Toronto's New Culture Plan Is All Business
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Toronto’s New Culture Plan Is All Business

A mid-air art installation in Nathan Phillips Square during 2009’s Nuit Blanche. Photo by purplepick from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

When Rob Ford was elected mayor last fall, many in the arts and culture community saw it as a blow to their field, the beginning of a dramatic and drawn-out death scene. During his campaign, Ford was very open about his indifference to the arts and his leanings towards privatized arts funding. Since then, other than the appointment of an arts advisor, there’s been little evidence that artistic audiences are on his radar (except for those too young to know who he is). But according to Toronto’s latest Culture Plan, Ford’s going to have to start paying attention if he really wants to support the city’s economy.
Enter the Creative Capital Initiative⎯a partnership between arts workers and the City to update Toronto’s Culture Plan, which was drawn up in 2003. Commissioned by councillor Michael Thompson (Ward 37, Scarborough Centre) and co-chaired by National Ballet of Canada artistic director Karen Kain, Capital Canada CEO Robert Forster, and former cabinet minister and vice-chair of CIBC Jim Prentice, the blue-ribbon panel has been conducting interviews, focus groups, public discussions, and online research since February to come up with a brand new Culture Plan our new municipal administration can understand. Titled Creative Capital Gains: An Action Plan for Toronto [PDF], it was released yesterday in advance of a presentation to the City’s Economic Development Committee this Wednesday.
In 50 pages, the report signals a bold change in attitude towards Toronto’s arts and culture⎯one that moves away from the notion of the arts as a luxury, and towards a conception of the arts as a significant and powerful business, and an industry that’s key in our economic recovery.

In 2003, the Culture Plan aimed to create an exciting, engaging arts and culture sector in Toronto, one that reflected the city’s population and embraced its history. It pushed for more street art, support for museums and heritage buildings, grants and long-term funding, and the creation of major cultural events to stimulate Toronto’s tourism industry, and called for a mix of municipal, provincial, federal, and private funding. Eight years later, 87 per cent of its 63 recommendations have been carried out, turning Toronto’s festivals, arts organizations, galleries, and concert halls into thriving scenes of economic growth.
With one major exception. That plan called for an increase in per capita arts funding to $25. Currently, Toronto is at $18—an increase over the $13 rate we were at when the report was issued, but still far short of the goal. (For some context, Montreal was spending $25 per capita when Toronto first made the commitment in 2003, and San Francisco currently spends $87 per capita.) That lack of funding was perhaps the key question about the arts that came up on the municipal campaign trail; Ford consistently described increased arts funding as something that he wished we could afford, but which he was convinced we could not. Surprising many, as a councillor he actually voted in favour of this per capita increase, but given his frequent reference to private sector funding and the unaffordability of various programs, it’s not clear he will maintain his support for that goal as mayor.

The Four Seasons Centre. Photo by Jim 2 from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

According to the new report, the creative sector generates more than $9 billion of Toronto’s GDP, employs more than 130,000 people (growing more than twice as quickly as the overall labour force), and can turn every dollar invested by the City into 20 more through generated revenue and additional funding. Today, with deficits high and spending low, the report argues that arts and culture are economically essential to Toronto’s continued growth and development—in terms of the city’s finances as well as its quality of life.
If Toronto’s arts and culture sector has grown so much since the 2003 plan came out, it’s been largely due to private money. The sector receives only about 1 per cent of the City’s net operating budget, and accounting for inflation and population changes, municipal support has been falling since the 1990s. But now, says the panel which wrote this year’s new report, is the time for our municipal government to become an active and aggressive supporter of the arts.
First and foremost is support for that 2003 pledge to raise per capita spending to $25. The thinking is that initial investments from the City will demonstrate the legitimacy of creative projects, raising the likelihood that more public and private funding will follow. In the past, projects like Nuit Blanche and the Toronto International Film Festival have followed this trajectory, and now position Toronto prominently as a leader in the global arts scene.
Beyond increased budgetary support, the report also suggests the City streamline its permit process to save money, organize a cultural committee to link all arts and culture organizations and their similar initiatives, and encourage cross-organizational collaboration through networking events like a Mayor’s Breakfast for the arts community. (We’d actually love to see Ford discussing Brecht over vegan eggs and hollandaise. Hey, can’t we dream?) This isn’t to say that private donors won’t have a place anymore—they certainly need to stay in the picture; the Creative Capital Initiative suggests that the City challenge private donors to match public funds.
This new plan includes revisions to many other areas of cultural policy that are now out of date. The 2003 incarnation emphasized marquee venues, for instance, but since the Four Seasons Centre and the TIFF Bell Lightbox are no longer dreams on a blueprint, now the focus is more on increasing affordable creative spaces downtown. And with youth discounts and multicultural works now commonplace in cultural institutions, the new report points out that gains need to be made in increasing accessibility for youth outside the downtown core. There’s also an expansion of what constitutes a “creative” profession, which has now grown to include Toronto’s booming digital media and mobile application industries.
These are all suggestions of course, and it’s unclear whether or not Ford will actually be listening. And while the report gives major boosts to big names, big budgets, and big-time tourism, we’re left wondering where the more experimental and odd projects—those that give Toronto quirkiness and diversity—might fit in. But with a new perspective on Toronto’s prosperous arts and culture industry from leaders within both the artistic and business fields, at least the report is speaking a language City Hall might understand.