Kwende Kefentse
by Kwende Kefentse
Wed Nov 12th 2008 at 11:38pm UTC

Ottawa: An Axe For a Scalpel Job?

Ottawa’s 2009 municipal budget was just released, and the arts, culture, and heritage community is reeling. After realizing that the city would require an either $59 million decrease in spending or increase in revenue, Mayor O’Brien brought out the axe. It is not surprising that in a budget where the words ‘arts’ and ‘culture’ can be found less than 10 times respectively, buried on page 52 is a 42 percent cut to all arts, culture, and heritage investments as well as a complete retraction of festival and event investments.

A close inspection of the budget reveals that the “adjustment to cultural services” is the most expansive, and highest impact (in terms of dollars) single-cut of anything offered in the 5-part Options for Reduction or Revenues package, other than adjusting underperforming bus routes. Yet while the rationale concerning the transit cuts enjoys a 5-page deliberation, the rationale for “Adjustment to existing services” – the category under which the arts, culture, and heritage cuts are relegated – is breezed through in less than a page, the final paragraph of which is:

All of the services identified for adjustments may be considered essential to individuals or specific groups in the city. However, compared to the multitude of services and programs the City provides, these proposed adjustments do not seriously impact the functioning of the city, nor do they compromise general public safety.

As a member of the Arts and Culture community in Ottawa, and author on this website, my opinion on the cuts won’t shock you. For all of the reasons that thinkers like Richard, Charles Landry, and Glen Murray have espoused, these cuts are a bad idea. The budget-in-question never once profiles the region’s rich cultural economy, nor does it consider expansion of its cultural industries in any of its economic forecasting, or leveraging the momentum that it’s been building within the global festival community. For having such an uninhibited willingness to cut arts, culture, and heritage investments, there doesn’t seem to be as great an effort from the city to understand arts, culture, and heritage contributions in any nuanced kind of way. One page certainly doesn’t do them justice. This kind of cut may save in the short term, but if money is the only currency being considered then the city is doomed to waste a lot of it.

To workers in the affected areas within the cultural industries: how can these challenges be overcome with a positive net impact on the arts, culture, and heritage sectors? Another sector that is getting hit hard by cuts is housing – they are facing similar questions. Feeling the pinch of restricted access to debt markets more than most, social enterprise models are becoming increasingly employed to generate capital in the housing world. Can the city and these arts, culture, and heritage bodies work together to leverage the currency and momentum that they already have into shared and re-invested profit? How do we encourage a modicum of cultural planning in our municipal budgets? Could budgets like these bring about a shift in the way that the arts, culture, and heritage are financed in general?

And now, as always, some music.

7 Responses to “Ottawa: An Axe For a Scalpel Job?”

  1. Mike L Says:

    Quote: “cut arts, culture and heritage investments”

    It seems that Ottawa sees these areas as a cost-center, not a profit-center, and certainly not as “investments” in anything. Do these activities pay for themselves (and more) from the city’s cash-flow perspective, e.g., by bringing in more sales-tax dollars or parking fines or whatever?

  2. Daniel Carins Says:

    It used to be the same with parks, but now the social, economic and environmental case for parks has been made countless times, municipal decision-makers are more aware of their benefits (and more aware of the controversty cuts will cause).

    But in a time of increasing individualism and selfishness, “the arts” are seen as a luxury extra, a waste of time and the realm of an effete, privileged and lazy elite.

    There’s a link between civilisation and the value it places on the arts. Look at classical Greece and Rome, Renaissance Italy and Flanders – even the arts in the Soviet Union were “supported” in more ways than one – and one of the few things that people in Eastern Europe remember fondly about communism is that arts and entertainment were plentiful and cheap.

    However, the point I’d like to add is that the people who make these financial decisions merely demonstrate their limited knowledge of what “the arts” or “culture” are or can mean. They just seem to be interpreting a line on their financial spreadsheet marked “the arts” as money for galleries, exhibitions, painting, music – all ends in themselves.

    They don’t see them as vehicles for other socio-economic objectives. They don’t see them as means to other ends. They don’t see them as cost-effective ways of, for example, involving socially excluded children in dealing with mental health problems through song (to think of a spurious example off the top of my head) that could save a lot of money on health bills down the line. They don’t see the arts as a way of improving the skills of the prison population so re-offending rates will reduce and save money on policing and trials down the line. There are countless ways “the arts” can be used as accessible and cost effective interventions in a myriad of public policy spheres: ironically, the budgets for “social care for children”, for example, could involve many projects involving “the arts” – do decision makers realise this and is there the same outrage at public spending? There may be lessons for how we budget for the arts.

