IN MY OPINION:
We have a growing education, experiential and life-satisfaction deficit.
By Jeffrey Spalding
You might say Calgary’s experience last year as a Cultural Capital of Canada ended not with a bang or a whimper, but with a flash mob. Even a $5.8-million infusion of federal arts funding gave cultural patriots little to cheer. From the outset, Calgary 2012, the non-profit organization that oversaw events, decided to use funding to attract and convert new audiences, spreading project money to many individuals and non-arts agencies in an attempt to engage every neighbourhood and every citizen. Calgary 2012 was enamoured with its staging of September’s giant lip-dub event, where thousands pantomimed the folksy 1971 Stampeders’ song, Sweet City Woman, posted on YouTube. But others grimaced and averted their eyes.
Calgary 2012’s populist game plan was one approach; we could have usefully debated the merits of others. Would flagship events, a legacy or a capital component have had more impact? The impulse to reach out to those who do not normally include art in their lives is commendable. However, it also requires balance, lest serious professional content is overturned on behalf of a citywide block party. If some villagers lament: “Your citizens have no art to see,” the retort might have been: “Let them eat cake.”
Let’s hope the Calgary 2012 plan engaged new arts supporters and inspires more arts funding on a continuing basis. And we can be thankful many art groups received modest funding boosts last year. Despite its shortcomings, the Cultural Capitals funding was a boon to the 42 communities that received the designation since the program began in 2002. Yet, it is itself a victim of federal budget cuts; the government announced last year the entire program was being cancelled. Bad enough if the one-time funding was simply icing on the cake. But sorry, Marie, there’s no cake either.
What happens now? Across the country, arts institutions are under siege; some are battling for their existence as they make deep cuts to core programs. Two anchor art schools – the auspicious and historic Nova Scotia College of Art and Design University as well as the Alberta College of Art and Design – face tremendous financial pressures; in Halifax, it’s a fight to stave off amalgamation or closure. Anticipating a $2.5-million deficit, the National Gallery of Canada recently eliminated 29 staff positions. Newfoundland’s museum complex, The Rooms, lost 13 positions in response to a $1-million provincial funding cut. The deficit problems that vex Calgary’s Glenbow Museum are legendary. Now joining the troubled waters are the Art Gallery of Calgary and the Museum of Contemporary Art Calgary. Staff reductions, service cuts and exhibitions fewer in number and more modest in ambition are the result. The Art Gallery of Alberta has run operating deficits since its new building opened in 2010. It has reduced annual spending by $800,000 and, thankfully, Edmonton city council provided $1.1 million to eliminate the accumulated deficit and increased its annual allotment by $500,000. While institutions tinker with cost reductions to stay afloat, the well-intentioned advice from the outside is fairly consistent: Save yourself. For instance, Edmonton city council wants the AGA to bolster its bottom line by upsizing retail sales. Others advocate gallery rentals or blockbuster exhibitions to drive admissions. Good luck. We’ve already tried this Hail Mary; frankly, it doesn’t work.
Face it, if you want vital public art museums, then the public has to pay for them, period. Quebec does it. Europe does it. In fact, most of the world does it. The Louvre has just opened a new 150-million-euro branch plant in the former coal-mining town of Lens in northern France, and has two new branches under construction, one in Abu Dhabi. But in Canada, one of the world’s most prosperous and privileged nations, we apparently want a free lunch.
Governments here have to understand that dollar deficits are not the only shortfall. We also have a growing education, experiential and life-satisfaction deficit. If this isn’t rectified, Canada can expect a cultural brain drain. Many talented artists from Western Canada have already established double residencies in Europe. Who can blame them? We’re certainly not bringing the best of the world here.
With these dour prospects it’s encouraging news that New Zealander Gregory Burke has been appointed as the new director of the Remai Art Gallery of Saskatchewan – already solidly financed as the Mendel Art Gallery. The combination of the new building initiative with ambitious endowment plans, plus the coup of landing an internationally renowned curatorial force, bodes well. We can look forward to some sizzle from Saskatoon.
But what is the appropriate model for other Canadian cultural institutions? There isn’t one size that fits all. But any successful model has to start with stable and accountable operational funding, freed from the vagaries of stock markets and political whim. It works in Quebec and it works in Saskatchewan. It’s time for a re-think elsewhere. And it’s up to all of us to speak up and help our politicians take bold actions.
Jeffrey Spalding, artistic director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Calgary, is an artist, a curator and a member of the Order of Canada. He has worked as a museum director and is past-president of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts.