Austere artistry

With billions shovelled into infrastructure, funding creativity at a municipal level won’t be simple

Jeanine Saurette

It’s a remarkable thing to witness a mayoral forum on arts funding devolve into musings about potholes.

While slightly hyperbolic, that’s essentially what happened at the noontime event hosted at the Winnipeg Art Gallery on Sept. 26. All six candidates asserted an indubitable devotion to the arts. Few could back it up with dollars. Brian Bowman offered up a $2 bump in per capita funding for the Winnipeg Arts Council, raising it to a max of $7 (even then, it’d be $28 per capita less than the national average). The rest balked at specifics. But it makes sense. Infrastructure’s the priority.

“There’s lot of talk about supporting the arts but very little action on it,” notes Lynne Fernandez of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, commenting on the forum. “They think it’s something the average person doesn’t care about and they don’t truly understand the value that arts can contribute. It’s not even just in terms of making the city a more agreeable and inspiring place to live in, but also the economic benefits that the arts can generate.”

It’s the fiscal argument that many proponents of increased arts funding are tending towards. The logic’s straightforward: Winnipeg has historically been regarded as an arts-adoring municipality. Homeowners - who contribute a majority of the city’s revenue via property tax - might relocate with their money to other places if the city’s not vibrant. Take our friendly province to the east as an example: in mid-September, the Ontario Music Fund received a
$15 million investment.

“Those kinds of things freak us out because it just raises the level of competitiveness,” explains Sara Stasiuk, the director of Manitoba Music. “They’ve got the proximity, they’re in the centre of industry and now they’ve got a whole bunch of money. Multiples of anything we’d ever see here. It’s part of remaining competitive within the country. We have our geographic challenges. We need to be supporting our entrepreneurs and musicians to compete around the country and world.” 

Some consider the problem to be far more systemic in nature. Last December, FUSE magazine published a collectively authored statement that noted “austerity and freezes to arts council budgets across most of the country have created an impossible condition for maintaining the status quo in artist-run culture.” 

It perfectly depicts this city’s dilemma. The Winnipeg Arts Council is $500,000 short due largely to inflation. Museum budgets have been slashed. Roadways win again.

“Arts alliances don’t want to be more confrontational and challenge some of the erroneous assumptions about corporate welfare,” says Clive Robertson, an art professor at Queen’s University and founding editor of FUSE. “There’s a large amount of money that’s pumped into corporations and profit-making entities with the excuse that they’ll create jobs and therefore improve the economy, which there’s no evidence for and even evidence against the idea.

“The idea of the arts being able to anchor communities is still true, to some extent,” he concludes. “But that doesn’t help if bookstores are going under, restaurants can’t survive and there’s not enough economy to support the bars.”

Published in Volume 69, Number 7 of The Uniter (October 15, 2014)

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