Tall Poppy Interview: Jeff Melanson

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Tall Poppy Interview: Jeff Melanson

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Jeff Melanson is on his third career now, and it’s proving to be far more of a tightrope act than singing or book-balancing.
It’s a real hot seat, this volunteer position as Mayor Rob Ford’s special adviser on the arts: the arts community, deeply mistrustful of Ford (especially after his disastrous showing at the mayoral campaign’s ArtsVote debate), is primed for a struggle with the new administration, though many have had cautious praise for Ford’s selection of Melanson as his liaison to the arts sector.
Ford asked Melanson for his assistance based on his track record of financial wizardry as an administrator, but Melanson is still firmly an advocate for the arts and for increased arts funding. This could put him at odds with Ford supporters who are dismissive of publicly funded arts endeavours.
Melanson started out in classical music and opera, earning a Bachelor of Music degree from the University of Winnipeg and studying vocal performance at the Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio. The organizational chaos at many music institutions led Melanson back to school for an MBA, which he put to good use in the employ of Opera Ontario and the Royal Conservatory of Music, where he became dean. His success in revamping the RCM’s programming and fundraising prompted the National Ballet School to offer him the position of executive director, at a time when the organization was deeply in the red due to expensive renovations. In his five year tenure, Melanson’s put the NBS back in the black and raised revenues by more than half.
Our first encounter with Melanson was…a little tense. But neither Melanson nor Torontoist wanted that to be the final word on things, and so we decided to sit down and get the details on Melanson’s plans and hopes for culture in Toronto straight from the source. We met recently, at NBS’s gleaming—and now finished—Jarvis Street facility, to discuss revamping the City’s Culture Plan, the recently drafted city budget, the challenges in liaising with Toronto’s myriad arts communities, and the likelihood of Mayor Ford auditing the adult ballet class Melanson takes regularly.