    All that reports such as the one highlighted here achieve is to alienate the more educated section of the population who are involved with and active in the arts, and demonstrates the myopia, lack of imagination, and weak leadership of the decision-makers.

    The challenge is disseminating this headline to a more sceptical general public who no doubt agree with cuts like this as “luxury” and a waste of time.

    For an interesting case study, try a websearch for “THEpUBLIC” here in the West Midlands in the UK. The largest community arts initiative in Europe, it has faced a barrage of negative publicity, been bailed out countless number of times from its funders and is still not open – the lessons are immense in terms of using the arts in regeneration, and the impact on the chances of similar projects in the future ever getting the go ahead for another ten or twenty years.

  3. Emmaline Says:

    But there’s another issue here, and that’s the relatively huge investments from the federal government into cultural institutions located in Ottawa. I met several artists from the city years ago at a Canadian Conference of the Arts event, and their frustration with the lack of focus on Ottawa’s culture, versus Canada’s culture, was palpable. Does the municipal government feel investments in local culture are less necessary because of the federal presence perhaps? And how do artists make a convincing argument for further investment in regional theatre, local music ensembles and architecture when you have gems like the National Arts Centre, the National Gallery and – fingers crossed – a Portrait Gallery sometime in the future? For politicians looking to make publicly acceptible cuts to services, slashing investment in the local arts scene must look pretty safe. After all, Ottawa citizens have access to more professional arts events and experiences than pretty much anyone else in Canada. The cuts are still wrong for the long haul, but tempting for the four or three year term the elected are worrying about right now.

  4. Zoe B Says:

    Arts tend to flourish where the cost of living is cheap. So affordable housing programs are an indirect way to subsidize the arts. Ottawa arts are in double trouble if the budget cuts both arts and housing programs.

  5. ckstevenson Says:

    What do other suggest be cut instead? If you want your pet area of the budget to get funding, you have to pick other areas to be cut.

  6. Daniel Carins Says:

    ckstevenson, if you read back through my post, you’ll see that I’m advocating using “the arts” as a vehicle for addressing and delivering other policies, with a view to cutting costs on spending on other areas in the future.

  7. Kwende Kefentse Says:

    Great comments everyone,

    Mike L and Daniel Carrins make the same great point in different ways – the attitude towards the allocation of funds towards the arts is not approached with a systems perspective. Instead what we’re seeing is economic thinking that doesn’t seem to be able to see beyond its bottom line and into its future economic scenario.

    I can’t claim to have done an exhaustive study but just from my time here on the ground observing, Ottawa has a serious talent retention problem. I have personally seen it produce, and then let go more interesting, talented people than I can count. These cuts won’t improve the situation – they’ll exacerbate it, putting the city in a serious deficit for future citizens and administrations. The festival budget is an investment not only in arts, culture and heritage, but most importantly THESE ARE SERIOUS TALENT RETENTION TOOLS.

    Working for the paper over the summer, in looking at the list of interviews and acts coming up, the editor and I would continually look at eachother and say what the other was thinking: “wow…Ottawa’s impressing me more and more”. That was the buzz on the street as well – because Ottawa was actually bringing in the amenities of a world class city and making them publicly accessible in the form of festivals, the quality of life was tangibly increased. So much so I would tell some of the aforementioned abdicated talent about what was going on in the city and I’d often get the “Wow, are you serious? Ottawa? I kinda wish I was in there now” response. That’s relevant to the future talent base on the city.

    Emmaliane also makes a key point, which is something that I’ve observed from being here and working in a gallery that was not the National Gallery of Canada – this city can sometimes get it twisted re: its national arts infrastructure and its local arts infrastructure and forsake the latter for the former. It’s a pretty complex problem that I’m sure affects many capital cities and their local artists. I’ve been thinking about that one for a while and have come up with a few ideas – maybe that’s a post waiting to be made. Thanx for brining it up!

    Zoe, the relationship between arts and housing can’t be denied. That’s a major element of my current research. I’m trying to keep the posts on the brief side, but that is DEFINITELY another post to be made. Great observation.