For artists and arts organizations alike, public funding provides the stability to support a fundamental tenet of the arts: creative risk.
“The role of art and the role of creating art is something that should be available on the community level. And without public funding, it just wouldn’t be,” Thomas Sparling, the executive director of Creative Manitoba, says.
But as Manitoba ushers in a new, more diverse generation of artists, arts leaders who spoke to The Uniter say provincial funding is too sparse to support them.
As the election looms, they voiced their frustrations and fears about keeping the metaphorical – and literal – studio lights on in Winnipeg’s arts and culture scene.
A few weeks before the 2023 provincial election, The Uniter asked Manitoba’s three main political parties about their commitments to Manitoba’s arts and culture sector. Two parties answered. One did not.
Since the Progressive Conservative Party of Manitoba formed government in 2016, the arts sector has faced both funding cuts and supplements.
In 2017, the PCs cut arts, culture and sports funding by more than $3.5 million.
In the 2020/2021 fiscal year, the Manitoba government offered up to $6 million in funding to help arts organizations through the Arts and Culture Sustainability Fund. The program continued with an additional $6 million in funding in the 2021/2022 fiscal year but was terminated in 2023.
Rose-Ann Harder, the director of the Manitoba Arts Network, says the additional funding helped arts organizations weather the height of COVID-19 pandemic.
However, she says the struggle isn’t over. Audiences haven’t returned to theatre seats and galleries to meet pre-pandemic attendance rates. Moreover, a lack of funding has barred new organizations from securing sufficient operational funding.
“Core arts and funding has remained stagnant for over a generation, and so the funding hasn’t even been on par with inflation,” Harder says.
She urges the elected government to reinstate the sustainability fund from a short-term top-up to a long-term, permanent program.
The Uniter reached out to Obby Khan, the provincial minister for sport, culture and heritage. A spokesperson deferred the comment to the PC Party office, which did not respond to multiple interview requests.
Last week, the party announced plans to commit $100 million to the Arts, Culture and Sport in Community (ACSC) funding program over four years. While specific commitments to sports were included in the announcement, no arts initiatives were mentioned.
Uzoma Asagwara, the NDP MLA for Union Station, spoke with The Uniter shortly after the party announced an $8 million investment in capital and funding grants toward Manitoba’s creative sector.
If elected, the NDP also plans to bring the tourism file back to Manitoba’s cabinet with a dedicated minister to attract out-of-province visitors to explore Manitoba’s thriving arts and culture scene. They also plan to modernize the Film and Video Tax Credit by giving production companies upfront cash advances.
“The government can really help set the tone in terms of how citizens value the arts and culture aspects of our province,” Asagwara says.
Citing decades of stagnation, Manitoba Liberal leader Dougald Lamont promised to commit $20 million in Manitoba Arts Council funding if elected.
While the NDP has criticized the PC government for neglecting the arts, Lamont says meagre arts funding has been a feature of both governments while in power.
“The reality is that both the PC and the NDP have generally been terrible for the arts,” Lamont says. “The PCs put a bit more money into infrastructure, but we still need much, much more support for what is a great arts scene, but it just doesn’t get the support it needs.”
Now on his second campaign vying to be Manitoba’s premier, Lamont believes parties tend to view the arts as a luxury, rather than a public good.
“It’s the difference between what makes a place good and what makes a place great,” he says. “The arts in Winnipeg and Manitoba are part of what makes this place really, really exceptional.”
Putting arts into action
To support the arts in Manitoba, Harder recommends doubling Manitoba Arts Council funding, adjusting the total provincial arts and culture funding to match inflation and making the Arts and Culture Sustainability Fund a permanent support.
Additionally, she stresses the importance of funding arts centres in Indigenous, rural and northern communities in Manitoba. That way, residents don’t have to travel far distances to experience art and access opportunities.
“We’re kind of a unique province where we’re heavily based in Winnipeg,” Harder says. “If the government wants to attract more people to stay in rural and northern Manitoba, I really think the arts would be the key.”
While an influx of newcomer Canadians has bolstered Manitoba’s diversity, Sparling says the arts scene is lagging behind.
“A lot of the arts institutions were built around presenting white, European art,” he says. “There’s a lot of work that needs to be done to (assess) how we navigate this demographic shift.”
He argues that a lack of public funding bars many international artists from continuing their practice.
“Just like (immigrant) doctors and lawyers aren’t finding the ability to practice their trade here, we’re finding artists are having a difficult time establishing themselves,” he says. “If our arts and cultural community is going to be representative of our province, we need to figure out how to bring these different communities into our arts.”
While healthcare, education and taxes dominate election discourses, Harder believes the arts are worth fighting for, as funding not only benefits local artists but also Manitoba as a whole.
“If you picture yourself in your house and then you remove anything of artistic value in it, you take away the painting. You take away your furniture, because they’ve been designed by someone that’s artistic. You take away your TV, because that’s arts and entertainment,” Harder says. “When you open your eyes, what do you have left in your house?”
“I think if people really realize what their lives would be without the art, it wouldn’t be as interesting.”
The Manitoba election takes place on Oct. 3. For more information on how to vote, visit electionsmanitoba.ca.
Published in Volume 78, Number 04 of The Uniter (September 28, 2023)