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B.C. art attack: Interview with Headlines Theatre's David Diamond

David Diamond is the Artistic and Managing Director of Headlines Theatre, based in Vancouver.

Tell me a little bit about Headlines Theater?

Headlines started in 1981. I was the co-founder of the company. This January, we will be celebrating our 30 year anniversary. We're an issue-based theater company and have been from the very beginning. Headlines is certainly one of the oldest political theater companies in the country. We do a number of projects a year, one main-stage, many other small projects that happen by invitation.

Last year, we did "After Homelessness" -- it was created and performed by people that had lived the homelessness issue. This coming year, we'll be in a two year process in something we are calling "Us and Them." We'll be in cafes, community halls and public places investigating what is it about "us" that creates "them."

Those 21 events will stand on their own. We will use them as resource for a large theatre dance creation for our 30th anniversary. Beyond that, we have 10 to 15 invitations a year from one day processes to a ‘power play' which can last six days, eight hours a day, where a group of people go from "zero to performance" in their own community.

Next April, I'm going up to Haida Gwaii to do a "power play" on issues of "shutting down" and suicide. People from that community will come together, plan and perform in a week and they will be coming together to create dialogue in their community.

Headlines has a full-time staff of three people and one part-time. As projects come and go, it increases a great deal for a number of months at a time. A normal year is about $300,000. At one point, we were breaking a half million with "Shattering," a piece on addiction we toured through Western Canada. It is not normal -- usually about $300,000 annually.

The Minister restored some funding to the arts recently after effective lobbying by the arts community. How was this viewed by the arts sector?

Let's put this in to a context. Canada is one of the lowest funders per capita in the industrialized world. B.C. is the singularly lowest per capita funder of culture in the country by a long-shot. It is pathetic. The highest is the Yukon at $268 per capita. It's $41.65 in Quebec, $20.91 in Ontario, $20.81 in Alberta. Only $9.67 in B.C. and comes in at 13 place in terms of province and territories in Canada.

After the cuts, it went down to $6.54 per capita. If you add up all of the money that goes to the B.C. arts council, gaming, ministry staff, Royal Museum and include the seven million that was put back in to the arts, we are talking about 0.1 per cent of the provincial budget. The BC Arts Council portion of that is 0.04 per cent of the overall B.C. budget. There has been a furore over that money. It is remarkable. I don't know if people understand what a tiny piece of the budget it really is. All of this has to be viewed in that context.

What do these cuts mean to the day-to-day operations of arts organizations?

It gets really complicated. Some organizations have closed their doors. The dance community in particular has been very hard hit by these cuts. Headlines is fortunate that we have operating and three year contracts with gaming. Project money for organizations was also reliant on gaming

but many didn't have three year agreements. Large sums of money disappeared with no notice whatsoever.  Organizations lost staff, shortened the season -- that kind of devastation you don't recover from. Some have eliminated their work for the rest of the year. With the money returned, the problem is not now, all of a sudden, solved. It doesn't work that way. 

They've been forced to make changes. It will impact the cultural life of the province. We are anticipating the loss of gaming in the future. That’s about $40,000 year which is irreplaceable. We'll have to decrease our "power play" programming, our ability to respond to requests from communities. We could make that work affordable for communities. The communities we work with are impoverished. The money we got from the B.C. government, it subsidizes our ability to do that work. One way to respond is to divest from it out of necessity. The option of charging three or four times what we charge is not possible. If people had to pay full price, no one would be going to arts and culture. It would be a very different situation. We have a definitions problem in this  province. When tax money goes to mining, forestry or fishing, it is viewed as industrial investment. 

Arts and culture investments are called grants --it sounds like handouts and charity to the public. It really should be viewed as an industrial subsidy --the money is a tremendous investment particularly because artists work for so little. The activity that it brings to the economy, it brings a much larger payback than the money that's put in. Simply put, cuts to the arts are bad business -- it's a really shortsighted way to save this 0.04% of the overall budget. It makes no sense.

The Minister criticized the arts community for being too aggressive in their lobbying. What is your response to this?

I wasn't in that meeting. So it's hard for me to really comment, except that the Minister appears to me to be at sea these days. We need stability as a sector. It's really hard for me to comment, but I think it's inappropriate for any politician to talk about anybody that way who is lobbying.  We’re getting directives out of the Ministry, for instance, to only apply for gaming monies now if your project is directly focussed by, about and for youth. That is a terribly misguided policy. Not that youth issues aren't important.  When did violence, racism, gangs, the environment, turn in to a youth issue? All of these are all multi-generational issues. When we ghettoize our work that way, we are abrogating our responsibility to that generation.

There were some Olympic related investments in art and culture but cuts happened the last two years. How was this viewed in the arts sector?

The only thing that surprises me is that people are surprised that it happened. This happens everywhere the Olympics happen. 

Let me just say, I'm a fan of the Olympics. I think what's at the heart of the Olympics is a good thing. It should be in the same place every four years. What happens now is that it is an enormous amount of money, human energy and capital put in to a 10 day corporate event. Culture wise there were some really interesting things that became possible, they were extremely focussed, they were completely unsustainable though. It should have been handed over to the BC Arts Council and done in a sustainable way, to truly nurture arts and culture in the province. When you look at the cities in the world that have a vibrant arts and cultural communities that are really healthy and are a boon to tourism, they are supported to take considerable risks, and its that riskiness, innovation and experimentation that brings the tourists in to the city. It isn't arts and culture that is focused on tourism that will bring people here.  The thinking is totally upside down.

If you have two or three policy changes for arts and cultural policy, what would they be?

I'm presenting to the Finance Committee in a few days. We are calling for the tripling of the allocation for arts funding to take it to 0.3 % of the provincial budget which would still leave us at the bottom of the list in fact, in Canada, but in a much better place than we are now. We need to be able to access gaming funding and make it accessible in the same criteria than before the cuts. The applications shouldn't be specifically tied to youth.

The third area is stability. There has been complete chaos the past year, the year and half. We need to have something similar to the Canada Council with three year stable funding cycles. 

Even operating money is year by year right now. It makes it impossible to plan in a healthy way in to the future. 

There should be a specific direction from government that the arms-length nature of decision-making of the BC Arts Council is sacred --  that there is some kind of legislation put in place, that it makes it impossible, regardless of who the government is, that it makes it impossible to change that. We can't have government do that again. 

The government should not intervene in cultural expression. When it happens in other parts of the world, we wave our fingers because it is obvious that something terrible is happening. Every single British Columbian should be worried that that happened here.

Anything else?

This is probably an unpopular thing to say inside the cultural community but part of the real task we have, and we have to take responsibility for this, is that one of the reasons that culture can be targeted for cuts is that the general population doesn't think it's important. 

It's not the population's fault, it is the art and cultural community's responsibility because for far, far too long we have not been able to address this issue. With the changing demographics, there hasn't been a strong enough attempt to create art and cultural work that is truly relevant to people. It is well beyond time that the changing demographics that lives in the province saw itself represented in our stories, on our stages, in our books, on our canvases, in a mainstream way. We are a very, very long way from being able to say that that's happening here.

If it was truly happening, the arts and cultural community wouldn't be as vulnerable as it is. 

Thank you for reading this story…

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