Wednesday night, members of Toronto's theatre community participated in a public consultation on the City's proposal to sell or otherwise outsource the theatres it owns.
One of the many cost-reducing measures Rob Ford’s inner circle on council has been considering lately is changing the City’s relationship with the three theatres it runs (through independent boards) and subsidizes: the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts, the Toronto Centre For the Arts, and the St. Lawrence Centre. Wednesday night, at the Toronto Centre For the Arts in North York, a few dozen concerned citizens gathered in a small side room for a public consultation.
The consultation, the second of two (the first was held Wednesday morning at the St. Lawrence Centre) had been convened to answer the question: “Should we [that is, the City] be in the theatre business?” (That’s how it was phrased on the meeting’s agenda.)
The City of Toronto provides about $3.5 million in annual subsidies to keep the three theatres running.
Participants in the consultation were asked to form small discussion groups. They clustered around several tables, each with seats for about ten. At one table, those assembled included Owais Lightwala, representing Why Not Theatre; Andrei Mazuruc, of the Russian Carousel Cultural Centre; and Jim Brett, president of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Local 58.
It was clear from the start that the group was unhappy with the premise of the discussion. Whether or not the City should be in the theatre business seemed, to many of them, beside the point.
“The answer is not yes or no, in my opinion,” said Brett. He added that, in his view, the City’s real responsibility is to foster an atmosphere that is friendly to theatre. “They don’t necessarily need to own the real estate to do that,” he said. (According to the Globe the City actually doesn’t own the real estate upon which the Toronto Centre, at least, is built.)
Mazuruc pointed out that losing City-owned venues might end up costing Toronto more, in the long run. “Offsetting the cost [of finding homes for displaced non-profit theatre troupes] by doing grants, in the end, might cost more than owning the buildings,” he said.
Lightwala questioned the economic basis of the discussion. By way of contrast, he said that London (England, not Ontario) “is a city that values arts. It values them intrinsically and doesn’t look for an economic justification.” This, he thinks, is why London has such a vital theatre scene.
There wasn’t much dissent. It was a consultation filled mostly with like-minded people, agreeing with one another, which isn’t unusual—one critique of the City’s budget consultation opportunities is that they too frequently bring only the aggrieved parties to the table. The “silent majority,” the reasoning goes, is too busy working for a living to bother with politics.
But what if the majority is silent because they just don’t care? In the case of these consultations, as in the cases of many others, it’s hard to imagine a constituency (other than private theatre owners and Toronto Sun commenters) who would be vehemently in favour of the proposal, given how minuscule the amounts of money involved are. Selling or defunding the theatres might accomplish a nanosecond of property tax relief, but it wouldn’t make anyone’s life materially better, unless the money from a sale were invested in some other capital project of equal value. For those involved in theatre, life could—but wouldn’t necessarily—become materially worse.
The ones most interested in the proposal seem to be politicians who are working to establish reputations as Ford-style fiscal hawks, like Councillor Gary Crawford (Ward 36, Scarborough Southwest), a right-leaning councillor who chairs the mayor’s task force on theatres, and who was hosting the consultation. At the end of the session, he went from table to table, collecting business cards that he’d scattered around the room before the event for people to pick up.
“I just had them printed for four cents each,” he said. “So I figured, for forty or fifty of them, you know, I’ve gotta make sure I don’t waste the money.” He clearly reads newspapers.
Was he persuaded by anything he’d heard, we wondered? “It’s not necessarily persuasion,” he said. “It’s bringing all the information together.”
“It will come through,” he continued. “A lot of us understand the importance of the arts and the importance of theatre.”