Arts Alliance Complains About Funding, Discusses Options

This article originally appeared in the CARFAC Saskatchewan Newsletter in June 2007. It was titled “SAA focuses on funding cuts to the arts: Meeting comes up short on strategy”, and billed as “commentary by Ed Pas.” The headline was assigned by my editor and to my mind is a bit inaccurate. But it’s difficult to encapsulate everything I cover in my rant/report so I’m willing to cut him some slack.

On May 1 the Saskatchewan Arts Alliance (SAA) hosted a general meeting of the arts community at The Refinery in Saskatoon. The SAA is a non-profit coalition of arts organizations whose mandate includes advocating on issues such as public funding of the arts, freedom of expression and artists’ working conditions.

The meeting was held in “response to the inadequate and demoralizing allocation for the arts in the [March 2007] provincial budget.” The goal of the meeting was “to develop a strategy for improving the dismal state of provincial funding for artists, arts organizations, cultural industries and heritage.” (Note that in the context of this article, I’ll use the terms “arts” and “artist” broadly to include visual, literary, performing, and media arts.)

The meeting was attended by approximately 20 to 30 people, most of whom were arts administrators or board members for arts organizations. Most were also arts practitioners. To begin, the SAA presented background information about the recent history of arts funding in Saskatchewan and distributed statistics highlighting trends in government funding versus the needs of the artistic community. These showed that funding in the province over the past 10 years has not kept pace with the demands or needs of the community, and when the numbers are converted to 2007 dollars, the real dollar value of arts funding has actually shrunk. Any significant recent increases in funding to the Saskatchewan Arts Board—the last of which was implemented from 2002-2005—have only brought the sector to the funding levels that the SAA believes should have been in place already. Rather than creating forward motion, recent increases have simply been trying to catch up to where funding levels would be if not for the severe cutbacks of the 1990s.

According to the SAA, while politicians and bureaucrats have been talking up the value of the arts—especially during high profile events—the reality of the March provincial budget seems to show this talk as mere lip service. The greater support for the arts implied in the lead-up to the recent budget did not materialize. In light of recent economic growth in the province—and its corresponding positive effect on government coffers—the low priority of the arts sector in the provincial government budget has been cause for concern. According to the SAA, this year’s modest increase in the Saskatchewan Arts Board budget was insufficient to bring its funding levels in line with other provinces—let alone meet demand—and sent a signal that the government does not, in fact, intend to support the arts as broadly as may have been implied by public statements.

Having set the stage by presenting the government as indifferent—if not actively hostile—to arts funding, the floor was opened up to the attendees. There was discussion of how this suboptimal funding environment has negatively affected the organizations represented at the meeting, followed by a discussion of strategies for getting the government’s attention.

The challenges of running an arts organization on a shoestring budget were described in general terms—sometimes with specific examples—by a number of attendees. These stories were greeted by frequent nods of agreement from other attendees. Without going into great detail about individual cases, suffice to say that arts organizations are constantly being asked to do more with less, to find funding sources outside of government, to pass on costs to users, and to generally rationalize their expenses. This is not news. It is, in a nutshell, the same refrain that is heard across industries—not just the arts or the non-profit sector—where organizations must struggle to survive—let alone prosper—in an climate where demographics are shifting, economic priorities are changing, and obstacles are appearing everywhere we look.

Two of the key points made during the discussion were that artists are not respected as much as they deserve and that artists rarely reap the economic rewards of people in other fields with similar education and training. This issue of respect for the arts has been debated before.

(The Rand Corporation’s Gifts of the Muse: Reframing the Debate About the Benefits of the Arts offers an excellent summary of the downward spiral of cultural funding in the summary and introduction sections. Though this 2004 publication is US-centric it does an excellent job of talking about the shift in public support from an attitude of near-unquestioning belief in the value of culture, to demands for accountability, to frequent public hostility towards government support for culture. This shift in public consciousness has led to cultural workers being put on the defensive and trying to make strategies for defending their activities in terms that bureaucrats understand. Most of these defences hinge on ideas of the economic benefits of the arts or the value of the arts to society: such things as educational improvement and community building.)

In this context of the eroded respect for cultural activity among the general public—and the corresponding irrelevance of the arts to politicians who seek re-election—one of the key challenges is to figure out how the arts can become respectable again in the eyes of the general public. Development of an action plan towards getting the government’s attention was the primary reason for the meeting. However, despite the various strategies that were suggested, the meeting ended without a conclusive action plan. Some of the suggestions included:

  • Artists should go on strike. From the way the discussion went, this seemed to be the most likely action that the SAA would take.
  • Funding for the arts should be separated from the broad category of culture, sport, and heritage. There was no suggestion for how this should be done.
  • Look at countries that have policies supportive of artists—Iceland and Ireland were given as examples—and try to broker relationships between their experts and our politicians and bureaucrats to present workable models for the sector.
  • Take political action. There was a comment that right wing governments seem to fund the arts better than the NDP. Furthermore there was a sense that NDP has the vote of the cultural sector already so there is little political will to serve artists more actively. Whether these characterizations are true is open to debate.
  • Seek champions within government who can be effective advocates for the arts.
  • Increase private patronage, and develop audiences.
  • Determine which sectors have had successful lobbying campaigns with government, and emulate them.

Even though a great deal of anger and frustration were expressed about the current funding situation, it was pointed out that as little as 30 years ago the arts community in Saskatchewan was a “virtual desert.” That is, there was very little arts activity going on here. In contrast, now there is a large, diverse, and vibrant arts community. The ongoing struggle for survival and recognition demonstrates that people don’t want this community to disappear.

My own belief is that a strike would be ineffective at best. Although one of the proponents of the idea talked about a strike being a positive action, I’m not convinced that the public would agree. Instead, a strike could easily backfire and open up the cultural sector to ridicule. In a scene from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a novel by Douglas Adams, a pair of philosophers—representatives of their trade union—are trying to shut down a sentient super-computer designed to calculate the meaning of the ultimate question of the life, the universe, and everything. They argue on issues of jurisdiction, threatening to go on strike. The computer argues derisively, wondering who will be inconvenienced by a general strike of philosophers, and then suggests a strategy for increasing the public profile of the philosophers. I see the suggestion of artists going on strike as remarkably similar.

On the whole I found the meeting very frustrating, both personally and as a CARFAC SASK board member. I found that there was more complaint and commiseration than planning, and that few ideas presented were more than reactions to painful stimuli. Rather than continue to play a game of tit-for-tat where arts advocates voice their displeasure at government when it doesn’t behave according to expectations, I believe the SAA needs to clearly define the desired outcomes of any action before trying to decide what action to take.