Friday, August 7, 2009

On Fire

Things have finally cooled down here in the Lower Mainland, although no rain yet. And most of the province continues to be ablaze. As Alanis Morissette might say, it's rather ironic that as Vancouver plays host to the World Police and Fire Games (who knew such an event even existed?), BC's interior is going up in smoke.

Things are heating up in the arts community as well. A letter-writing campaign is in full-swing in response to remarks made by Kevin Krueger, Minister of Tourism, Culture and the Arts, regarding the 40% cuts to the BC Arts Council's three-year service plan laid out in last February's budget. Ever since Krueger announced on a Victoria radio show in early July that he's seen no evidence of anyone in the arts community "lighting their hair on fire about what is coming down the pipe," arts administrators and cultural producers have been sending an avalanche of scorching memos (if I may mix my metaphors) precisely to this effect.

As an incoming Board member to the PuSh Festival (did I mention that yet on this blog?), I've recently lent my voice to the chorus of protest. For what it's worth, I reprint my letter, which I've just today sent off, here. I urge other BC citizens who care about the arts to pick up their pens and follow suit.

Honourable Kevin Krueger
Minister, Tourism, Culture and the Arts
Province of British Columbia
PO Box 9071, Stn Prov Govt
Victoria, BC
V8W 9E9

7 August 2009

Dear Minister Krueger,

I am writing to express my concern over the cumulative 40% cuts to the BC Arts Council’s three-year service plan (2009-2012) announced in the most recent budget tabled by your government. As an avid consumer and patron of the arts, an educator, and incoming board member to the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival, I am dismayed that at a time when other sectors of the economy are being provided with unprecedented stimulus funding, the budget for BC’s cultural industries will be reduced by more than half by 2011-12.

Combined with the recent announcement that the province is freezing $36 million in grants from lottery and gaming revenues, as well as the proposed HST’s likely adverse effect on ticket prices, these core cuts to arts and culture will seriously imperil the ability of organizations like PuSh to continue to stimulate BC’s performing arts scene, present cutting edge work, attract major talent from around the world, and expand its audience base. In its five short years of existence, PuSh has steadily advanced its mandate to produce the very best of international cross-disciplinary performance, has gained an enviable reputation in Canada and around the world for the quality of its product, and has attracted more and more audience members each year—over 24,000 in 2009. And yet I learned at my very first board meeting on 22 July that the cuts announced by your office will almost surely bring this process of growth to a halt.

I was pleased to read in the most recent Georgia Straight (6-13 August 2009) that you have recently begun meeting with local arts advocacy groups, including the Alliance for Arts and Culture, to discuss the funding situation. With this letter, I wish to echo the concerns of arts administrators and cultural producers across the province that you’ve no doubt been hearing in these meetings. I urge you to reconsider your planned cuts, which will have lasting—and wholly detrimental—consequences for one of the most vibrant sectors of the BC economy, a sector, moreover, that will be in the global spotlight during the upcoming 2010 Winter Olympics. Heeding your recent appeal in the Globe and Mail (28 July 2009) for “constructive dialogue” on this issue, I also wish to explain a bit further how I, as a university educator and a private citizen, benefit from a creatively stimulated and financially robust cultural community.

In the English Department at Simon Fraser University, I regularly teach classes in dramatic literature, film, and the performing arts. In these classes I stress to my students the historical importance of artistic and cultural production to a healthy democratic society, going all the way back to the central role played by dramatic festivals in helping to foster community dialogue in ancient Greek society, as well as the way in which the patronage of writers and master painters in the Renaissance was considered a key social duty and citizenry responsibility. I then tie these historical examples to the contemporary Vancouver and British Columbia performing arts scene, noting not just what fantastic entertainment is available at my students’ fingertips, but what so much of this work has to teach us about some of the pressing social issues we will have been discussing in connection with past works from the dramatic canon.

Now let me tell you how my job in conveying such matters to my students is potentially made more difficult by the announcement of your rolling cuts to the BC Arts Council. Emphasizing to my students that an appreciation of the importance of the performing arts can only be fully obtained by attending a live performance, I regularly program class outings to local productions as part of my curriculum. As many of the students in my classes cannot afford to pay even the discounted prices for student tickets, I rely on the goodwill of various arts companies and producers in providing further discounted group rates. With these companies now facing severely reduced budgets over the next several years, I fear that school outreach programs such as these will have to be curtailed. Coupled with the almost certain decimation of these same companies’ touring budgets, this means that my colleagues teaching in the interior of the province will have even less opportunity to expose their students to some of the best live performance being produced in BC. To put this in the starkest possible terms, this means that an entire generation of BC’s youth will potentially never be exposed to the unique pleasures and importance of live performance in this province.

