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B.C. artists conflicted over Olympic funds

When Vancouver's Olympic Organizing Committee officials reveal which artists they've lined up for the upcoming Cultural Olympiad, it's a safe bet Matthew Good's name won't be on the list. Nor will he take the stage at the opening or closing ceremonies. The Vancouver musician has told his managers that he wants nothing to do with the Games.

"I think it's utterly shameful for anyone, any artist in this country, to participate in an event like this and get paid to do it," says Good.

Good takes issue with the Games over the burden on taxpayers, a referendum on whether to bid for the Winter Olympics that only allowed Vancouver residents to vote, the participation of professional athletes and the difficulty people who live in the region will have getting around.

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"The whole thing's a gong show, really."

In Vancouver's arts community, there are a lot of mixed feelings these days about the Olympics. There has been talk of boycotting the Cultural Olympiad since the recent announcement of deep cuts in B.C.'s funding for the arts - primarily through the cancellation of gaming grants.

In a submission to Vancouver city council last Thursday, the Alliance for Arts and Culture revealed that 44 per cent of the arts and culture organizations that received the grants last year didn't get them this year. And the Alliance claims that provincial cuts to arts funding will total 92 per cent by 2011-12.

While it is impossible to say that arts funding has been cut because of the costs associated with hosting the Olympics, that perception is definitely out there, says Radix Theatre artistic director Andrew Laurenson. So there has been a lot of hand-wringing in the arts community over whether to accept funding from Games organizers.

"I think there are some ill feelings about taking the money to perform during the Olympics, knowing that it's, as one of my friends said, costing future generations. Ethically it's sort of a troubling situation," Laurenson says.

In a recent newsletter to the theatre community following the announcement of 70 new projects for the 2010 Cultural Olympiad, Laurenson posed this question: "As an artist, how can one proceed with Olympic-funded opportunities ... while feeling conflicted about perceived wrong-doings around Olympic funding?" His advice: Hold your nose and take the money. "Accept the work (there's a family to support), do the best work possible (don't lose integrity as our leaders seem to have done), but in the process speak out about the cuts as much as possible," he wrote.

That's what Scott Watson has decided to do. The director/curator of the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery at the University of British Columbia is incensed at the recent funding cuts (they do not directly affect the Belkin), and has written to Premier Gordon Campbell about it. But he has happily accepted a "handsome amount" from VANOC for the exhibition Backstory: Nuu-chah-nulth Ceremonial Curtains and the Work of Ki-Ke-In, which is scheduled to open in January.

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"I don't think it would be productive to [boycott the Olympiad]" Watson says. "It's cutting off your nose to spite your face. It's more or less like announcing you don't need the money - not a good strategy in this case." When funding sources are drying up, it's difficult for groups to turn down any infusion of cash. "We couldn't do the project we're doing without that grant," says Watson.

So there isn't widespread support for a boycott, and VANOC officials don't appear worried. "I understand the frustration in the community, but I think the community by and large completely recognizes this as an extraordinary opportunity and that the Cultural Olympiad, the Games in general, present a great moment for B.C. artists, for Canadian artists and for international artists to share their works or their creations and to be out there on the stage," the Olympiad's program director Robert Kerr says.

Good, whose new album, Vancouver, will be released next month, says artists shouldn't need the Olympics to showcase their work. "The reality is, if you're an artist in this country on your merits, you should be able to do what you do. ... Why do we need this for the promotion of anything? This country's had such an inferiority complex with regard to its arts for so many years. What, we need the Olympic Games, which last two weeks, to try to impress upon the world that we've got great art?"

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