CULTURE IN CRISIS
FACING TOUGH TIMES, ARTISTS AND ARTS GROUPS ARE WORKING HARD TO KEEP CULTURE ALIVE
The cutbacks seemed draconian even in Ontario’s recession-battered economy. Late last month, citing a second year of reduced funding from Ontario’s NDP government, Michael Hasley, president of the board of trustees of the Art Gallery of Ontario, made a sobering announcement. Citing increased wage and construction costs, as well as a decision by provincial Culture Minister Karen Haslam to hold the line on provincial funding, Hasley said that on July 4, the AGO would close its doors for seven months and lay off 244 of its 445 workers. Added Hasley: “We simply cannot afford to stay open.” That decision heightened concern about hard times for artists and arts organizations across the country. Said Keith Kelly, national director of the Ottawa-based Canadian
Conference of the Arts: “The AGO is the canary in the mine shaft.”
Pummelled by a recession that has sapped ticket sales and private donations, as well as by the GST and competition from in-home entertainment options, Canada’s nonprofit museums, galleries, theatres and opera and dance companies are struggling to stay afloat. And as they try to keep consumers and donors interested in their diverse offerings, the nation’s cultural organizations are also beginning to feel the cumulative effect of years of stagnant levels of government funding.
The result, according to artists and arts organizers who spoke to Maclean ’s in a wideranging series of interviews, is a sense of increasing despair. Said Brian Dickie, general director of the Canadian Opera Company,
which had a deficit for the 1990-1991 season of $569,000: “The light at the end of the tunnel has been temporarily switched off, and I’m not sure when it is going to be switched on again.” Meanwhile, many artists themselves warn that Canadian culture is disappearing. By underfunding the current generation of young, aspiring artists, said Ottawa painter Dennis Tourbin, “you take away their ability to dream—then we as a society begin to lose bits and pieces of ourselves.” But there are also more optimistic developments. Last month in Quebec, the cultural affairs ministry unveiled a $57-million infusion of funds over the next three years for the arts (page 50). And throughout the country, many organizations are showing a steely determination to make the best of a bad situation. In Winnipeg, the Manitoba Theatre Centre just concluded a record-breaking season, aggressively marketing its 10 productions and increasing ticket-based revenue by 17.5 per cent over the previous year. As well, the company undertook a number of special fundraising events, including a luxury-car raffle that netted $118,000. The overall result: the disappearance of the centre’s $431,000 debt.
At the Ottawa Shakespeare Festival, which is launching its first season, crew members and volunteers have travelling door-to-door selling
lines from the play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which they plan to perform this summer. A way to raise money as well as attract audiences, the promotion asks donors to pay $2 in exchange for having their name written beside a line of the play, a copy of which is posted outside the tent on Ottawa’s Victoria Island, where the company intends to perform.
And at the Art Gallery of Hamilton, where officials laid off six of 30 staff members last year as part of a successful effort to avoid a projected $100,000 deficit, director Ted Pietrzak said: “In many ways, the tough times are making arts people thrive by forcing us to rethink what we are and how we connect to the world outside the gallery doors.”
Most people who work in the arts say that the two-year-old recession has been a major factor in causing their own economic hard times. “It really hit us last year,” said Judy Wish, board chairman of 20-year-old Alberta Theatre Projects in Calgary. “Subscriptions, door sales, corporate donations—they all went down,” noted Wish, adding that her company’s accumulated debt has reached $500,000.
Despite the increasing difficulty of attracting audiences and private donations, industry insiders cited the evident lack of will on the part of governments to commit themselves to the arts. “The problem is not so much one of money as of priorities,” said AGO director Glenn Lowry. “What is becoming increasingly clear,” he added, “is that keeping alive the cultural infrastructure of this province and this country is not something that governments see as particularly important.”
Lowry acknowledged that the problems at his gallery, second only to the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa in the quantity and range of its collection, result directly from the wage increases and building programs undertaken in recent years. But he and other insiders contend that governments have been systematically underfunding the arts for several years, and they claim that the legacy of neglect is now taking its toll.
Although many provincial governments have been curtailing spending on culture, the target of most criticism from arts industry spokesmen is the federal department of communications. In the 1992-1993 fiscal year, the department is spending $2.9 billion on culture, compared with Ottawa’s $12.5-billion commit-
ment to defence and its $10.2-billion allocation to employment and immigration. Between 1984 and 1989, the last year for which figures are available, federal spending on the arts increased by only four per cent, in comparison with a 27-per-cent increase in total government spending—and a 40-per-cent increase on defence. In the United States, by comparison, arts funding increased by nine per cent during the same period, compared with a 20-per-cent jump in both defence and total government spending.
Restraints have been felt most sharply at the Canada Council, the nation’s major source of arts grants, which this year received $106 million from the department of communications. The council awards roughly $98 million in grants to about 1,200 artists and 3,000 arts organizations annually. Parliament has not increased the council’s baseline allocation since 1986. As a result, with inflation taken into account, its funding has actually fallen by about 20 per cent in six years—and by about 30 per cent since 1981. Over the course of the 1980s, meanwhile, applications to the council have risen by 32 per cent. The Canadian Opera Company’s Dickie said that the Canada Council had “straight-lined” his organization and other similar groups long before the recession began. He added: “The recession is now being used as an excuse, a justification for doing what the government probably would have done anyway.”
