Arts funding is more important now than ever

Cuts to municipal funding threaten the survival of the arts

In 2013, Jessica Botelho-Urbanski wrote in The Uniter’s Urban Issue that Winnipeg could be improved with more arts funding. Unfortunately, arts funding is again on the chopping block in the municipal budget this year, facing a 10 per cent decrease.

“The fact that that cut happens at a time when the arts and culture sector is essentially experiencing the flood of the century is really what is most problematic,” Camilla Holland, executive director at Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre (RMTC) says. “COVID-19 has essentially brought the arts and culture sector to its knees.”

While government grants are a major source of funding for artists, they aren’t the only options.

“Most arts groups have three forms of revenue. They have public sector revenue, which is funding from governments. They have private sector revenue, which means funding from individuals, corporations, donations, sponsorships and special events, and they have earned revenue, which in our case means tickets, subscriptions and concessions,”  Holland says.

Public sector funding largely comes through the Canada Council for the Arts (CCA), Manitoba Arts Council (MAC) and Winnipeg Arts Council (WAC) or through heritage funds – but getting funding isn’t easy and can make or break an artist's career.

Mel Marginet, performer and producer at Theatre by the River, a local independent theatre company, says “Our main funders are WAC and the Winnipeg Foundation, and from time to time, we’ll get MAC funding, but all the funding is incredibly, incredibly competitive. Because we go project to project, it’s not like we have a set-in-stone season six months before it starts, because our ability to press ‘go’ on a project is so precarious.”

In an effort to make funding more accessible to marginalized groups, CCA and MAC have made extra funds available specifically for Indigenous art and artists and fund accessibility measures for artists to apply for programs and do their work. CCA has also established a disability arts fund.

“Since I started eight years ago, it’s been incredible to see the amount of support we’ve received from our funders. Through the Canada Council Creating, Knowing and Sharing grant, which supports Indigenous art, Urban Shaman gallery saw “a considerable raise to our budget,” gallery director Daina Warren says. The Winnipeg Foundation, through their reconciliation program, has also provided funds to the gallery for translations of text into Cree, Ojibwe and other Indigenous languages.

Big or small, donations are highly valued by artists.

“MAWA (Mentoring Artists for Women’s Art) recently received a donation of $10, and that means so much to us. Sometimes, we receive donations of thousands of dollars, just from people that care about what we do and want us to do more of it,” MAWA executive director Shawna Dempsey says.

But for many, donors won’t make up the difference of what they would receive in government funding.

“Donors are incredibly important, but they aren’t as important as the arts council funding,” Marginet says. “For example, our budget for The Hours that Remain was about $45,000. A small amount was from sponsors and ticket sales, but the majority of that money comes from grants.” $600 of donations and around $1000 of fundraising went into The Hours That Remain.

In 2019, Theatre by the River held three events: a fundraiser, a full-length production and a show at the Winnipeg Fringe Festival. In total, 40 per cent of the expenditures came from government funding, 23 per cent came from earned revenue, 13 per cent from fundraising, and donations covered 9 per cent of the expenditure.

Marginet says “We have sponsors who have taken a risk to say yes, because they have faith in us that we will probably be able to cobble some resources together. (We can’t) find donors to fill in the gap. That is virtually impossible. Theatre by the River is already doing as much as we possibly can to solicit donations. To say you can just magically find donors who are going (to help us cover all project costs), that is just not possible. If a project doesn’t get funding, we can’t do the project.”

Cuts to arts funding will mean fewer projects like The Hours That Remain will be funded, which does not reflect Winnipeg’s values. In 2019, the WAC put out a report called Culture to the Core, which stated that 90 per cent of Winnipeggers say arts and culture are important to a good quality of life in Winnipeg, and 85 per cent say it’s important for the City to fund arts and culture.

The arts are also beneficial to the economy, from our cultural workers and the booming film industry that exists here due to Manitoba’s impressive film and tax credit. Culture to the Core reported that “the arts and creative industries in Winnipeg are worth $1.6 billion in real GDP.” Even so, the cuts are coming, and WAC executive director Carol Phillips says “all grant programs will be affected.”

“Regardless of funding stagnation, there is always going to be a need and desire for arts and culture to really give us a strong sense of who we are as a community and who we want to be,” Holland says.

“It is so demonstrative right now that everyone is at home sheltering in place as best they can, those that have the privilege to do it, and they are, in fact, turning to arts and culture. They are playing music. They are reading books. They are watching television. They are streaming podcasts. They are taking their kids on virtual tours of galleries. They are craving cultural content.”

However, as everyone pauses to enjoy cultural content, our arts sector is in jeopardy and leaves many organizations wondering about their financial survival.

“No one is sure how COVID-19 is being played out in terms of funding – whether funds will be frozen, whether funds will be diverted to arts organization bailouts,” Dempsey says.

“It is almost impossible to know when normal gets to look like normal again,” Holland says. “So actually, during that time, we need more investment. We need access to emergency funds. We need access to cash flow. We need access to our grants early to assist with cash flow. So the City is going to have to lean in to make sure that there are arts organizations at the end of this that can take that 10 per cent cut.”

Published in Volume 74, Number 24 of The Uniter (April 2, 2020)

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