2010 Villain: Private Arts Funding Trumping Public
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2010 Villain: Private Arts Funding Trumping Public

Illustration by Roxanne Ignatius/Torontoist.

Torontoist is ending the year by naming our Heroes and Villains—Toronto’s very best and very worst people, places, and things over the past twelve months. From December 13–17: the Villains! From December 20–24, the Heroes! And, from December 27–30, you can vote for Toronto’s Superhero and Supervillain of the year.

This year was supposed to be a banner one for arts funding in Toronto. The Beautiful City campaign was overwhelmingly successful, culminating in a city council recommendation in August to raise municipal arts funding to $25 per capita by 2013—a far cry from comparable cities like Montreal at $33, but a big improvement on 2007’s $18 level.
So why are so many Toronto artists disheartened and preparing to spend valuable time defending their work, when they should be busy creating it?
Well, our new mayor has made it clear that arts and culture is at the bottom of his list of priorities. Unlike his predecessor, who was a staunch political and personal supporter of the arts, Rob Ford believes the cultural sector should rely almost exclusively on private and corporate donations. To quote from Ford’s ArtsVote debate performance: “We must get the private sector to donate money to make up for the shortfall that we can’t get through the city budget.” Also: “Not everyone supports funding the arts…Don’t you think it’s more important to have safe streets and roads fixed before funding stuff we can’t even afford?” That either-or argument is misguided and divisive—you wouldn’t say we shouldn’t fund education because of health care’s importance.
While Ford isn’t a complete philistine—he donates to arts charities, although only about as much in total as what he contributed to Toronto Sun columnist Sue-Ann Levy‘s MPP campaign—he hasn’t acknowledged his administration’s responsibility to nurture and support the arts on behalf of all Torontonians.
Mayor Ford’s not the only cause for dismay. This year, the Toronto Sun waged a concerted campaign against SummerWorks, accusing a play no one had seen of being pro-terrorism, and assailing the festival’s government funding. Homegrown‘s subject matter (the Toronto 18) was topical and relevant—exactly the sort of work that arm’s-length funding should be supporting. While SummerWorks’ corporate sponsors like Royal Bank of Canada and Steam Whistle Brewery were admirably unwavering in their support—especially considering that the former’s buildings were targeted in the Toronto 18 bombing plot—businesses are understandably susceptible to public pressure to drop controversial partnerships.
The pitfalls of private sponsorship were apparent this year when the Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company abruptly withdrew its funding from Convergence Theatre’s Yichud (Seclusion), leaving the small company scrambling to save the production. Yichud (Seclusion) was a hit, but it came perilously close to not being produced. Public funding, once granted, is less likely to be arbitrarily yanked out of artists’ budgets.
Mayor Ford’s new (volunteer) arts advisor, Jeff Melanson, is by all accounts a superb administrator, having eliminated the National Ballet School’s operating deficit in his tenure as executive director. Still, as the Praxis Theatre blog points out, the NBS derives two-fifths of its operating budget from government funding, which calls into question Melanson’s “self-reliant” hyping. Hopefully, Melanson will assert the importance of arts funding, especially for emerging companies and artists, rather than be the mouthpiece of a pay-your-own-way philosophy for municipal arts policies.
Any arts organization would love to have the fundraising capabilities of Soulpepper Theatre, or the Canadian Opera Company, after all. But most established companies with fruitful corporate and subscriber connections developed them with the assistance of government funding. Without the support of the City, the best new art—the art that improves our city, both economically and in more intangible ways—will be much worse off, and in much greater danger.