Culture and Business United on Arts Funding Strategies, But Is The Mayor Onside?
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Culture and Business United on Arts Funding Strategies, But Is The Mayor Onside?

Photo by sevennine from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

In front of a packed room at City Hall yesterday, Toronto’s Economic Development Committee considered the Creative Capital Initiative report—a new road map for arts and culture in the city, and for the municipal government’s role in supporting the sector
The 54-page report, focused on measuring the financial impact of the cultural sector on Toronto, clearly lays out the tangible benefits of funding the arts in Toronto competitively with similarly sized cities, and the potential loss of development and tourism dollars that could result from continued neglect of the sector. But this new approach to looking at culture as primarily an economic engine has some big hurdles and misconceptions to overcome before the report’s goal of finally hitting a $25 per capita spending target is met.

Luminato 2008. Photo by re-Marc’able from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

The City’s executive director of culture is Rita Davies. Davies wasted little time in setting the tone for the morning’s theme. Pulling up a graph entitled “Cumulative Growth Rates for Revenue,” and pointing out that while Toronto’s cultural sector remains a powerful stimulus for the City’s economy, after factoring in inflation and funding growth in comparable cities “our research shows that we are falling behind.”
Davies kept her input brief, as the committee was there to hear the new report summed up by the blue ribbon panel—representing some of the most esteemed business and arts leaders in the city—that composed it. Capitol Canada CEO Robert Foster spoke first, and cannily, opened with a Yogi Berra quote: “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.” Foster expounded: “Our team knows where we’re going, and how to get there.”
While neither Mayor Rob Ford nor Doug Ford (Ward 2, Etobicoke North) were present, sports references aren’t a bad place to start with the current municipal administration.
Foster briefly introduced his fellow presenters, and made it clear what they had been focusing on: “What we’re trying to do is link arts and culture to the economy.” (Though the arts and culture sector obviously do a great deal more for the city than simply bring in dollars, given the political bent of the current administration, this approach is both very intentional and very well-advised.) This was further reinforced later by a slide depiction of two hands shaking, one with “Business” on its cuff, the other labelled “Culture.”

Photo by Lodoe-Laura Haines-Wangda/Torontoist.

To support this link, the advisory council has done extensive and painstaking research. One of their most convincing arguments, based on metrics gathered from arts organizations from a wide cross section of the sector, is that every $1 the City spends results in $17.75 being invested in Toronto. National Ballet of Canada artistic director and panel co-chair Karen Kain, listing off the many festivals, organizations, and companies that produce cultural events in the city, also pointed out that the arts attract four times as many visitors to Toronto as sporting events.
The meat of the report is six recommendations, calling on the City to:

  1. Sustain cultural spaces;
  2. Improve access to and opportunity for cultural participation;
  3. Support the development of “creative clusters”;
  4. Promote Toronto as a Creative City;
  5. Have the Mayor take a leadership role in the City’s creative capital strategy (interestingly, this recommendation was written in all caps);
  6. And keep pace with international competitors.

It’s a tall order, though the report does detail potential strategies and approaches to achieving it. While not all of the recommendations require large amounts of financial investment, the report’s authors made it clear that implementation would include, at a minimum, that the City honour its commitment to raise per capita arts and culture funding to $25, from its current $18.
That’s where this report could run into trouble. When the presentations were done and all the panel members had had their say, Councillor Michael Thompson (Ward 37, Scarborough Centre) opened the meeting up for questions. Not surprisingly, the funding question came up quickly, with Councillor Gary Crawford (Ward 36, Scarborough Southwest) making reference to “the number one thing we have to do in the next year”—that thing being, addressing the gaping budget shortfall forecast for the city in 2012. The committee did vote to accept the report’s recommendations in principle, however, and it will now go to the next full meeting of council for further debate. If approved there, city staff will be directed to come up with a plan for implementing the recommendations by the fall.
Despite all the research showing that government investment in the sector has a tremendous multiplier effect for the local economy, there are plenty of people who will question whether that money should be spent in the first place. After all, detractors might say, it’s public (read: taxpayer) money we’d be talking about; can’t the private sector contribute? (In fact, this is precisely the line Rob Ford took during his campaign.) While business and arts leaders look at that return on investment as a terrific deal for the city, our current political climate isn’t necessarily conducive to weighing evidence that the arts warrant funding on economic grounds with any kind of open-mindedness.
That arts also have intrinsic value, independent of their economic impact on the city, while acknowledged by Kain early in the presentation, won’t play much of a role in the debate to come. (Though, we’re grateful that at least the debate is being framed as such—as a question of increasing or not rather than cutting or not.) It remains to be seen whether the Ford administration will take all the empirical evidence gathered in this report at face value, or dismiss Toronto’s slide towards becoming an underfunded cultural backwater as a necessary sacrifice to balance the looming budget.
Creative Capital Gains: An Action Plan for Toronto is available online [PDF]; its recommendations will be considered by city council at its meeting (open to the public) on May 17–18.