BC, says his organization relied heavily on the $7.13-million Trade Routes program.

"If you look at the grand scheme of things, it's not a lot of money, but the impact is dramatic," he says. "It's weird to us in the arts community because for dollars spent, it's the most effective program that I know of. You spend a dollar and you get 10 in return."

D'Eith cites an example where Music BC used Trade Routes funding to bring music supervisors from L.A. to Vancouver for a summit on music and film. One session in particular led to the TV show CSI signing three songs from Vancouver musician Kelly Brock. "Just that one deal made more money than we spent on the whole thing, and since then there have been tonnes of deals that have come out of those new relationships," he says. "That's just one example of many where you set the right people up, you do the right program and you can create some incredible opportunities for Canadian artists."

Sandmark also argues that the economic reasoning doesn't make sense. "Arts money, it's been shown, stimulates activities that then create economic spinoffs which then create GST, income tax, all kinds of stuff," he says. The claim is validated by a study by Hill Strategies, a Canadian company that conducts arts research, that shows consumer spending on culture in 2005 was three times larger than the $7.7-billion all three levels of government spent on culture in 2003/2004. The study also shows that Canadians spend more than twice what they do on live sports events on the arts.

While the cuts won't impact MediaNet's funding, Sandmark says some of its members get money from the Canadian Independent Film and Video Fund, a program which he describes as "one of the only funds for noncommercial documentaries aimed at an educational market." But he says it's not about MediaNet, it's about the artists.

"I don't see MediaNet as a fixed entity, it's a place that people go through, it's a resource," he says. "There are new members coming in and people leave, so it's the potential that's being taken away; the potential for creating work, training and promoting work abroad."

Sandmark says this is one of the biggest federal arts funding cuts he has seen in his 25 years in the industry. "There were cuts to the funding by Mulroney in '92 that everyone protested quite heavily, but since then I haven't ever seen anything quite like this, where it's kind of an attack, bang bang bang one right after another, and no rationale given," he says.

But if the cuts don't make any economic sense, then what is the motivation? Both D'Eith and Sandmark say it appears to be an ideological attack.

"This is no different than when Barenaked Ladies got sanctioned by the City of Toronto for their name. I don't see any difference," says D'Eith. "I see this as tied in with the film-censorship issue. I see this as the government trying to legislate morality. That seems to be what's going on and that really troubles me."

"I can't help but feel it is ideological on the part of the conservative government," says Sandmark. "It's not good economic sense, because it is good for the Canadian economy to have cultural activity, that's been proven. So why are they doing it? It's some kind of belief system, they just can't stand it."

The impact of cuts like this will be dramatic -- not just for local artists, but for Canada's cultural identity as a whole, says D'Eith. "When you think about Americans or Europeans or Australians, who do they think of when they think of Canadians? The first thing they think of are Bryan Adams, Sarah McLachlan, Diana Krall, Michael Bublë. Part of our cultural identity comes in a big way from our big music artists."

Sandmark echoes the sentiment. "I've made the argument when I was working at IMAA that culture is what we leave to the future. What we know of past civilizations is to a large degree their culture, their cultural artifacts that were left. That's what we're leaving as a legacy. So we have a choice: it can be Tim Horton's jingles or it can be something else."

That's not to say arts organizations are adverse to the idea of the federal government taking a second look at some of the Heritage department's programs. David Ferguson, one of the artistic directors of Suddenly Dance, says that his group doesn't receive money from any of the programs being cut, but has been funded by other heritage programs.

"Perhaps instead of these funding cuts, the government should be looking at how the overall funding process works at Heritage, as they are known for unreasonably long application forms, unreasonably long turn-around times, non-peer jury allocations and a non-transparent adjudication process," he says.

Monday Magazine

Founded in 1975 to provide a critical voice in Victoria's political and cultural communities, Monday Magazine continues to shake British Columbia's conservative capital city with tell-it- like-it-is features and reviews. Targeting educated, active adults and Victoria's growing youth market, Monday...
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