The Arts

Money and influence

A benefactor shakes up the funding community

John Bemrose May 27 1996
The Arts

Money and influence

A benefactor shakes up the funding community

John Bemrose May 27 1996

Money and influence

The Arts

A benefactor shakes up the funding community

At times it has sounded like a schoolyard spat, with the cries of “Yes you did!” “No I didn’t!” growing ever more adamant. But the participants are no children, and their battle over the way the arts are funded in Canada is reverberating through the cultural community. On one side is Joan Chalmers, one of the country’s leading philanthropists. On the other is the Ontario Arts Council, one of the country’s largest public arts-funding bodies that over the last 24 years has received a total of $11 million from the Chalmers family. That gift makes up the lion’s share of the $12.5 million in the Arts Council Foundation, which produces the income to fund the prestigious Chalmers Awards, presented annually to deserving artists from across the country. Last week, just two days after the awards ceremony in Toronto, Chalmers setoff shock waves by revealing her decision to withdraw her support from the arts council and its foundation. In a tart letter to council chairman Paul Hoffert, Chalmers and her sister-inlaw Clarice Chalmers declared: “Our desire to fund the arts and artists will, as always, continue. But we will never again trust our money to the whim of bureaucrats and appointed boards.”

Hoffert, a composer and former member of the rock band Lighthouse, says the Chalmers’s letter left him in “absolute shock.” The council had already been hit with a 28.6-per-cent cut in funding from the Ontario government. And although the Chalmers family’s $11 million stays in the hands of the foundation, its statement delivers a severe blow to the prestige and, perhaps, the future of the arts council. Hoffert said he is wor-

ried that the letter’s criticism “will become a club to be used by those who believe there should be no public funding for the arts. I fear that they will use it not only to get rid of agencies such as the arts council, but also,” he added, “to move us towards a society where arts and culture are created by the rich for the rich.”

Chalmers’s own voice has been oddly absent from the debate. Last year at a Toronto arts event, the 68-year-old daughter of philanthropist and former Maclean Hunter

Ltd. chairman Floyd Chalmers (who died in 1993) suffered a stroke that left her with minor speech difficulties. Relations with the media have been carried on entirely by self-described arts activist Barbara Amesbury, 46, her companion of 10 years.

Amesbury characterized the Chalmers’s letter as “a warning shot to arts bureaucracies.” The gist of its complaints is that the Chalmers have felt excluded from the decision-making process at the foundation. “They’ve been cut out of the loop,” Ames-

bury said. “They were virtually non-existent in their own awards.” As accusations flew—mainly via the media—between the arts council’s Bloor Street offices and the Chalmers-Amesbury apartment a few blocks away in the old-money enclave of Rosedale, Amesbury claimed that Chalmers’s desire to sit on the board has been ignored. Hoffert replied that she had turned such an appointment down. Amesbury also insisted that Chalmers was not informed of the foundation’s plan to launch a new $150,000 grant program; Hoffert said she was involved. As for the letter’s contention that the arts council is top-heavy with bureaucrats, Hoffert responded that it has already cut its staff from just under 100 to 59, streamlined its operation and is delivering a higher proportion of its budget to artists than most similar organizations in North America.

Behind their quarrel lies the issue of just who should pay for the arts, and what they can expect in return. Amesbury says that she and Chalmers have developed a “proactive” vision of arts funding as a result of their experience with a travelling art show that they mounted last year. Called Survivors, In Search of a Voice: The Art of Courage, it features works about breast cancer that they commissioned from 24 wellknown female artists. It almost did not happen because of a quarrel Amesbury and Chalmers had with their partner on the project, the Royal Ontario Museum, over funding and organization. After the museum compromised, Survivors has gone on to raise funds and awareness of the disease in several Canadian and U.S. cities. “It’s the new philanthropy,” Amesbury enthused. “The people who earned that money have a right to 9 put it where it will do the most good. We’re returning to the time I of the Medicis.”

g Interestingly, Hoffert also in-

° voked the Renaissance tradition I of benefactors, but he finds the I prospect unsettling. “Of course there’s a place for private philanthropy,” he said, “but imagine if it

was the only kind. Do we really want art that reflects only the concerns of the rich, while the broader issues of our democratic, free enterprise society are ignored?” Still, there may be room for compromise. Amesbury says that Chalmers may renew her association with the foundation, if she can win a guarantee of more control. Remarks Amesbury: “No more just sitting back as Lady Bountiful.”

JOHN BEMROSE