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B.C. art attack: W2's Irwin Oostindie

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Irwin Oostindie is Executive Director of W2, a community media and arts space in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.

Q. W2 is one of the newest arts organizations in the city. It was one of the real hubs of activity during the 2010 Olympics. How has W2 been impacted by the cuts to arts? How do you view the Olympic funding for the arts -- was the $40 million for the opening and closing ceremonies worth it?

W2 was criticized by a few for receiving 2010 arts funding, but as a new project with no core public funding to stand on we were vulnerable. Some of our critics already received core public funding and were of the opinion that Olympic funding was different. But we disagreed, considering all taxpayer's money as the people's money irregardless of what sign or logo or acknowledgement you need to stand beside. We did work that we were proud of, and the work was not compromised. We were at a moment in our organisational development (our W2 Woodward's media centre was a year behind schedule) and we were delivering a very ambitious 13,000 sq ft W2 Culture & Media House that could have sunk our organisation. These were circumstances that led us to view the debate with a wider lens.

The billions that were spent on the Olympics did not include some of the priorities VANOC agreed to when it signed the deal with the IOC. After securing the bid it promised to implement Inner City Inclusive Committments that included "protecting local culture" and promised to build 2400 units of social housing. I personally worked on that front as a community worker in the DTES in 2002 during the Bid phase. The government had money for highways to Whistler and Skytrains to the airport, but after the Bid was approved they abandoned their committment to the inner-city claiming that the DTES could not agree on one common housing plan. That was false.

Olympic funding is public funding, and I believe the people have a fundamental right to it. Similar debates must be transpiring in London where the new government is spending 2012 funds towards major entertainment spectacles while cutting the arts funding nationally 30 to 40 per cent.

2010 Olympic arts funding was used as a vehicle to promote cultural tourism and this was a big boon in the way 2010 appropriated local First Nations under the Four Host Nations brand to celebrate Aboriginal Art while most of B.C. remains unceded territory. I know many First Nations artists who felt proud of the fact that their Nations received some 2010 exposure and populist inclusion in what is otherwise a barren settler-dominated culture. But the net effect is that some First Nations artists benefited in the short term, but there is no legacy infrastructure to continue the work of redress and crosscultural dialogue -- so they were used and dropped.

Q. You've been involved for a few decades in art and cultural work in Vancouver, like founding the Under the Volcano Festival and running Gallery Gachet for a number of years -- can you contextualize how the cuts to the arts are translating on the ground and what impact it's having?

I feel there is a misrepresentation of the current round of cuts. They are part of a neoliberal strategy to restructure how citizens access their culture, and the type of culture that is readily available. We artists will always produce work, but can we do meaningful work when we have families to feed?  Do Vancouver's experimental and emergent cultural productions translate to big box office draws for cultural tourism and getting "bums in seats?" Can public funds be used to make art that imagines a different world, and share that with our communities? Corporate culture receives millions in public subsidies (take for example the $120 Million the CRTC hands over to the cable companies for community access TV, while local culture is sidelined by Shaw Cable). The arts cuts are only one front line in the ideological fight to restructure society in the name of economic downturn and debt reduction.

Q. You'll be moving in to the new Woodwards building in a few months. How does W2 intend to engage in the question of arts funding? How did you view the resignation of the Chair of the B.C. Arts Council?

W2 is a platform for other community groups and individuals to use. We are inherently supporting marginalized voices who need to access technology, training, production and dissemination of their voices. We use media production to promote new visions for society and that includes funding public services. At the same time, the funding bodies have been constrained by government and W2 is coming onto the scene as resources are few. W2 ironically is becoming more economically self-sufficient as a result so that our W2 Cafe and other non-profit businesses we run will help subsidise our programs. We will continue to fight for adequate cultural funding and work for new models of independence.

Q. One of the issues of lobbying governments around funding is that if you stick your head out too far, you fear that your organization will be penalized? How have people in the arts approached advocacy and what more needs to be done?

I am left to think many arts administrators do not realize these are ideologically driven cuts. In our sector, unfortunately, we are very unorganized as working artists. Like many advocacy and social service sectors, we sometimes get disconnected from the grassroots as a result of the professionalization of the sector. Artists tend to be represented through the lenses of curators' and administrators' world views and professional practices, and for artists, this is a momentum we need to unravel. In the longterm, artists need to get organized and fight for their collective needs and build systems of mutual aid and interdependence within communities. Artists are not the only workers under attack, and can find common experience with other workers if they seek it.

Q. Arts organizations are being set up with a false argument by government ministers. There are certainly other funding challenges like healthcare and cuts to education -- it is as if artists are taking food out of the mouths of hungry children from the way Rich Coleman talks about public policy choices for governments. Have you ever, as an arts administrator, taken food out of the mouths of hungry children to fund your programs at W2?

It is interesting to watch this spin and clearly the government is using tactics that pollsters have told them will work. Comparing artists to junkies, thieves, and self-interested lobbyists will work to disconnect us from frustrated working people who wonder why their sector doesn't also get a "handout." And this is where the arts lobby fails, in turn, by walking into the trap time time and again. By networking the arts, healthcare, and education sectors together, for example, we can better defend our ideals for a just society. Divide and conquer is the oldest trick in the book and clearly the Liberals feel it will work this round too. The other old trick they use is the bait and switch. Cut funding, then appear to reinstate it after intense lobbying. But the reinstated funding often supports the more entrenched groups (often performing arts) with their "bums in seats" valuation. Which brings us back to the divide and conquer and infighting for the crumbs.

Scarcity of resources breeds an unfortunate competitiveness in B.C.'s arts community that parallels the ruthless pioneering colonial B.C. spirit. Maybe we can propose a MMA (mixed martial arts) fight between artists at one of the province's newly announced Spirit Festivals. Another great trick is re-announcing existing or cut funds and pitting rural/community arts against urban/professional arts.

Q. How do the current round of cuts compare to previous cuts to the arts in B.C.?

I stood up in a meeting of my colleagues a couple of years ago at The Dance Centre and stated that I anticipated in a few short years public funding would be matched to an organisation's ability to tap into market-based funding. Some of my colleagues challenged me to know in what document or announcement I had read it. Sadly, many administrators get blinded or forgetful with the various rounds in the cyclical fight for funding, believing that we just need to lobby the minister or publish the right study showing how much economical sense there is in public investment in the arts. Most people know governments in Canada earn more revenue in taxes than from the actual initial investments in these cultural industries. While we likely should have been better organised during the Olympics to speak out on the impending cuts, I do believe artists are increasingly curious and willing to step out to unite with others. It is inspiring to see the level of politicization these government attacks are having in our communities.

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