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Torontoist: So the 2011 budget consultations are done, and the arts budget remains flat for this year—it looks like nothing is being cut.
Jeff Melanson: Actually, the draft budget was released, with the deputations—and we had members of the arts community at all the deputations, really strong representation, which was great—but council hasn’t approved the budget yet.
Right now we know that the draft budget contains a stable level of arts funding. We know there are a couple of issues, such as the status of the billboard tax, and other issues that are going to be brought forward, and council has to deliberate over February on those issues. But we know that the draft budget is flat, at the least, and we can be hopeful that there may be increases—some things might go in our favour in the next month.
There’s not much movement on allocation of the billboard tax, because of legal issues?
As I understand it, the sign companies are contesting the legal right of the City to enforce that tax, and until the outcome of that legal challenge is determined, the tax is in a limbo state.
With the recent announcement of the revising of the City’s Culture Plan, are there plans to replace the billboard tax, which could be held up for years, with another source of funding?
Well, yes, we’re starting the process of revising the Culture Plan, and I’ll certainly be advocating that a source of stable funding will be needed to ensure the key recommendations can be implemented and delivered.
The per-capita measurement with other cities, with regards to arts spending, can be a useful comparison, but we also need to discuss other economic factors, and specifics about what the arts sector needs, with members of the community. We’ll see what comes out of these consultations, and gauge what the arts sector needs to capitalize on investments and funding, before setting new targets.
The mayor has been very busy, obviously—there’ve been huge issues like transit, and the City budget meetings—so is the arts sector something you’ve been able to discuss with him in detail? Has he had the chance to meet with any arts delegations yet?
He’s done a bit, and I think we’re going to see a lot more. I’ve been encouraging people to invite him to arts events. We haven’t heard much about it, but he’s been showing up to events based on information coming into his office. I really suggest to people in the community that if you have something coming up, invite him!
He can’t get to everything, of course, and every night there’s a myriad of things happening in the arts sector, and there’s many other sector events competing. But I know he dropped in on UForChange, a youth-led arts outreach movement on Parliament Street, earlier this month, and he’s attended a couple of visual arts things, like at 401 Richmond.
We’ll see him more and more out in public as time allows, I’m sure, but they’ve compressed the budget cycle, so the pressure on his time right now is enormous—a lot of those deputations have gone to midnight or later. But he’s interested; and his number one interest is around children, and their access to the arts, which is great.
Beyond that, we’re looking at the economic impact of the sector, which is tremendous, given the levels of funding. It’s a matter of speaking to council, and gauging their support, and I’ve found that councillors across the board have been really receptive to the arts agenda. Obviously, there’s some big budget issues facing the City that we need to be mindful of, but the reality is that the arts produce economic return; reduced funding in the arts produces a negative effect on the local economy. So sustained or increased arts funding is a logical decision.
It’s a very small portion of the City budget that we’re discussing—0.4%—but there’s a great rate of return for the city’s investing in the arts, yes?
A lot of people don’t know that for every dollar that the municipal government puts in, the private sector—and this is quite current, from a 2009 study—contributes $5.77. And the sector earns $8.50 per dollar invested. And, for every dollar the municipal government puts in, the arts sector—through private-sector funding, and earned revenues, and other sources—produces a $14 return. That’s an incredible effect.
And beyond that, of course, are all the social and intrinsic benefits a strong arts sector creates, which are much harder to measure and are really the essence of what we do.
It’s a difficult thing to measure with a customer-service mindset, isn’t it, all the intangible benefits? Unlike the TTC, where you can look at routes and schedules and measure how many people they’re servicing, it’s harder to measure the impact that the arts are making on the city’s well-being. How do you see that integrating with the current mantra at City Hall?
Well, we have data on every arts organization and artist that gets government funding—all three levels—in terms of the revenues attached to them. So we can measure that.
There’s a lot of discussion around the externalities, or other benefits, which are, again, harder to measure accurately; things like the impact on the restaurant business and the transport industry—there’s a lot of industries that are adjacent to the arts sector, that benefit a lot from our activity.
The really tough stuff to measure is: what kind of social change are we effecting through arts and culture? We can talk about creative economies, sure, but we know that if our kids get access to the arts, that leads to creativity and innovation down the road, and can change the world. How do you measure that?
New creation by the sector, that’s the most difficult to measure. As a society, we place high value on experimentation and innovation; what we need to figure out is, how do we as a sector continue to make the case for funding that? How can we help large and small arts organizations to work together to support both commericially viable and more experimental work?
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In past interviews, you’ve mentioned Chicago as a great example of how a city can revitalize their arts and culture sector, and reap economic benefit, as well as those intangibles. Mayor Richard Daley, in Chicago, spent the better part of a decade revamping how his city was going to fund the arts. Is that sort of long-term planning something that’s being discussed with the Ford administration? Are there aspects of that approach that appeal to City Hall?
Well, you raise a great point—that it can take a long time to effect meaningful change in the arts sector. It’s an extremely complicated sector; for anybody to think they know the breadth and depth of what the arts does for Toronto, well, they’d be wrong.
We have such a broad sector, and so much activity, and we’re going through a period of radical economic, cultural, and technological change. So the idea that anyone could snap their fingers and come up with a brilliant solution for addressing arts funding is a false one.
I think the question is, how do we build a culture of more collaboration, where we share the best practices across the sector between communities and understand our different needs and strengths?
