Sunday, May 22, 2022

Opinion: Arts Funding Shines A Light on Collective Values

It was only two months ago that the arts landscape felt different. Theatres, galleries, and concert venues were able to open their doors to full capacity, and while many were cautiously moving forward, there was a sense of hope. This optimism- however brief- was much needed from a creative sector emerging from close to two years of closures, cancellations and disruptions. 

Creative workers were among the first to lose their jobs during the pandemic, and some of the last to get back to work. Yet the pandemic highlighted our collective reliance on creative industries to sustain us, nurture us and to support us through one of our toughest challenges. From online concerts, to streaming platforms and digital classes, creativity and the arts gave an outlet to confusion and fear, and continued to bring people together; even when physical togetherness wasn’t possible.

Arts, culture and creativity play a vital role in Hamilton- and Ontario- in activating our cities, communities and regions. They bring us together; they help us make sense of, make humour from, or momentarily forget the world (and its related challenges) around us. They are an indication of the strength of our economy. Innovation, creativity and critical thinking- all traits that flourish in a strong arts sector- are also key components of a diverse, strong and resilient economy. In short, the arts and creative sector gives us all a meaning and purpose.  

This is why it’s so important that governments support the creative sector and provide certainty so that arts workers and organizations can plan ahead with confidence. 

To this extent, the Ontario Arts Council, at the start of the pandemic, provided additional funding to a number of its previously-funded and established organizations. However, it was made clear that the funding provided would impact the current fiscal year for those artists, collectives and organizations. For many, this provided a safety net to allow them to hibernate or creatively adapt their plans according to the ever-changing regulations. However, as restrictions continue into new seasons, there are no additional funding or support announcements in place. 

The City of Hamilton, in the introduction to their cultural policy and plan, acknowledge the importance of the creative sector by stating “culture transforms cities, fosters open, tolerant and innovative communities and makes a significant and positive impact on a community’s quality of life.” And while the City worked with a number of arts funding recipients in their last round of Enrichment Funding, the discussions didn’t result in increased funding for either year that the pandemic may have impacted. 

And for those without funding, their fate is based on their individual circumstances and ability to withstand regulations and conditions. For venues like The Staircase, which announced their closure earlier this month, an entire neighbourhood loses a gathering space; numerous artists lose their creative and physical home. 

Whether those individual artists or organizations will emerge elsewhere is still unknown. However, all of them- and for that matter, all those that called The Pearl Company, This Ain’t Hollywood, and Artword Artbar home- whether large, small, established, new or otherwise, share a common trait in that they all reflected and celebrated Hamilton in all of its unique, diverse talent and creativity. They are crucial to a strong, resilient and healthy local arts sector. 

Through the investments we make in arts and culture- either through donations, public or private funding, or ticket revenue- we enrich our society with currencies beyond just money. The value of art and creative experiences is immeasurable, and makes up our collective identity and memory. What value do we put on that? 

The Ontario Arts Council recently established an Indigenous Arts Support program, a four-million dollar grant program that will support the artistic practice and career development of First Nations, Inuit and Metis aspiring and established professional artists working in customary, traditional and contemporary art forms, as well as organizational development for Indigenous arts organizations and collectives. Although a one-time project support, the fund recognizes that we will never achieve our potential as a nation until these voices are heard. 

Municipal, provincial and federal funders set the tone for what the priorities should be as a city, province or nation. The past two years have made our collective reliance on the arts- and the resilience of artists and creative workers- more known than ever before. And yet public funding beyond one time supports hasn’t changed.

Government support provides certainty through uncertain times. It’s a stable base from which creative entities can create new work, employ artists, push boundaries and connect with audiences both physically and digitally present; enriching all of our lives in the process.

The creative drive, ideas, talent and work of Hamilton’s creative community show us there’s plenty to be optimistic about as we move through this next stage of the pandemic. But a strong foundation and community support is needed to ensure that there is something for audiences to return to. 

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