B.C. gov't: Starving its artists, blaming hungry children

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Since the very beginning of the Olympic bid process, art and culture was presented as a vital pillar in organizing the 2010 Games. Budgets were even set aside for the Cultural Olympiad. There were always worries that arts and cultural funding would be cut after 2010.

Rich Coleman, the Minister of Housing and Social Development, is now setting up a straw man argument -- pitting arts and culture funding against that of children in need. It’s as if the B.C. arts and cultural community have been taking food out of the mouths of hungry children all of these years. It is such a condescending position to into which to place arts and cultural organizations.

B.C. has had the highest rate of child poverty in the country for six years in a row due to chronic under-funding and cuts to social programs enacted since 2001 -- you can’t really blame that on the arts community. The Minister should really stop using that argument for his own sake and credibility. Here is an excerpt from Tuesday’s Question Period:

Hon. R. Coleman: "We’ve already given out $19 million to the arts and culture community this year through the grant program. We did that in the light of having to set some pretty significant priorities. I said to the members opposite … I can remember a single mom coming to my office here not too long ago and talking about the rent assistance program that had actually changed the lives of her son and her and the future outcomes of her kids. These guys actually didn’t support that program. They don’t want to have people get subsidies in rents. At the same time, you have to look at the envelope of money and say: ‘What’s best?’

Where is the humanity in the decision in a grant program? The decision we made and the recommendation I made to government was that we would protect services to children first, services to those most in need second; that we would actually fund some meals and some shelters in B.C. for people who are suffering from mental health issues and addictions in the province of British Columbia; that we would step forward…


Mr. Speaker: Continue, Minister.

Hon. R. Coleman: …and make that a priority, and I don’t make any apologies for actually having a priority of feeding children to have better outcomes in school.”

Unfortunately, as government revenues have gone in to infrastructure like speedskating ovals and luge tracks, small arts organizations that have been part of the cultural fabric of this province are having their budgets decimated. The government is spending $38 million to promote B.C. abroad leading up to the 2010 Olympics according to the new budget. $900 million is being spent by the province and the federal government just for security for the 2010 Winter Olympics.

Despite the province’s sudden about face on multi-year gaming grants, there are still massive cuts on the way. For some organizations, gaming revenues are between 15 to 20 per cent of their operating budget. It will mean that productions will not go forward, that layoffs will ensue, that books will not get published -- that money will not go in to the economy.

The future looks even worse. B.C.’s budget projected staggering cuts from $19.5-million in 2008-09 to $2.25-million in 2010-11, and dropping to $2.2-million in 2011-12. You would have to probably go to the 60s or 70s to see budgets that low for arts funding in the province. Libraries are being cut by $17 million this year, a 22 per cent cut.

Arts funding is one of the most efficient drivers of the economy. For every dollar invested, there is a return of $1.38. To disinvest in arts and culture during a recession is incredibly shortsighted from an economic perspective. Public investment in the arts goes directly back in to the economy through contracting out services to organizing cultural events. It is also investing in an area of the economy that is terribly underfunded. To make such callous and mean-spirited cuts to an entire sector is an attack on democracy, on civil society, on social infrastructure -- that tiny web of people who talk about ideas and enrich society through its synthesis of ideas, materials and performances. Art and culture is a vital area of independent social research that still exists in society. We are all diminished, the public sphere becomes underdeveloped and a critical citizenry has fewer places to reflect on their place in society.

When the arts and cultural sector should be working on writing plays, organizing shows, producing work, they are instead trying to figure out how to keep their organizations afloat. The arts and cultural sector has always been underpaid and overworked -- to cut back the resources even further simply does not respect the tremendous dedication and sacrifices that individual people make to have a career in the arts.

For smaller arts organizations, the cuts are particularly devastating. The cuts to these small centres include the Or Gallery ($30,000), the Helen Pitt Gallery ($35,000), Access Gallery ($12,000), Open Space ($31,000), Gallery Gachet ($20,000) and the Western Front ($37,500). It will mean organizations like Artspeak will cancel some publications this year. For small dance companies, the news is just as devastating -- New Works, Kokoro Dance,Vancouver International Dance Festival, Mascall Dance, Joe Ink, Mandala Arts and Culture Society, Rosario Flamenco, Historical Performance Society, True North, The Dance Centre, MovEnt, martamartahop,

EDAM, Ballet British Columbia, The Holy Body Tattoo, Compaigni V’ni Dansi, Seismic Shift Society, Dancers Dancing, Wild Excursion Society, battery opera, Vancouver Ballet Society. There are literally hundreds more organizations around B.C. which are impacted.

Canadian writer Yann Martel, in defending library funding, has written, “Libraries are the memories of a literate society. Without libraries, a literate society has no future because it can’t pass on its knowledge, or amuse its children, for that matter.”

Rather than spend $38 million to promote B.C. abroad, why don’t we spend that money here and enrich our society? Rather than give a multi-billion dollar subsidy to tourism, real estate and development, which is essentially what purchasing the Olympic franchise has bought us, we should be investing in what makes British Columbia unique and special. We would actually get more tourism if we invested better in arts and culture.

Back in 2001, when the cuts happened across sectors, it took six months for people to organize. I hope it will be larger and faster this time. Amidst all the pain and suffering that these cuts will bring, it is also an opportunity to rebuild and renew a real lasting civil society sector that can exist outside of government – one that can provide a real watchdog role for society. Arts and culture has always played such a vital role in mirroring who we are at a given time.

The entire sector will have to renew and redefine itself. It will also have to challenge the public to recognize the value of its investment. In an increasingly neo-liberal frame in mainstream media, the so-called ‘taxpayers’ agenda leads to misframed and reactionary stories that dehistoricizes the role of art and culture in society. As the bloated 2010 circus comes to town, the contrasting nature of what we value and how we fund things that matter, will become glaringly apparent.

We need to break down the silos of our sectors and build a real movement for change that exists outside of governments and political parties -- a genuine civil society movement with an agenda.


Am Johal is a rabble columnist and the founder and Chair of the Impact on Communities Coalition.




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