At the Canada Council itself, senior officials have become increasingly strident in voicing their claims of inadequate funding. In May, council chairman Allan Gotlieb told the Commons standing committee on communications and culture that the fate of the arts in Canada is one of “death by decrement.” Arguing that funding to the council has fallen since 1989— for the first time ever—below allocations to similar bodies in countries including Britain and Australia, Gotlieb added: “Canadian arts organizations are being forced to slice into the
bone.” At its quarterly meeting in late June, Gotlieb's board of directors issued an unusually urgent call for increased government funding, warning in an official statement that “we are now losing what has been created through 30 years of sustained achievement in the arts in Canada.”
Late last week, department spokesman Gérard Desroches told Maclean’s that Communications Minister Perrin Beatty “is aware that there is a problem with funding in the performing and the visual arts.” Desroches added that Beatty will soon make an official announcement on the subject. But even within the arts community itself, some observers say that continued restraint may have some beneficial effects. Said Andrew Terris, executive director of Halifax-based Visual Arts Nova Scotia, an umbrella group with 350 members:
“Arts organizations had been getting a little spoiled in that they knew that they would run up deficits and that governments would come in and straighten out the mess.” He added: “They know this won’t happen anymore, and so they are keeping things in better order.”
Even among those demanding increased government aid, there is a growing recognition of the importance of convincing individuals to support the arts. According to a study commissioned by the Toronto-based Council for Business and the Arts, which represents about 100 business organizations actively involved in financing culture, audiences dropped by seven per cent in the 1989-1990 season—reversing a decade of sustained growth. Said Betty Webster, executive director of the Torontobased Association of Canadian Orchestras: “You have so many people that are two workers in the family, two breadwinners, and they simply don’t have the time to go out in the evenings.”
At the Manitoba Theatre Centre, meanwhile, despite the increase in individual ticket sales this season, general manager Zdzislaw Bajón said that many people are declining to subscribe to a full season. “Baby boomers are having children,” he added. “They are spending quality time with their kids and they are working harder to keep their jobs.”
That tendency is taking a particularly heavy toll at many performing-arts organizations, including some of the country’s most established symphony orchestras and dance companies. The 70-year-old Toronto Symphony,
reeling under a $3.7-million debt, announced in early July that it is cutting its season to 42 weeks from 50 next year, before adding one week in each of the following two years. As well, orchestra members agreed to an acrossthe-board pay cut of 15 per cent. Meanwhile, the Toronto-based National Ballet of Canada’s deficit has risen to $1.7 million. Last year, the company declined to renew the contracts of five of 68 dancers and suspended future tours
of Atlantic Canada. Although final figures are not yet available, officials say that those moves may have helped them to avoid a deficit in the season that ended June 30.
At Symphony Nova Scotia, which operates on a comparatively small budget of $2 million annually, officials have frozen salaries as well as advertising and promotion budgets to reduce a debt that climbed to $256,000 in the 19911992 season. At the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra, subscriptions declined by 6.4 per cent last year, resulting in a loss of about $250,000—accounting for most of the year’s deficit. The orchestra now has a debt of just over $1 million. Said assistant managing director Thomas McCarthy: “It is hard to see how we could stand another deficit year. We must turn the boat around immediately.”
The difficult times are also exacting a creative price, as many performing-arts organiza-
tions increasingly choose popular rather than innovative programs. According to Valerie Wilder, associate director of the National Ballet, her company’s tough financial situation has “forced an extreme prudence” on the types of shows it is choosing to produce. “We feel we could really fly and take off and show the world what we can do, but the financial situation makes that difficult,” said Wilder. “It would be nice to make strides artistically instead of having to consolidate.” For her part, Donna Butt, director of Rising Tide Theatre in St. John’s, which produces original plays by Newfoundland playwrights and operates on an annual budget of about $300,000, noted a similar conservatism. Said Butt: “You find yourself in a position where you wonder whether or not you should do a show, because if it’s controversial it may not sell.”
But many arts organizations are becoming increasingly inventive at forging a fresh image for the 1990s. For one thing, some are trying to erase the elitist stereotype of the arts. According to the Calgary Philharmonic’s McCarthy, challenging that image has been central to his organization’s marketing in recent years. “We have been aggressive about getting the image out about casual dress at concerts—just come and listen, jeans or tuxedo,” said McCarthy. At the Vancouver Opera Association, meanwhile, a campaign to attract younger audiences helped bring in more than 2,000 new subscribers last season. Said marketing and communications director Trida Baldwin: “Research showed us that we had to target a younger market in order to replenish our audience.” The results have been impressive. Although in 1990,76 per cent of the company’s subscribers were people over the age of 50, by the end of the 1991-1992 season, only 36 percent of new subscribers were in that age range.
In the theatre community, many companies are trying to identify specialized cultural needs. Said Jini Stolk, executive director of the 240member Toronto Theatre Alliance: “Theatres are starting to realize that you have to offer work that is relevant to the lives of real people, and that if you can do that, you will draw people.”
