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B.C. art attack: Interview with PAARC President Keith Higgins

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Keith Higgins is the President of PAARC (Pacific Association of Artist Run Centres) and the Director of the Helen Pitt Gallery.  He is also one of the founders of Artspeak Gallery.

Q - The Helen Pitt Gallery, like many small arts organizations, has been severely impacted by the cuts to arts funding. Can you describe the impacts of these cuts and what it means to the day-to-day work for these organizations?

In the Pitt's case, some massive budget changes had to be made quickly if the organization was to be able to survive at all. In August 2009, the B.C. government cut off Gaming Direct Access grants, not just to the arts, but to a whole range of charities. This was a familiar Campbell action: the arbitrary tearing-up of an agreement when it somehow doesn't suit them any more. The grants of casino revenue to charities has been used to justify the ongoing expansion of casinos, and these charities found that they had been played: their support for expansion had been bought on the basis of future benefits that now are not going to materialize.

As I said, the Pitt's response was rapid. There are a limited number of expense items that you can cut in an artist-run organization, because we are extremely efficient: exhibitions in typical municipal galleries usually cost more than ten times what we spend. So, the lease on the gallery's premises -- this is Vancouver, so suitable space is not cheap -- and salary for the Director/Curator were the only things that could be cut to compensate for the shortfall.

I came on as a two-day-a-week administrator six months after this all happened. In spite of the fact that I am doing full-time work, essentially being the Executive Director of a small non-profit, the two-day-a-week pay is all we have been able to manage. My day? I start at home around 8 am, answering correspondence. Phone calls to the Helen Pitt Gallery go to a voice mail account, since we don't have a real phone connection any more, and I return them on my personal cell phone. Part of my time is spent trying to find affordable, or preferably free, space for exhibitions and other programming that we have promised to present.

50% cuts were made to the B.C. Arts Council in the March 2010 budget. The consequences of those cuts are still working their way through the system, but the performing arts and literary non-profits that have already been juried are seeing 60% and 75% cuts to what was a low level of support already. Some organizations are being cut completely, and I'm now working on the assumption that as of January next year, when the juries for visual art and media art organizations have been convened, the Helen Pitt Gallery will have zero support from the B.C. government -- mainly because we are already working without some crucial necessities, like a permanent exhibition space. The quality of our programming has been high, and we have turned out some really great art publications, and we have done this and will continue to do it. However, when the overall budget of a funding agency -- a budget which was not adequate for the task even at its peak -- is cut by 50%, they have to make a choice to either give everyone next to nothing, or still maintain minimal support for a few and cut the rest.

Q - Cuts to the arts also mean less projects, less jobs and less contract work for those who support these institutions. How are people involved in the arts dealing with the ramifications of this?

I can tell you about my own experience, as someone who has done a lot of contract work for arts organizations. In September 2009, I was finishing a major one-year project. In normal times, there's reasonable demand for consulting work, and other services like printing, design, construction, and so on from arts organizations of all sizes, and although fallout from the worldwide financial whatchamacallit did shorten some of that demand, it remained reasonably steady.

However, the diversion of Gaming money in the late summer of 2009 changed everything. In the normal flow of things, some organizations sometimes lose a source of funding, or there will be reductions overall. This was different: everybody who was on Gaming was cut 100%. (A few organizations who had been given multi-year commitments had those reinstated after a lawsuit was threatened.) That had a huge impact on all sorts of non-profit community organizations; it would have had a smaller impact on the arts if the B.C. Arts Council had a budget comparable to arts funding agencies in other provinces and territories, but the B.C. government has always kept the BCAC's budget a distant tenth, or I suppose twelfth or thirteenth after you count the territories, in terms of per-capita budgets.

At any rate, those small consulting contracts from arts organizations were gone. Zero left. Everything stopped, only to resume at a pathetic trickle many months later. When public support, or public investment, is provided to an arts organization, the money doesn't go to line the pockets of a few artists. The statistical proof is there, in the stats for incomes of artists and other cultural workers -- we provide a subsidy for public access to the arts and culture by accepting terrible wage levels, as I am doing now, and often out of our own pockets, as I am also doing.