It is one thing to say that the proliferation of electronic and digital media in our technologically sped-up society has meant that it is more and more difficult for the plastic and performing arts to compete for the attention of our youth. However, it is quite something else to aid and abet this turning away to the recorded, the remixed, and the remediated by willfully slashing the budget for the production and dissemination of bold and challenging new live performance. I became a professor of drama in large part because my high school and university teachers exposed me at an early age to the power of the stage; this was made possible by crucial provincial and federal funding to two areas of social and cultural (and, dare I say, economic) production I care deeply about: education and the arts. In both these areas, let me suggest, your government needs to do better. We need creative solutions for the myriad of pressing social issues currently facing our province and the globe, including climate change, homelessness, and the economy. The arts teach us to think creatively, to look at problems from a different angle. In short, without a vibrant cultural community we are lost.

So much for the moral argument. Let me now turn to the economic one. I don’t need to remind you that arts and culture is a multi-billion dollar industry, that it accounts for approximately 3 ½ % of Canada’s overall GDP, that it employs tens of thousands of people in BC, and that for every dollar invested in the arts, the province earns back approximately $1.38 (as cited in the aforementioned Globe article). Your Ministry’s own research backs this up. As does the pioneering and globally respected research of Richard Florida, Professor of Business and Creativity at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. In books like The Rise of the Creative Class and Who’s Your City?, Florida notes that with the transition from a resource- to a knowledge- and information-based economy, and with the majority of the world’s population now living in urban “mega-regions,” the creative industries and their ancillary offshoots (especially hospitality and tourism) have now become a driving engine of virtually every national, regional, and municipal economy. Combine this with a growing movement advocating localism not just in terms of work, but also in terms of play, and one can see what good business sense it makes to invest in arts and culture in this province, providing citizens with multiple creative outlets on which to spend their money.

And yet rather than injecting more money into a sector of the economy that actually stands a chance—with the right stimulus—of thriving and turning a profit (unlike the automobile industry, for example), your government is gutting the BC Arts Council’s budget and asking the province’s cultural producers to accept this as a necessary belt-tightening measure. This seems at odds with Finance Minister Colin Hansen’s own words, in announcing one-time bridging funding of $15 million to offset a “difficult” year ahead, that “Our artists, our performers and the people who support them… the volunteers, the sponsors, the suppliers, the umbrella groups… help to shape our vision of who we are. They bring to life the concept of culture, and—just as important—bring us together, entertain us, intrigue us, and challenge us intellectually.” These laudable goals will be increasingly difficult to achieve given the current fiscal constraints, especially for fledgling organizations whose 2010 funding applications will almost surely be reassessed in light of the extra funding they received in 2009, with further slashes to their budgets.

In a related section of his budget speech, Minister Hansen cites the 2010 Cultural Olympiad as a prime example of the province’s investment in and showcasing of the arts. However, given the cuts announced by your office, I wonder how the momentum and opportunities generated by the Olympics for the cultural community will be maintained? In the spirit, once again, of engaging in constructive dialogue, let me conclude this appeal by citing the example of the previous Winter Olympic city, Turin. The government of Turin consciously identified arts and culture as the most significant legacy that would be provided from the Olympics in helping it to make a transition from a post-industrial car-manufacturing city to a service-based and creative economy. And they did so not by resting on the laurels of their historical cultural patrimony, but by consciously rebranding themselves as a contemporary art destination, building new modern art galleries, investing in various art and design biennales, and injecting cash and new infrastructure into their film and performing arts festivals. The city is now a prime destination for arts and culture patrons the world over.

Vancouver, with its abundance of creative talent, its reputation as a world-class city (known, in particular, for its photo-conceptualist art production and its cutting-edge dance), and an increasingly revitalized downtown core that would be further enhanced by being anchored between a new Vancouver Art Gallery, a refurbished Playhouse and Queen Elizabeth Theatre, and a soon-to-open Woodward’s Building, with its stunning new SFU Contemporary Arts performance facilities, has the potential to repeat and enhance upon the Turin model. It just needs the political and financial support of your government. Government investment in arts programs subsidizes audiences, makes important cultural work accessible to everyone, and provides core and related industry jobs for large sectors of our society. This has been recognized by other Canadian provinces, even in the midst of an economic recession. I urge you to demonstrate the same foresight and vision by reversing your cuts to the arts and culture sector of this province.


Peter Dickinson, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, Dept. of English, SFU
Nominee to the Board, PuSh Performing Arts Festival Society

Cc. Hon. Gordon Campbell, Premier of BC
Hon. Margaret MacDiarmid, MLA, Vancouver-Fairview
Hon. Spencer Herbert, MLA, Vancouver-West End

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