Stolk noted that theatres catering to ethnic communities, women and other so-called niche markets are vigorously marketing their wares. She added: “They are working to convince audiences that theatre is a part of their community.” Said Timothy Jones, general manager of
Toronto’s Buddies in Bad Times Theatre: “In an era when things are generally uptight, conservative and antisexual, we’re putting out an image that purposely pushes in the opposite direction.” Jones, whose theatre deals primarily with homosexual and lesbian themes and which since 1990 has expanded its season to year-round from 20 weeks, added: “We may serve a minority, but it is a loyal minority when it comes to consuming what we produce.”
Stolk said that many theatre companies that for years have survived by offering low-budget, low-priced productions have suffered least from the recession and spending reductions. “Such companies have an extreme amount of flexibility,” she noted. “They often don’t even have an official office, let alone a permanent performing space, so they didn’t have debts or obligations when the recession arrived.”
Besides working to bring people into their theatres, music halls and galleries, many arts organizations are also working harder to convince the private sector to embrace the cause of culture. In 1991, Canadian corporations donated approximately $70 million to the arts—about 10 per cent of total arts budgets. According to Blair Mascall, chairman of the Council for Business and the Arts, that figure represents a slight decline from corporate giving one year earlier—a dip that he attributes to recessionary pressures.
Still, Mascall emphasized that despite the downward trend, corporations are continuing to give as large a proportion of their charitable dollar to the arts as in the past. “With so many causes lining up, some corporations have definitely asked if they should reassess their priorities,” said Mascall. “The conclusion that they have come to is that the arts are as important as ever.”
Indeed, according to Nina Wright, president of Toronto-based Arts and Communications Counselors, many companies are more determined than ever to get the most out of their charitable giving, undertaking what she calls “strategic philanthropy.” A self-described “marriage broker” for arts organizations and private corporations, Wright cited the example of Toyota Canada Inc.’s recent sponsorship of the Canadian portion of a North American tour of the St. Petersburg-based Kirov Ballet. The carmaker used its sponsorship to draw the public’s attention to its luxury Lexus automobile. Said Wright: “What you had there was a corporation whose ethos is one of first-class style and service and a ballet that is the absolute epitome of perfection. When dollars for advertising and charity are both tighter than ever, that kind of quid pro quo is the name of the game.”
For similar reasons, despite its $l-million debt, the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra has scheduled a two-week tour in November of six North American cities—including stops at New York City’s Carnegie Hall and Washington’s Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. A consortium of petroleum and pipeline companies including Nova Corp. and TransCanada PipeLines Ltd. paid the $1-million cost of the trip as part of its official celebrations marking
the arrival of Alberta natural gas into northeastern U.S. markets.
Although some analysts stress the importance of preserving their artistic independence in such transactions, for many they are the only way to remain professional, creative organizations.
At the Art Gallery of Hamilton, for one, director Pietrzak has been forging new links with community groups, the private sector and with government. In June, his gallery accepted a donation from the Brantford, Ont.based Needier Group, an aggregate and construction company that had just gone public on the Toronto Stock Exchange, in return for allowing the company to spend an evening at the gallery entertaining stockbrokers.
And Pietrzak said that he is also working to create firmer ties with various levels of government by offering free advice on civic projects that include an artistic component. “It’s a matter of developing relationships that will make us a stable organization,” said Pietrzak. “But there is also a rightness to it. We have to do more than just unlock our doors and hope people come in—that’s not what a public organization should be about.”
Still, many express concern that ingenuity alone may not save Canadian culture. Declared Janet Irwin, cofounder of the Ottawa Shakespeare Festival: “If we lose some of these institutions now, there is an incredible amount of infrastructure that will have to be rebuilt when times get better.” She added: “We are going to be very poor if we come out of this recession and symphonies, theatre companies and dance groups have folded.”
Just such a prospect seems increasingly likely as governments and individuals continue to grapple with the competing demands for attention—and money. Said Ontario Culture and Communications Minister Haslam: “There is a new reality out there—and it applies whether you are a school board or a hospital
board or an arts board.” Former NDP federal secretary Gerald Caplan was even more blunt. “The reality of the 1990s,” he said, “is that governments are going to be tight-lipped and tightassed in their support of the arts—and they are never going to be as generous again.”
Many observers say that voters are increasingly receptive to those attitudes. “Culture just isn’t a part of the upbringing of many people in North America,” said AGO board member Alan Schwartz. “So whether governments have money or not, there is no great sense of political urgency to keep the arts alive.” Declared Paule Leduc, who assumed her post as the new director of the Canada Council on July 1: “We have to convince society as a whole of the importance of the arts. Only then can we maintain the larger organizations while ensuring that we keep the door open to the younger generation of creators.”
One group that is working particularly hard to make that happen is the Vancouver opera. Along with its recent successful drive to attract younger audiences, the company runs a program that last year drew 80,000 public-school children to see special daytime performances. Confronted with trying times, many arts organizations are clearly determined to face the music—and do their best to keep culture in Canada alive.