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B.C. art attack: Interview with Alliance for Arts and Culture's Amir Ali Alibhai

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Amir Ali Alibhai is the Executive Director of the Alliance for Arts and Culture in BC.

Q - The B.C. government this past week restored some funding to the arts after heavy advocacy by supporters of the arts.  To what degree will this make up for the cuts that happened?

In terms of the recent cuts made to the budget of the BC Arts Council this apparently "no strings attached" funding will bring the Arts Council budget close to the high-water mark prior to the cuts of the last two years. 

This is good news for clients of the BCAC and allows the Council to move forward with its own strategic plan. 

What we should remember, however, is the recommendation that the Standing Committee on Finance and Government Services made prior to the economic crisis, in 2008 -- that the BCAC, in order to be most effective, requires an annual budget of about $30 Million. In fact, the Ministry's service plan prior to the economic downturn showed that by 2012, the BCAC budget would indeed approach $30 million. We are not unrealistic, however, and understand that the current economic situation may not allow that to happen at the same rate as previously planned, but it remains a valid long-term goal. 

The hard fought restoration of $7 million to the BCAC will help those that already receive support from the BCAC and perhaps some others through new project programs, but for some this may be coming too late.  Time will tell as programs are announced and supplemental grants provided in the next few weeks. 

We should also note that the commitment for this funding is only for the current fiscal year, which still doesn't address the instability and impossibility of effective planning in the sector.

There are also many hundreds of organizations in the province that either are not eligible for BCAC support or cannot be served by its limited resources.  These include many community-based, small to medium, emerging, culturally diverse and amateur groups.  The 60 per cent cut to revenues from Gaming for the arts and culture and the exclusion of many professional and "adult" programs has had a devastating effect on the sector, which also affects many programs that provide public access to the work of professional clients of the BCAC. 

The re-allocation of funding to BCAC doesn't address this situation at all.

Ultimately the bottom line for arts and cultural spending by the Province has not changed at all with their recent announcement.  What they did is allocate their Arts and Culture Legacy fund to support a budget that should not have been cut in the first place.

B.C., even if we include the Legacy funds at $10 million over the next three years, still spends the least of any jurisdiction in Canada, on a per capita basis, on direct grants to arts and cultural organizations and artists. B.C. spends about $6.50/per capita compared to the next lowest expenditure by Alberta of about $20/per capita.  The National average is about $27/per capita.

Q - The Minister for Tourism, Culture and the Arts recently criticized the vociferousness of the arts community in lobbying to restore the funding.  He even stated that he was threatened.  What is your message to the Minister?

We hope that the Minister takes our call to moderate his comments in the future seriously; we refuse to be vilified and dismissed.  We are saddened that communication between the Ministry and the arts and cultural community in Greater Vancouver seems so strained. 

The Alliance seeks to put time-wasting rhetoric behind us and to focus on the task of nurturing a healthy arts and cultural sector in this Province.  We are taking major initiatives to engage with our elected officials and the public in discussions and dialogue about the arts and culture and their role in a healthy successful future for B.C.

It is quite surprising that announcing that we would engage in democratic process to put pressure on the government to change its course was seen as a threat.  We will continue to fight for a civil society and the democratic right to culture for all British Columbians.  Freedom of expression is a cornerstone of Canadian culture and political values.  We will not stand down, but we prefer to work with those in government rather than be set up as adversaries. 

Q - In terms of cuts to the arts in the past, how would you contextualize the cuts that have happened recently?

I hope I understand this question; the current government had an excellent track record compared to previous ones regarding its commitment to investing in the arts and cultural sector.  The recent cuts, however, seem to counter that direction and make all that previous investment count for little. The impact of the economic crisis has yet to be fully felt in the cultural sector -- diminishing support at this time can only cause damage that will be even more costly to address in the future. 

The recent cuts represent such a tiny amount of money in the scope of the provincial budget that they seem almost ideological in nature. We have seen certain decisions that seem calculated to drive wedges between urban and rural, large and small and community-based vs professional arts practice. These divisions are artificial as the arts and cultural sector is diverse and interrelated; new technology also allows it to be interconnected in unprecedented ways. 

I believe that if the arts community resists these attempts to fragment us we can form a powerful voice to counter the apparent trend to provide less investment in the arts and cultural sectors.

We must also stand with other sectors that have been cut.  To pit arts support against healthcare is ludicrous. Both are critical. The entire amount of funding for the arts would not cover even a day of the cost of our healthcare system.  

Q - On the ground, at the level of day-to-day operations of small arts organizations, what kind of impact is this having?

We have heard of some closures, reconfigurations, staff lay-offs, canceled programs and we believe that we are only hearing part of the story.  Again -- I think that further impacts will be felt in the coming year, particularly as multi-year clients of Gaming grants come to the end of their terms.  This crisis has forced many organizations to engage in strategic planning, self-reflection and revision.  We have witnessed more collaboration within the community as well. 

The Alliance is developing a survey that is designed to help us understand the impacts more clearly in the next few weeks.  It may still be too soon to tell.  The biggest challenge for many is the instability that makes effective planning and adaptation almost impossible.  One minute we have no funding – the next funding is restored, or funding is available to some but not others based on constantly shifting criteria.  What the sector needs is a vision and a plan and stable resources.

Q - There was a lot of one time funding of the arts leading up to the 2010 Olympics.  How is the general feeling of the arts sector of what has transpired?

There are many who feel that we have been used.  It made sense to invest in the arts when there seemed to be this big event on the horizon.  But now the party is over and we have to all pay for it. 

The other option is to build on what has been invested and nurture the community that made it possible.   

Q - What are two or three policy changes that would make a positive impact on the ground for arts organizations?

I believe that we first need to engage in dialogue amongst ourselves and with elected officials to determine a consensual vision and justification for public support of the arts.  We need to engage in values discussions and specific policy should develop from that vision. 

A truly independent and arms-length BC Arts Council is required.  A firm commitment to allocate revenues from Gaming to the Arts and Cultural Community is also required. 

I think that Saskatchewan has done an excellent job in developing their new Arts Policy and are the only Province to have moved on Status of the Artist legislation with their Arts Profession Act, which recognizes and values creators in their province.

We need to address the training needs of the sector as well.

Q - Anything else?

“Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.”

 - Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

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