The City of Vancouver secretly approved a bailout of more than $1-million for the struggling Vancouver Playhouse Theatre and the Museum Of Vancouver (MOV), and will provide an annual operating grant to the theatre company, which had been facing bankruptcy without the emergency help.
“That’s absolutely fantastic,” artistic managing director Max Reimer said shortly after learning about the operating grant on Friday. “I feel terrific.”
At an in-camera meeting in June, council agreed to forgive a Playhouse debt of $426,888 to the city, and to provide an emergency one-time grant of up to $400,000. In April, also at an in-camera meeting, the city agreed to provide a $100,000 emergency grant to the Playhouse after it was denied a grant from the Vancouver 125 program. At the time, staff also undertook an “urgent review” of the situation at the Playhouse.
“What was a very, very clear message was that if the Playhouse didn’t exist, there would have been a significant impact,” city manager Penny Ballem said on Friday, the day the in-camera reports were made public. “It’s a very important platform for the growth and support and nurturing for the theatre performing arts.”
The troubles at the Playhouse were the result of a number of issues, including a decrease in donations during the recession; a cut in provincial funding; the new HST; and a complicated Olympic-related move that left the company with a much higher bill for rent than it had expected.
The lack of an operating grant from the city was also a significant problem, said Mr. Reimer, who has been advocating for the funds since he joined the Playhouse in 2008.
“We are the only not-for-profit major theatre that doesn’t get operating funding [from the city]and I wanted to correct that,” Mr. Reimer said, noting that The Arts Club Theatre Company receives $155,000 annually, and The Firehall $70,000.
“In our research that we did,” Ms. Ballem said, “it became very clear that resident theatres – and there’s not many resident theatres left in the country – but the existing ones, they get opportunities for rent and an operating grant.”
Under the new arrangement with the city, the Playhouse now receives rent-free office space and more access to the theatre space, which Mr. Reimer says has been extremely helpful.
At the June meeting, council also agreed to provide a $300,000 cash advance to the MOV, $110,500 to be paid immediately to “address a severe short term cash flow situation.” The money is to be repaid next year through a reduced cultural grant.
The remaining payment of just under $85,000 for the MOV’s 2011 operating grant was also moved up by four months.
In the June council report, the city manager notes that both institutions had been hit by the economic downturn. Calling it “a serious situation in terms of financial viability,” the report also states “it is clear that our granting programs and overall approach to the cultural sector is lacking a strategy to ensure that our major institutions are able to be successful in the current environment.”
On Friday, Mr. Reimer defended the fact that the financial decisions were made behind closed doors, noting that there were concerns about upsetting potential donors and other arts groups in the city, who may have been worried about what the changes might mean for them.
“We didn’t want to upset the ecology,” Mr. Reimer said.
However, even he did not know that the operating grant he has sought for three years had been approved until late Friday.