Local artists draw up a plan for city support

By Natasha Jamal

Concerns of many artists and arts organizations may have been put to rest following a decision made by the city not to cut arts funding. Many hope council will recognize the importance of culture, and increase available funding for the local arts scene this year.

“The arts tell our story,” says Nicole Zuger, the city’s arts program manager.

“Our quality of life and our socio-economic well-being are based on our ability to celebrate culture, and celebrate the true identity of our cities.”

Zuger outlined her concerns at a public meeting held at city hall earlier this month which drew artists from across Ottawa.

During the meeting, artists and representatives from various arts and festival organizations were asked for their suggestions to improve an arts investment plan.

The development of the Arts Investment Strategy plan was initiated in 2005 in response to council direction.

Its objective is to recommend steps the city should take to spark and sustain investment in Ottawa’s local arts and festival sector.

The completed strategy plan is scheduled to be presented to council next month.

The strategy will recommend the city commit to an increased municipal funding plan of $2.5 million for local arts, festivals, fairs and special events over a four-year period. The bulk of this investment would be made this year.

Many local artists who are most in need of money often do not receive sufficient funds, says Zuger.

“Our support is constrained and competitive,” she says.

“There is a lot of strong, dynamic work that is not getting the money it needs.”

Other recommendations include identifying opportunities for increased federal and provincial funding for the arts and festival sector, and identifying opportunities for increased cultural partnerships that include the local arts and festival sectors, national cultural institutions like the National Capital Commission, as well as federal cultural institutions in Ottawa.

A steering committee was also set up in 2006 to provide guidance and support for the strategy.

It is composed of 12 community leaders including politicians, business people and members of the arts scene, and a non-voting project manager.

When it comes to the amount of municipal funding allocated per artist, research conducted for the strategy plan places Ottawa at the bottom of the list of major cities in Canada.

In 2005, each artist in the city was given $3.64 in funding. Vancouver topped the list, allocating a little less than $12 per artist.

Zuger says the lack of government support is one of the reasons many local artists choose to move to other cities, contributing to the city’s artistic brain drain. Increased funding will help keep local artists in Ottawa, she says.

Local artist Maria Shin says she hopes the council will recognize the disparity between cities and work to reduce this brain drain.

“The numbers speak for themselves,” she says. “There are other cities that want us – what is the point of banging our head against the wall for so many years? It is disheartening.”

Although he is encouraged by the initiative, Tony Pan, general manager of Le Groupe Dance Lab, says local arts are undervalued in Ottawa, and fall second to national arts.

“The national arts scene does not promote local artists,” he says. “We have so many artists of international status in Ottawa, so why isn’t that being recognized?”

Pan is thankful for the funding his organization currently receives from the government, but says it is important for the city to allocate more money for local arts.

Many arts organizations are facing large deficits and although the funding they receive helps minimize these deficits, they don’t help the organizations move forward, he says.

“This money means so much to us, but after 20 years you have to look at some increase somewhere,” Pan says.

“Organizations need money to infuse their operating support rather than just enough for them to play the catch-up game.”

With the threat of decreased funding every few years, inconsistencies in grant allocations, and increasing costs, Pan says many artists are left fighting to keep their heads above water.

He says the cultural office is not asking the government for an unreasonable amount of money.

“We are struggling and nobody is picking us up…If regular citizens had to live on $3 a day, they would be protesting, too.”