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Proposed cuts to the city of Ottawa's upcoming budget are threatening to close down museums, galleries and music festivals and threaten an "art attack" on the nation's capital, critics lament.

"What they're proposing would just be devastating," said Lawson Hunter, chairman of the Ottawa Art Gallery. "It will just be horrendous for many, many arts programs."

The city of Ottawa is embroiled in a nasty civic uprising over its sweeping cuts and opposition to Mayor Bob Chiarelli's call for a three-per-cent tax hike. Hundreds of angry citizens calling for a third consecutive tax freeze stormed the city's chamber councils earlier this week to boo down councillors.

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The tax-freeze movement finds itself pitted against members of the arts community who are banding together to fight council over proposed cuts. The proposed budget would wipe out funding for 28 major festivals, fairs and events.

Critics of any cuts charge that arts spending in Ottawa is among the lowest for a municipality in Canada, at $3.89 per capita. A report by Toronto's culture division last year found that Vancouver spends $17.71 per capita; Montreal tops the list at $26.62; Toronto spends $14.64.

The proposed cuts in the budget, to be voted on March 24, would reduce Ottawa's funding to 57 cents per capita, opponents say.

But Mayor Chiarelli, who is facing tremendous public pressure to spare tax increases, said in an interview yesterday that he is doing all he can to ensure the city is a hub of arts and culture. "I'm the best friend they have on council, okay?" he said. "The people from the arts community who are going and saying that 'the mayor is doing this' are misrepresenting, and they represent a minority of mean-minded people who are trying to play politics with it."

He was also critical of the arts-and-culture campaign -- which organizers have dubbed an "art attack," and has involved fundraisers to protest the cuts -- for not being vocal enough. "If they didn't get their act together and animate council and animate the public, I could not generate the votes on council to restore them."

Hunter said that cuts to 100 per cent of the city's $175,000 in funding to the Ottawa Art Gallery could threaten to close that institution's doors. He said the gallery, which has a $1-million annual budget, would have to "go dark, as they say in the art world."

Among other things, the gallery oversees the city-owned $11-million Firestone Collection, featuring 17,000 pieces, including Group of Seven paintings.

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"Supporting the arts is important. It's important for the quality of life," said Hunter. "To devastate the arts programs of the city, in our view, is not in the best economic interests of Ottawa."

If the cuts are approved, the Ottawa International Writers Festival will have to close its offices and scale back the annual event by half, to five days. "I'm outraged," said Artistic Director Sean Wilson. "It is very frustrating. We generate millions for this economy and we're putting Ottawa on a world stage."

Wilson said the proposed cuts in the budget would result in a 100-per-cent cut to the festival's $18,000 in annual funding.

Mayor Chiarelli said the city is under growing fiscal pressure and that a no-tax increase scenario will mean there will be "a lot of blood on the floor." He said the city has already eliminated $30-million in administrative cuts, and cut 750 jobs.

"It was a very mean budget quite frankly, a very ugly budget that I have very strong concerns about personally, but the cuts were across the board," he said. "They were in social services, they were in recreation, they were in arts and cultures. . . . It was not zeroing in on arts. It was, 'If we're going to have to make service cuts, they're going to be across the board.' "

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