Sunday, September 19, 2021

State of the Arts: Are Actions Speaking Louder than Words?

An ongoing series, State of the Arts is a look at the municipal funding landscape in Hamilton, its opportunities and restrictions and how this compares to other municipalities in Ontario. 

Miss the introduction to this series? Part one provided an overview of the historic funding landscape and how public funders are evolving to recognize artists and groups with diverse visions and increased community impact.

Part Two looked at four organizations that have substantial accumulated surpluses- or deficits- and the impact of significant amount each receives from the City of Hamilton annually.

In 2019, the City of Hamilton approved a total of $2,773,742 of funding for arts and culture grants over four categories; operating funding; festival funding; capacity building and creation and presentation. In that same year, a total of 88 applications were received for funding consideration totalling $4,629,414. The difference between what was funded and what was not was almost $2 million dollars.

The majority of funding distributed in the arts in 2019 was for operating funding, which represented $2,437,364; or 88% of the total funds approved and was distributed to a total of thirty-two organizations. While this may seem like a lot, over 50% of these funds ($1.26 million) was given to only two organizations. An additional $483,700 was distributed to another three organizations. The rest of the funds- just under $700,000- was shared amongst the remaining twenty-seven successful applicants.

In the City of Hamilton’s Enrichment Fund, organizations that apply for one stream of funding (such as the operating stream) are not automatically disqualified from other streams. For example, Culture for Kids in the Arts received funding in the operating stream, as well as additional funding for specific activities in the festival stream and capacity building stream. 

Traditionally, operating funding should assist in the day-to-day overhead of moving an organization forward in their mission. The reporting structure between a grantor and grantee often requires that an organization not fall into an accumulated deficit of over a certain percent of their operating budget. At the same time, organizations must be careful to not report a substantial surplus as it would suggest the funding may not be needed from that source and they could see future reductions from that funding source- meaning that there may be less available to them in times of difficulty. However, building an accumulated surplus can also mean greater flexibility and the ability to increase investment into the organization’s mission. When an organization is able to apply for other streams of funding, as is the case in the City of Hamilton, they are able to receive support for their day-to-day administration, while still having the ability to take on special projects or activities to advance their mission.

As noted above, and as examined in part two of this series, the majority of the funding distributed by the City of Hamilton’s Arts Enrichment Fund Operating Stream is received by only five organizations, who received a total of $1.7 million in 2019. This left twenty-seven other successful applicants splitting the remaining $700,000 collectively. If divided evenly, this would mean that five organizations receive over $300,000 each, while all others receive roughly $25,000 in order to maintain their annual operations, including paying staff and executing ongoing events and programming. This type of dramatic division suggests an inequity in the system, or a hierarchy amongst who receives what funding locally.

The dramatic difference between the amounts received from the City and types of programming that are more successful could be attributed to several reasons. The most obvious is that the organizations receiving higher funding are those considered long-standing cornerstones of the arts and culture community. This would be supported by the actions of 2015-when city funding was amended, many of these groups received significant increases in funding, although not all of them grew their operations to match the substantial increase. However, for this theory to be believed, while also considering the continued importance placed on the arts and cultural sector as an economic driver of the City of Hamilton, the continued funding of these organizations at their 2019 levels require re-examination into the priorities of the City of Hamilton as an arts incubator, rather than one that maintains the status quo. 

It is also likely that the City of Hamilton bases each year’s funding amounts on the previous year’s level, as well as the City’s budget context. While this formula is familiar and offers a degree of certainty and stability to organizations year-over-year, it does not allow opportunity for new organizations to grow or develop the status and scope of longer-standing organizations; even if these new organizations are more responsive to community needs or represent a strategic direction or interest of the City. This too requires a more careful look at the implication and expectations of the arts and culture sector to the City of Hamilton, which has noted its support of, and commitment to assisting local artists.

The 2016-2025 strategic plan as approved by Hamilton City Council notes arts and culture as a priority. Specifically, that the desired outcome of having culture and diversity as a priority results in Hamilton being a “thriving, vibrant place for arts, culture and heritage where diversity and inclusivity are embraced and celebrated.”

Over the past decade, the City of Hamilton has developed a regional reputation as a place for artists and creators to live and work. Additional funding of $500,000 was provided in 2015, with the hope that it would fund additional organizations and artists in the city. When the 2015 funding results were presented, this was not executed as imagined, as those organizations that received the largest boosts to their funding were also those that were the most established- some receiving increases of over $100,000 compared to their past city grants. 

At a time when the City of Hamilton has declared that a vibrant arts and culture community is a priority, and as the City evolves artistically and culturally at a faster pace than other parts of the country, Hamilton’s artists and creators- at all levels- require additional resources  to meet the demands of the evolving city that is becoming increasingly diverse. Maintaining the status quo of arts funding is not the way to make this happen.  

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