Canadian cities are taking necessary steps to clean up their balance sheets, with the City of Toronto’s attempt to close a $774-million fiscal gap being the showcase example. But policy-makers should take special pause before undertaking an across-the-board approach that cuts arts grants. Throughout Canada, and across a wide range of disciplines, the arts are an economic driver and a source of excellence and cultural pride. They make city living worth the noise, the hassle and the gridlock.
A proposal being considered by Toronto would cut all grants of less than $10,000. That’s a very bad idea that would save very little money; sometimes the smallest grants produce the biggest returns. Consider the Stratford Festival (the renowned theatre festival in southwestern Ontario), the brainchild of Tom Patterson, who got a $125 grant in 1952 to travel to New York and meet the actor Laurence Olivier. (The meeting never happened, but Mr. Patterson’s other connections during his visit helped him build the festival.)
Or take the Toronto International Film Festival. TIFF generates an estimated $170-million in annual benefits for Canada’s largest city, and places the name “Toronto” on the minds of moviegoers from around the world – it puts Canada on the map. That seems to be a good return on the $800,000 in grants the festival got from the city government this year.
That doesn’t mean we can’t be inventive as we look to streamline government. More arts funding can be reallocated to independent, peer-reviewed agencies, while reducing grants to organizations chosen directly by public officials, as suggested by one leak from the Toronto Mayor’s office. Not all city-supported artists have to rely on the city to own and run arts facilities, some of which could be better monetized or sold outright. Public-private partnerships and matching programs can relieve some pressure on the public purse, encouraging arts companies to be more entrepreneurial. And it may be unfair to allow some artists to return to the well year after year.
In a time of austerity, it’s easy to focus only on a narrow view of what’s essential, and leave out everything else. Cities like Toronto need to restrain their spending, but attacking the arts isn’t the answer.