Viewpoint—Ottawa, don’t sit on your laurels at budget time

By Jenny Wagler

Kudos to Ottawa. Our arts scene is “vibrant,” says a new report. Here, residents spend more on arts and culture than the average Canuck. Here, a higher-than-average proportion of people work in arts and culture. Here, the number of cultural events and activities, judging by newspaper listings , is growing.

Great news. Except.

“I think the report gives a bit of a skewed position,” says Peter Honeywell, executive director of the Ottawa Council for the Arts. The Vital Signs report, he says, lumps together federal and municipal arts.

The report – based on the feedback of 150 city volunteers – does not note, for example, that municipal per capita arts spending is embarrassingly low in Ottawa. In 2005, the capital ranked last in arts and festival funding amongst Canada’s largest cities, spending only $3.64 per person.

A significant oversight.

“Our problem is, we have this perceived gift from the federal government,” says Nick Masciantonio, the chair of the city’s arts, heritage and culture advisory committee. This “gift” includes Ottawa icons such as the National Arts Centre and the National Gallery – which have a federal vision and are intended for all Canadians.

“A concert here might be Bruce Springsteen,” says Honeywell.

And while this gives Ottawa’s arts consumers some options that other cities may not have, it does nothing to support local arts.

And it is a poor gift to the local artistic community, if it helps hide – and justify – paltry local arts support.

Further, with next year’s city budget on the horizon, the report’s timing is unfortunate.

Arts – lacking the “life and death” imperative of certain other city services – is already a natural budget victim. And in a year where a “zero” budget hangs spectral overhead, an over-rosy arts report undermines the chances of obtaining more arts funding for needed projects.

New arts venues, for example.

“International caliber performances are degraded by being held in classrooms and open spaces,” says Masciantonio. And Ottawa patrons, he says, link ticket price to venue.

“No one will pay $150 to see a play at the Bronson Centre.”

And while, for example, a project to build a new concert hall is theoretically in the works, the local arts community has yet to see it come to fruition.

“Why isn’t anyone standing up and screaming where is the rest of the money for the concert hall?” asks Masciantonio.

The hall would provide a new space for artists, where they could command better audiences and higher prices. But while promised city funding in the fall of 2004, the project has stalled as it waits on federal funding.

Venue-construction projects, says Masciantonio, don’t need to be prohibitive if the government can be creative and leverage federal or private-sector funding for the buildings. But unless the municipal budget accounts, at minimum, for inflation, the city will not be looking at new funds – it will be looking at cuts.

And in arts, even small cuts have an insidious effect. Staff and programs are squeezed of perceived excess, hour by hour, dollar by dollar.

Patrons lose out, as operating hours are siphoned off and services are scaled back.

But artists lose the most. In a city where most artists must work second jobs to pay the rent, those small losses in hours and salaries risk pushing our artists to the greener pastures of Montreal or Toronto.

And what then for Ottawa arts?

So before there is a budget, and before there are cuts, Ottawa needs to take a good hard look at the local arts scene in Ottawa – separate from its federal trappings. And zero budget or no, Ottawa’s local arts mustn’t face capital punishment.