What public support, public investment, does is enable us to provide more and better access to the arts and culture. The money goes to the businesses who supply us, in my case printers, artisans, property owners, utilities, building supply and paint stores, telecom companies, and so on. Most of us spend locally, because we need to have good relationships with the people we're doing business with. We also usually have good relationships with local restaurants and bars, because our events bring them business, sometimes on off nights.

Q - The opening and closing ceremonies of the 2010 Olympics cost more than annual funding for the arts in BC now. What are your main criticisms of the Olympics and how it relates to arts funding given what happened here the last few years?

What we are seeing is an instrumentalization of culture by government for political purposes. I don't think the B.C. Liberals had any particular interest in the Cultural Olympiad, but it is one of the obligations of hosting the Olympics. After the Salt Lake City winter Olympics, there were noises made that the Cultural Olympiad there had not been up to the standards that the IOC expects, and so pressure was put on VANOC to demonstrate their seriousness. Some interesting projects were done, and some of those, especially the handful of permanent public art projects, have left a permanent trace. However, the other permanent trace that it left was the idea that the arts were available as a tool to burnish the image of the government. The B.C. Liberals saw that the critical function of art in society could be neutralized, cheaply, and that festivals and celebratory spectacles purchased with small, targeted expenditures in the arts, might be almost as useful as tourism advertising in promoting the government's "brand".

We can see this most strongly in the government proposal for "B.C. Spirit Festivals". This is a proposal which came directly from cabinet, and was then pitched to a group of mostly-impoverished non-professional community arts councils around the province as a way that they could tap into a relatively small -- $2.9 million -- fund to put on an event. The event, of course, is meant to celebrate the anniversary of the Vancouver winter Olympics for each of the next three years; not surprisingly, this takes us up to 2013, an election year.

It's worth mentioning, too, that many community festivals were being deprived of funding at the same time that the Spirit Festival program was being announced. The government couldn't be much clearer if they simply spelled it out for us -- they are attempting to eliminate culture that comes from communities, and impose politically-directed spectacles wherever they can.

Q - You've been involved in the arts since the 80's and have seen various governments over the years cut funding to the arts. How would you contextualize this latest round of cuts?

This is unprecedented, as far as the arts in Canada are concerned. Truly.

What should concern everyone is that B.C. has a history of being used as a sort of laboratory for government-led social engineering. During the Bennett "restraint" program in the early 1980s, right-wing think tanks around the world were observing the ideologically-freighted shift in government spending from public services to megaprojects, the dissolution of public assets, and the government's facilitation of a widening gap between the rich and everyone else. The de-funding of access to communities' arts and culture, and its replacement with targeted funding for celebratory spectacle in the service of political, ideological or policy goals, is being tested. Others will look at what the B.C. Liberals are doing, and fine-tune it, drop things that aren't working and replace them with tactics that work better, and replicate the phenomenon elsewhere.

So, we need to expose the underlying strategy, and also make sure that our tactics adapt when the same program is implemented somewhere else, as it is now in Britain.

One bright spot is that the lines are being drawn. A year ago, even as the worst of the cuts were becoming apparent in the run-up to the Olympics, many of my colleagues would have dismissed what I am saying now. Even now, to people who aren't in the centre of the maelstrom here, it may sound like tinfoil-hat talk. However, even the more conservative members of our local community -- the ones who have always voted for the B.C. Liberals, and the Socreds before that -- are now agreeing with me, that the cuts are ideological.

I suppose in that small respect, I owe Gordon Campbell and Kevin Krueger (Minister of Tourism, Culture and the Arts) and Rich Coleman (the minister responsible for the Gaming Branch) a debt a gratitude. They have done something I could never have believed possible. They have radicalized the arts and culture community in B.C.

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