Lessening the cultural divide between the downtown arts core and Toronto's outer neighbourhoods will be a key focus for mayor-elect Rob Ford's new special arts and culture adviser.
Jeff Melanson, the executive director and co-chief executive of Canada's National Ballet School, was invited by Ford's administration to take on the newly created job, making him the point man between the arts community and the new mayor. It creates, what one insider described, as a "unique," structured approach, replacing outgoing mayor David Miller's various ties to the arts community.
Mr. Melanson himself has said that his role will be to translate the arts' interests to the mayor. He sees one of his main tasks as looking into why many, including Mr. Ford's power base in the suburbs, may feel excluded from the city's arts scene.
"For people in Toronto who don't feel that they are part of the arts-and-culture community, why is that? Why are they feeling disenfranchised or disconnected?" he said.
"This notion that because somebody is in a different postal-code area, they're just not an arts person - that's just completely bogus. That's just not true. People are consuming content, creating content, and we just need to figure out a way to engage the city. I see that as my fundamental role."
Inevitably, Mr. Melanson, who was given the job after a meeting with Toronto arts organizations Tuesday, will have to address doubts among many in the arts community that culture is a priority for Mr. Ford, with his promise of stopping city hall's "gravy train."
Rita Davies, city hall's executive director of culture, is happy to see what she describes as an unusual, positive step by Mr. Ford, and she expects to work closely with Mr. Melanson and the mayor's office. "I saw it as a signal from the mayor-elect that he is reaching out to the arts community, which I think is a very positive signal. And there is an understanding [with the new mayor]of the role of that sector in city-building."
Another positive sign, she and Mr. Melanson noted, is that the city's arts budget for 2011 will remain stable.
"The mayor confirmed [this week]with a small group of arts organizations that there will be no cuts to arts spending in the next year's budget," Mr. Melanson said. "I think the very fact that he is appointing me and meeting with the arts community before he becomes mayor, any question that we may have about his intentions with arts and culture should be somewhat mitigated by that."
He added that he had no connection with Mr. Ford's camp prior to his appointment. The job is also unpaid.
Mr. Melanson added that it is still being worked out what his job will exactly entail, such as the amount of time he will meet with Mr. Ford, although he believes he will be involved in policy discussions. However, he added that "any new initiatives that are undertaken - government funded or not - you probably won't see until January of 2012, because next year's budget cycle starts in five or six weeks."
Mr. Ford learned about Mr. Melanson - a former jock, who had a background in music and opera before receiving an MBA and entering into arts administration - through an article in Canadian Business magazine. The piece emphasized Mr. Melanson's focus on shoring up the National Ballet School's finances through closer ties with the private sector, as well as teaching business know-how to the school's students. It's an emphasis on self-reliance rather than government dependence.
"I sit on one American arts board that has helped equip me to understand a little bit about what that model looks like. We're not talking about heading to the American philanthropic model at all. But it's interesting to look at a country in the context where government funding is much less," he said. "Obviously there are interesting lessons to learn in terms of municipal incentives going forward."
He recognizes the need for the arts to make its case for funding more clearly not only to government, but to the private sector.
"There are clear limitations to what the city can do. Government is a player. But I think, disproportionately speaking, private-sector earned revenues are the key drivers of our future growth."
Emphasizing pragmatism, Mr. Melanson said it doesn't benefit the arts community to put up an antagonistic front and not to reach out to the new administration. "This whole notion that we've created - that Rob Ford is anti-arts - is just untrue," Mr. Melanson said, noting that Mr. Ford has sat on the board of the Harbourfront Centre. "It doesn't really help our sector to convince him that he is [anti-arts]"
Again, Mr. Melanson returns to a call for pragmatism: "We can't afford to be a partisan sector. And frankly, no political party can opt out of arts and culture," he said. "Arts and culture is like breathing. It's like education, it's like health care, it's a fundamental."