It was déjà vu all over again (almost) at the Mayor's Arts Lunch Thursday in a downtown Toronto ballroom. Mayor Rob Ford had indicated the day before he was going to attend the annual awards event. But since his life has been rather fraught of late, only Ford really knew for sure.
As ever with things Ford, two cards were placed at each of the place settings for the more than 300 attendees as they took their seats. One was the mayor's foil-embossed business card, the other the now familiar fridge magnet with his name, position and phone number in bold blue, white and red. Last year the crowd of artists, arts administrators and educators, philanthropists and city councillors encountered these same cards and wondered if they were a sign he would be attending or a sign he would not. Ford, after all, had missed the first arts lunch he was eligible to attend, in 2011, because he was coaching the Don Bosco Eagles through a football game. However, Ford did actually show.
Expectations were, in fact, high Thursday for a repeat return performance. Susan Crocker, chair of the Toronto Arts Foundation, which puts on the lunch, told the crowd she'd heard he was en route from City Hall. Moreover, since Ford has indicated he's trying for a second term in 2014, the luncheon seemed the perfect opportunity for a token reach-out to an important, albeit wary constituency, similar to the reach-out he did to LGBT voters at the flag-raising ceremony Monday for Pride Week.
Sure enough, at 12:15, Ford entered the ballroom and took his chair at table six, positioning himself between Robert Foster, investment banker, philanthropist and co-chair of the civic arts and theatre task force Ford created in 2011, and Foster's wife, a power in her own right as chair of both the National Arts Centre and York University. Among the other diners at the mayor's table, noshing on pan-seared Arctic char (sustainable, of course), were Crocker, actor Eric Peterson and former Trillium Foundation chair and Luminato sparkplug Helen Burstyn.
As he did last year, Ford stayed anchored at this table for the next 60 minutes, leaving only briefly to read a "best-wishes-and-God-bless" encomium to the arts from the stage. However, with the Fosters at his sides, he appeared more relaxed than last year, largely eschewing the skyward gazes that often are a hallmark of his public appearances.
"We had a wonderful time," said a smiling Julia Foster after. "At this point, we're feeling very proud of the accomplishments of his administration in the cultural community … So this was a celebration for him, to come here, to be with the cultural community."
Foster was referring to council votes taken earlier this year that saw an increase in per capita arts spending to $25 and a $4-million hike in the grants budget of the Toronto Arts Council, thanks largely to the mini-windfall provided by the so-called "billboard tax." City council also approved a $1-million increase, to $7-million, in its direct annual support of the "Big 10" cultural organizations (they include the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and the Art Gallery of Ontario).
However, as Rita Davies, former executive director of the city's cultural services division, noted, Ford has not been entirely "consistent" in his affection for the arts. Of the 35 votes cast in the cultural organizations initiative, Ford's was one of just three against. Meanwhile, it's been almost a year since Davies resigned from her directorship, with no permanent replacement named. Similarly, the Mayor hasn't filled the arts adviser vacancy created in late 2011 when National Ballet School head Jeff Melanson left for the Banff Centre.
Davies felt Ford's Thursday appearance was less an act of personal volition – "It's not his natural area of activity" – than the result of "some people who are advising him strategically." She said she was "worried" what the impact the Ontario government's decision to "move out of [the city's] operating budget" may have. "Is that going to be an opportunity [for Ford] with respect to the arts, 'We can't afford what we did in 2013?'"
Winning the Toronto Arts Foundation Emerging Artist Award was playwright/actor/poet Daniel Karasik, while choreographer Denise Fujiwara took the Muriel Sherrin Award for international achievement in dance, Art Starts the Arts for Youth Award and Sun Life Financial the Toronto Arts and Business Award. The $10,000 Rita Davies and Margo Bindhardt Cultural Leadership Award was shared by Robert Foster and Che Kothari.