Public should rethink its approach to arts funding

By Kate MacLean

Edmonton Opera’s new artistic director, who is currently working with Opera Lyra on a production, left me with a head-scratcher recently.

I asked Michael Cavanagh if he thought it was sad that we pay people to depict our emotions on stage. He said maybe it was, but that without the arts we could no longer examine ourselves as a people.

Hmm, I thought, then why the backlash against the arts and the public bias against government arts funding?

Over the last few weeks, there has been extensive negative coverage of artistic projects funded by the Canada Council for the Arts. One involved rotting bunny carcasses.

The critics wrote harsh stories about the exhibit that made no effort to explain the artist’s motivation or the meaning of the piece. Now, I’m not a fan of rotting flesh, but I’m sure there’s a reason why she strung up dead animals. She was not even interviewed in the stories to explain.

The stories focused on the idea that the council is wasteful and its spending unjustified, which perpetuates the public belief that it is wasteful to fund the arts in Canada. It’s not hard to see that critics of the arts want you to make that connection.

In our current political climate of cut more, spend less, many Canadians have grown cautious of where their tax dollars are going.

People might believe that there’s not enough to go around for necessities like housing, health care and education, and they might use this belief to justify a lack of support for the arts.

If more Canadians knew how little was spent on the arts compared to more practical enterprises like funding biological weapons research or the environmental effects of cow flatulence, it would take the wind out of this little bit of neo-conservative PR bologna: that we need to get our economic house in order, and cultural projects should be the first to get slashed.

The message seems to be that everyone knows withdrawing the minuscule percentage of the federal budget that we actually spend on the arts will set us straight financially.

Luckily, a few organizations like the Great Canadian Theatre Company here in Ottawa have seen an increase in funding this year.

This, of course is the exception to the rule, but encouraging all the same.

It’s good to see that the portion of the public that’s uninformed about the state of this country’s finances has not swayed the government from at least moderately supporting the arts.

For example, most people don’t realize that part of this year’s federal government surplus could be applied to the arts without necessarily hurting our economy.

Of course it’s essential to fund social programs and provide Canadians with some tax relief, but celebrating and understanding ourselves through the arts is also extremely important.

There are long-term consequences to downgrading the importance of the arts in our community.
“If the arts in general are not funded, we are going to be living in white boxes and unimaginative environments,” says Mark Douglas Trask, Director of Marketing and Development at Ottawa’s Opera Lyra. “It perpetuates a drone mentality.”

If we continue along this path, the changes in our social environment will be slow and steady.

In the end, there’s no guarantee we’ll like the effects.