One of the great aspects of this volunteer role for the mayor, for me, is that I’ve met four or five artists a day, almost every day, for the past two months. Many of them I didn’t know before, or represented communities I didn’t know well, and just getting a sense of what goes on in our city, it’s amazing. For example, this past week, I was touring 401 Richmond West, and met with some film festival folk there, who told me that Toronto has over a hundred film festivals; as they say, we are “the film festival city.” I would argue that most people in Toronto don’t know that; they know about TIFF, but not all the rest. These guys, they’ve developed a great website which lists all the festivals on a calendar, so people can keep track of them all.
That’s just one community; across all the different arts communities, there’s a pile of great work going on. How do we make people more aware of it and create more opportunities for collaboration? I think that’ll take a long time.
An idea I hear coming down the pipe from many artists in different disciplines is that we need a resource centre, a think tank, that would have an ongoing mandate to explore these things, and look at ways of promoting the arts at home and outside our city. Also, looking at cities like Chicago and the many other cities experimenting with using the arts to boost their profile.
You mentioned smaller companies earlier. The National Ballet School, for instance, already has a well-developed public profile, and now a great fundraising structure—the school has done very well of late, fundraising and renovating. But it’s much harder for emerging artists and companies to establish those relationships. Is that part of the thinking, to help those artists and companies build stronger ties to the private sector?
I think the big challenge facing the arts sector is plain: we don’t have enough money.
We’re not overspending. When people look at arts organizations and think they’re going to find misspending, and fat to cut, almost always, there isn’t any. So we’re underspending and under-resourced. In every level of government spending, and private-sector donations, and earned revenue, we need to figure out how to do better. And that goes for all organizations, small and large.
I think as we look at the sector, there are pockets that don’t seem to have access to any private- or public-sector support. And the question is, is that because of content or a simple lack of access? I think we need to look at how we can create better access for those groups.
The reality is, we have people across the city who love the arts and want to support them; they just don’t know where to invest, or how to engage with artists. It’s also an audience-development issue; there are many performances that are fantastic, but the audience is mostly the arts community. It’s great that we support each other, but we all want to expend beyond that and reach more and more people.
I also think it can be hard for audiences to figure out what they like, because the sector is so big and unwieldy, and how do you plug in? Say, if you wanted to learn about dance in Toronto, where do you go? We have resources within the community that we know about, but I think the general public doesn’t know about them—and likewise for private-sector investors. How do they meet artists, and how do artists pitch ideas to them?
We’re doing some work here at the school right now, with different dance companies, trying to bring together emerging business leaders and dance companies who have limited fundraising access. It’s kind of a peculiar fundraising initiative for the National Ballet School, because we’re helping other organizations fundraise, but I think we need to think about the community as a whole and help share our best ideas.
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Moving away from the financial concerns for the arts in Toronto, and back to Rob Ford, you said he’s starting to go out to more arts events, and wants to be seen to publicly encourage artists. There was also a great article recently about how he got involved in helping Cineforum resolve its ongoing issues with the City. Is that something you’ve managed to discuss with him in amongst all this talk about funding the arts and organizations—the importance of the mayor being seen to personally attend and support the arts?
I think he knows that that’s important—I wouldn’t want to take credit for that. When he was a councillor, he wanted to sit on the Harbourfront Centre board, which he did for some time, and he’s been a donor to quite a number of not-for-profit arts organizations. So the arts aren’t brand new territory for him.
That may be, but it’s not part of his image; a lot of people might consider Rob Ford as just the sort of person the arts need to reach. He drives into the downtown core in the morning, works here—puts in very long hours, to be sure—but at the end of the day, he drives back out of the city. Or at least, that’s the perception.
I think most anybody we perceive as not engaged in the arts wants to get engaged more—that’s our challenge. There are lots of people who aren’t as engaged as we want them to be, but everyone wants to be seen to support the arts.
I think the mayor is making commitments to the arts community. It’s a community he’s not as familiar with as, say, amateur sports, with his past volunteer work coaching—he’s quite passionate and knowledgeable about the benefit of sport in communities. And ultimately, we do similar things in the arts, in terms of outreach and education, that the sports sector does. I think the idea where you’re either a sports person or an arts person—I really don’t like that branding.
Some of the mayor’s staff have strong arts backgrounds, and a lot of the council have arts backgrounds, on both ends of the political spectrum—people who used to earn their living as artists. This notion that we have that the arts are left- or right-wing, is really divisive; there are many conservative artists. This need to categorize people, to introduce partisanship, isn’t very helpful for what we want to accomplish.
Every faction in the arts sector, from all these consultations I’ve been having, feels like an underdog in some way. That’s something we all do in the arts, no matter the size of the company, and I don’t understand how or why, but we do. We’re also quite territorial, with everything—audiences, donors, funding—and I don’t think we can continue that way.
Here at the Ballet School, we’ve been fortunate to build this great new facility, when less than ten years ago, our buildings were practically condemned—some people forget that. Now the question for us is, how do we use this space, this platform, to help other artists and arts organizations? The more we can do that—cross our cultural divides and our discipline divides—the better the arts sector as a whole will do.
Photos by Miles Storey/Torontoist.

The City will be holding what will be the first of many public consultations about the arts next week, to give Torontonians a chance to share their “ideas about how City Council can enhance Arts and Culture over the next four years.” They will be held on February 9 and 10; details are available here and here.

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