Friday, September 22, 2023

State of the Arts: The Problem with Public Arts Funding

As this year comes to a close, Beyond James is looking at the impact of the arts & culture community in the City of Hamilton. However, before looking at the impact, it is necessary to first consider the conditions under which artists and organizations make art. Past articles on this blog have placed attention on spaces opening and closing; leadership changes and renewals and what has been executed. In the coming weeks, Beyond James will be examining another key piece of infrastructure: arts funding in Hamilton.

This is part one of State of the Arts; a look at the municipal funding landscape in Hamilton, its opportunities and restrictions and how this compares to other municipalities in Ontario.

Funding for the arts in Ontario comes from three primary sources: self-directed revenue, which is the result of selling tickets, concessions or art itself; public support, such as government funding; and private support, such as sponsorships or individual donations. 

Traditionally, organizations with a longer history have been favoured by government funders, as they have had a greater opportunity to receive funding, and it is rare for organizations to receive a lesser amount year over year without a great reason (ie: significant financial or reputation loss, or government cutbacks, which means a decline for all). More often, even if an organization is threatened with a decline, no action may be taken if discussions are had with their local representative (such as a grant officer), or it may just be temporary.

As a result, the budget and amount received from government funding doesn’t change much year over year, which means that an organization that received ten thousand dollars in 2010 may still be receiving ten thousand dollars in 2020- even if the general cost of living has increased. The expectation is increasingly that arts organizations and artists will continue to do more with less. At the same time, the artistic landscape is growing, with new organizations coming into existence and looking to these government sources for their own financial support, but unable to break into funding opportunities, as the majority of dollars are unofficially promised from past years to pre-existing organizations that have previously applied and received funding. 

This may all start to change in the near future. A shift is recently occurring in larger urban centers (such as Toronto), whereas the diversity and impact of an artist or organization to their community is starting to carry greater weight in the scoring systems used to determine funding distribution. As a result of COVID-19, and the racial and financial disparities brought to light by the pandemic and events of 2020, artists and organizations can expect to see requirements from government funders that place an increased requirement on equity, which could effectively force many of the organizations and artists that operate under the “status quo” to dramatically change their policies and approach if they are to keep their current levels of funding. 

These changes are also the result of funders recognizing that there is a need to do more with less, and that new organizations and artists are emerging frequently. No longer does a city exist with just one theatre company, one orchestra, one major festival and one art gallery. However, without major modifications to the scoring system, it is difficult to justify a dramatic change in funding to those organizations who may have a long history of accomplishments, an established track record in a community and minimal change to its financial circumstances year over year. 

Thus far, there is no indication from the City of Hamilton that it is exploring or will eventually move towards this new model. The City’s most recent change to arts funding came in 2015, when Hamilton City Council voted to increase funding to the arts category of the City Enrichment Fund, the municipal granting process approved by City Council in 2014, and implemented ever since. In 2015, City Council increased funding by $500,000- the first such increase since municipal amalgamation in 2000. 

While increasing arts funding would typically be welcomed by the arts community, even this decision was contentious, as more established arts organizations encouraged City Council to maintain the status quo, rather than move towards a new system that could put their existing funding levels in jeopardy. Although the new model was ultimately adopted, six organizations continue to see substantial municipal funding of over $100,000 yearly- and five-year accumulated revenues of hundreds of thousands (or millions) of dollars, raising the question of whether such substantial funding is even necessary at this point. 

Regardless of the method used for distribution, arts funding is an investment in a community. According to a 2016 statement from the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, “arts, culture and heritage improve the ability of municipal governments to influence local economic development by attracting and retaining a skilled and talented workforce.” A 2019 indicator from Statistics Canada notes that arts and culture in Ontario directly contribute twenty-five billion annually to the provincial economy. Although continually expected to do more with less, arts organizations and artists are adept at turning government funding- investments- into greater dollars and a financial return on investment that would rival stocks or bonds.

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