Home     Content     Articles      La Scena Musicale     Search   

La Scena Musicale - Vol. 14, No. 2

The Arts Get Political

by Andrew Budziak / October 13, 2008

Election time usually means increased government spending, but this year Canadian artists have been baffled by the recent Conservative cutbacks. The end of the summer saw $40.47 million in cuts to the arts and cultural budget.

The Tories have largely remained mum on the issue but artists and political candidates from other parties have attacked the Conservatives’ decisions. NDP candidate Anne Lagacé Dowson and Liberal MP Michael Ignatieff spoke to LSM about the cuts, and why they think the arts community deserves better.

Ignatieff’s Toronto riding of Etobicoke-Lakeshore may not seem like a hotbed for artists, but between the factories, high-rise apartments, and industrial waterfront are some of Canada’s most important artistic centers. Two of the most well-known are the Sean Boutilie School of Ballet and the jazz program at Humber College, both boasting a long list of internationally accomplished alumni. Ignatieff spoke out loudly against the cuts on behalf of his riding.

“It’s artistic freedom that really matters,” he said while campaigning on Queens Avenue in Etobicoke-Lakeshore’s south end. “The government needs to stop politicizing art.”

Anne Howland, a spokesperson for Foreign Affairs Minister David Emerson, said the Tories were irritated that Canadian funds were supporting a band with an obscene name. Juno nominated Toronto band Holy Fuck, received $3000 from PromArt, to tour the U.K. The grant program, which offered $4.7 million annually, was part of the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. It helped artists promote and market their work abroad.

“It’s the overseas cuts that bother me,” Ignatieff explains, referring to PromArt, and Trade Routes, a program which supported organizations such as Hot Docs and helped independent record companies export and sell products abroad. Trade Routes and PromArt were two of the first programs to be cut. Both programs offered grants for travel and promotion collectively totalling $13.7 million each year.

In the weeks following, several more programs were slashed, including the Canadian Memory Fund, New Media Research Networks Fund, New Media R&D Initiative, A-V Preservation Trust, the Canadian Independent Film and Video Fund, and the National Training Schools Program.

The cuts were made quietly during the August lull, weeks before the October 14 election was called. The first few cuts were announced by a small notice on the programs’ websites, and the Conservatives refused to comment. This lack of transparency has launched a wave of debate.

“The way these cuts were made was outrageous,” said NDP candidate Anne Lagacé Dowson in an interview in a small garden behind her Westmount-Ville Marie headquarters. “They didn’t announce them officially, they put notices up on websites during the Olympics and the summer vacation. It was very backhanded, and lacking in moral courage,” Lagacé Dowson said.

The announcement posted on the Trade Routes website read “The Government of Canada, through regular reviews of all program spending in federal departments and agencies, is committed to a more disciplined approach to managing spending in order to deliver programs that are efficient and effective and that meet the priorities of Canadians.” The PromArt website contained a similar message.

The cuts sparked protests from artists and art lovers across the country. Alongside rallies in Montreal, Quebec City, Toronto, and Vancouver, arts groups have voiced their discontent. One such group is the Professional Association of Canadian Theaters (PACT). Their website provides free Election Kits with templates for post cards, letters, and fliers protesting the cuts that can be sent to MPs.

Eventually, Stephen Harper did speak publicly about the cuts, claiming they were a result of good governance. Lagacé Dowson described the way the cuts were made as “gutless.” “If you’re going to take a hard line on these issues, then be transparent about it,” Lagacé Dowson said.

“The cuts go to the heart of [the Tories’] approach to government intervention in the arts: they fundamentally disapprove of it. They don’t understand the way art as culture is generated,” said Lagacé Dowson.

Harper has tried hard lately to shake this image. In a recent interview with the Globe and Mail, he spoke of his love for piano. Harper completed his grade 9 piano examinations from the Royal Conservatory of Music and occasionally performs at parties.

Lagacé Dowson is not convinced. “The Conservatives seem more concerned with building up military and strategic alliances than pushing forward on an agenda of cultural diplomacy,” she said.

Cultural diplomacy is a long-standing tradition of the Canadian arts community, and Lagacé Dowson cited the example of Glenn Gould’s 1957 tour of Soviet Russia. Gould was the first Western musician to perform in Russia since the Second World War. He left Canada as a well-known Canadian musician, and returned as a worldwide sensation. Gould’s tour was made possible by a government grant. These are the opportunities Canada is losing with the cuts, Lagacé Dowson said.

Besides international resonances, Lagacé Dowson and Ignatieff agree the arts are a profitable investment inside Canada. A recent document published by the Conference Board of Canada reports that the Canadian cultural sector directly contributed $46 billion to the economy in 2007. Indirectly, the contribution was $84.6 billion, which represents 7.4% of the GDP.

Compared to the $4 billion spent on arts in Canada in 2007, $40.47 million may only seem like a drop in the bucket, but when investing in the arts a little goes a long way.

Visit: www.federalelection2008.scena.org for ongoing coverage

(c) La Scena Musicale