Last week saw Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall abuzz with acclaimed Canadian artists, business leaders and community supporters, including acclaimed filmmaker Atom Egoyan, Shakespearean actor Graham Abbey, and Toronto Alliance for the Performing Arts Director Jacoba Knaapen. Their mission? To demand inclusion in the Toronto City government’s planning process and speak out against City Manager Joe Pennachetti’s proposed budget cuts, which was presented to the Executive Committee of the Toronto City Council on Monday, Sept. 19.

These sweeping cuts, which promise to save $100 million in 2012 yet do not come even close to balancing the municipal budget, had included recommendations to reduce Toronto Public Library hours, reduce subsidized childcare, sell or lease the Toronto Zoo and drastically reduce arts funding, particularly in the form of small arts grants.

However, a huge public outcry has followed the plan. While the executive committee members of the Toronto City Council discussed the plan during an all-night Sept. 19 meeting, unionists, social agency workers and grassroots members of activist groups such as Toronto Stop the Cuts gathered to protest almost all aspects of the plan. Ultimately, a revised version of the plan was drafted with almost no disagreement among the Executive, with approval given in a single vote.

As of Monday’s meeting, items on the chopping block include pay-duty police officers at construction sites, museums with the lowest levels of revenue and attendance compared to costs, and city involvement in the Christmas fund for needy children (pending the transfer to this fund’s administration to another group). Meanwhile, Blue Night Bus service and libraries were saved (though some library hours may be shortened.) However, the most controversial cuts — including arts funding — have been tabled. Toronto city manager Joe Pennachetti is expected to present a revised plan in November.

According to city government communications director Jackie D’Souza, the budget crisis has been coming on for a long time. “The City budget is the way it is due to a historical problem of expenditures being higher than revenues, leading to a structural gap in the city’s operating budget, she explains. “Over the years, based on Council direction, the City has been filling the gap with one-time funding sources. This is unsustainable and has led to the gap becoming larger and larger every year to the point where it cannot be closed with one-time funding sources any longer,” she says.

However, this explanation fails to satisfy the participants of yesterday expressed at last week’s panel discussion, which was co-organized by Toronto Arts Council and Business for the Arts.

“We know that the city is experiencing a budget crisis. We recognize that we must participate in the reallocation of resources. However, we need the city’s administration to work with us so that we can find solutions that are acceptable for all,” said panelist Robert Foster, president and CEO of Capital Canada and was co-chair of the recently published Creative Capital Gains Study, which examines the impact of culture on Toronto’s economy.

“Among major world cities, Toronto stands out for its ability to attract, grow and maintain talent. You can’t have that without the arts. Our core position is that the grant system must remain firm,” Foster said.

Panel moderator Jim Fleck, who is CEO of Fleck Manufacturing Company and a well-known philanthropist for the arts, insisted that an alternative solution can be found. “I would urge the mayor’s office to establish a small task force to look at the ways in which assets could be reallocated,” he said. “We need to unite political leaders with business leaders and arts administrators, and also to get artists involved in the decision-making.”

Fleck also mentioned the problem of across-the-board budget cuts: “These kind of sweeping cuts eliminate the fat and the thin, the good and the bad without taking the various programs’ quality and effectiveness into account. Such cuts are very unlikely to solve the city’s problems in the long term.” He added that for every dollar which Toronto invests in the arts attracts 17 more from businesses and individual patrons. “Art and culture is not a gift, but an investment.”

Claire Hopkinson, executive director of the Toronto Arts Council, echoed Foster’s and Fleck’s statements about the need for art supporters’ involvement in city planning and also stressed the need for the maintenance of autonomy on the part of the Arts Council. “The Council’s system of arms-length investment is a gold standard in the world of arts funding. We are attached to the city, but we also maintain our independence, allowing for a peer-review system which allows experts to maintain standards of excellence. No matter what happens, we need to maintain this autonomy,” she said.

Another panelist was the young filmmaker Richie Mehta, whose first feature film Amal premiered at the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival. Mehta informed the audience that this debut film was actually not his first project, but his 30th. “I remember volunteering at the TIFF as a U of T student in 1997. Around that time I started making short films myself, and small grants from the Arts Council helped me all the way. Ten years later, when I made my debut, I met my former volunteer coordinator, who turned toward me in astonishment. ‘Richie!’ he cried. ‘What are you doing here?'”

Mehta stated that his success would never have come about without support from the Arts Council. Director and dramaturge Weyni Mengesha concurred. “These grants, no matter how small, plant seeds that encourage artists to dream. What starts as a small seed project might end up at the TIFF, the Stratford Festival or the National Ballet.”

The discussion was followed by comments from several Toronto-based artists, including writer, producer and director Jack Blum, who emphasized the difficulty of communicating the importance of culture to people who may not understand the crucial role of the arts in community building. “Just as I don’t spend much time thinking about complex tax deals, some of our city administrators never think about the arts. They don’t understand that if we were to try to save a department store by shuttering all the windows, no one would come in. The same is true of Toronto — if we shutter the windows, no one will come in.”

Soulpepper artistic director Albert Schultz ended with a quotation from Winston Churchill, who was criticized for allocating funds to the Old Vic Theatre during the Battle of Britain, to which the prime minister firmly responded, “If we cannot support the performance of Shakespeare’s plays, for what are we fighting?”

Toronto Friends of the Arts has launched a petition to protect the city’s arts funding: