Proposed Photo Laureate Position Provides Snapshot of Cultural Anxieties
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Proposed Photo Laureate Position Provides Snapshot of Cultural Anxieties

A debate over a $10,000 honorarium for a proposed Photo Laureate position reveals a lot about how Toronto values culture.

Scott MacFarland’s “Corner of the Courageous, Repatriation Ceremony for Sergeant Martin Goudreault, Grenville St., Toronto, Ontario, June 9th, 2010 (2012), ” Part of the CONTACT Photography Festival.

In May 2014, Councillor Joe Mihevc (Ward 21, St. Paul’s) put forward a motion calling for the establishment of a “Photo Laureate,” or someone who could tell Toronto’s visual story with a little more depth. Grammatical issues aside, Mihevc argued that this new Photo Laureate might just “help us again fall in love with our city.”

But a few councilors weren’t feeling the love. Councillor Mike Del Grande (Ward 39, Scarborough Agincourt) called it a “Marie Antoinette” motion, adding that “trying to be trendy or hip with other people’s money is a problem.” Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong (Ward 34, Don Valley East), also ran with the idea that visual art is a pastime for hipster millennials: “If this goes through, the next thing we’ll have is a Facebook Laureate, and then we’ll have an Instagram Laureate, and then a Twitter Laureate, who’ll have to tweet about Toronto every month in 140 characters or less!”

“This is the type of thing that drives taxpayers insane,” continued Minnan-Wong, “when you start spending this type of money, even small pieces of money, on unnecessary things.” And here’s where the council’s support started to split; committing actual money to encourage cultural development can be a scary political prospect. Mihevc eventually acquiesced, suggesting that a mysterious “outside benefactor” might step forward to help fund the Photo Laureate.

So while council eventually voted 30-7 to create the position, they also voted to cut its $10,000 annual honorarium. And what the city was left with was an honorary title with a $0 retainer.

In January 2015 Arts & Culture Services staff brought together a panel of Toronto’s leading photography experts for their insights on how this thing might actually work in a non-exploitative way. The consultation panel included Bonnie Rubenstein, Artistic Director of the Contact Photography Festival, Paul Roth, Director at the Ryerson Image Centre, and Stephen Bulger, owner of the city’s pre-eminent gallery devoted solely to photography. The group was adamant that “the photographer’s work has value,” and pitched the revolutionary notion that they be compensated for their time. Instead of running around the city taking photos that will surely face unparalleled public scrutiny, the role of the Laureate will be curatorial and educational in nature, rather than production-focused. Should the City wish the Photo Laureate to produce a “legacy project” during his or her term, the panel recommended a production budget of approximately $40,000 (to be raised via public sponsorships).

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George Elliott Clarke, Toronto’s current Poet Laureate. Photo by Mark Campbell.

The panel’s recommendations would make the Photo Laureate consistent with the City’s existing Poet Laureate—a position that comes with a $10,000 honorarium and whose 2001 inception was met with similar controversy. A National Post editorial demanded that the city “balance the budget first, then decorate with a sprinkling of token literary accoutrements if you must,” before labelling poets as “a class of people often given to strange and unpredictable viewpoints…do we really want our city’s name associated with them?”

The debates surrounding Toronto’s Poet and Photo Laureate positions points to two long-time issues in the city: while the City has officially decided that culture is a Good Thing, they’ve also decided that supporting it is largely an Unnecessary Thing; and that Toronto still has deep-seated insecurities about how (and why) it should depict itself.

Toronto is home to more than 20 per cent of Canada’s working artists, but lags far behind other Canadian cities in arts funding per capita. In 2003, the city agreed to increase its funding to $25 per resident by 2008. In 2015, we can boast that we’ve almost hit the last decade’s target at $21 per resident. For comparison, Montreal invests $55. Meanwhile, a much-heralded initiative to direct billboard revenue to arts-focused community programs has been similarly delayed. It seems that while we’re thrilled to fund large-scale festivals and exhibitions of foreign artists, direct investment in the city’s artistic community is simply a frill.

But investment in the arts can return great dividends. According to a 2009 study, just $1 in City of Toronto arts funding generates $5.15 from other levels of government, $5.48 from the private sector, and $7.12 in earned revenues from things like ticket sales, program fees, venue rentals, and bar and gift shop sales. Clearly, it’s a frill that pays off.

But dollars and cents only account for part of the value; the unique insights that local art can provide as to what and who we are as a city cannot be expressed on a balance sheet alone.

In a June 2012 Canadian Art article titled “Toronto Curating Itself: An Unhistory,” Sholem Krishtalka sought to discover why the city has been so reticent to promote its own artistry. “Toronto,” he argues, “is endlessly self-reflexive, [yet] not particularly keen on self-reflection”; a sentiment echoed in Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong’s Instagram analogy.

Krishtalka also interviewed the prolific Toronto-based artist Luis Jacob, who noted that while Vancouver and Winnipeg are often explicitly depicted in their art (via unofficial Laureates like Jeff Wall and Guy Maddin), Toronto tends to map itself through its social networks. “From Michael Snow to Joyce Wieland to General Idea to Colin Campbell to Lisa Steele to Tanya Mars to FASTWÜRMS to G.B. Jones to Will Munro to Margaux Williamson to me to you; across media, down through generations, Toronto has always placed an emphasis on who it is, rather than what or where it is.”

This Friday, council’s Economic Development Committee will vote on the expert panel’s Terms of Reference for the Photo Laureate. Whether City Council decides to place emphasis on who we are as artistic producers and supporters remains to be seen.