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In the tiny hamlet of Rosebud, Alta., jolly old St. Nicholas is having an existential crisis. Navigating his sleigh through a fog of clouds, the tired old man in the fuzzy red suit is trying to get on with his thankless job. He's stuck in a rut and seriously thinking about calling it quits. Then, during the midnight sojourn, his path is diverted by a humbug miser, a choir of angels and some hyperactive reindeer who help him rediscover the true meaning of life as a protector to those in need. St. Nick's Magical Mystical Mystery Tour, a collection of stories and songs about a man named Claus, is an original holiday production currently onstage at Rosebud Theatre, Alberta's largest rural theatre company.

It's also an apt analogy for the state of the arts in Alberta, which find themselves at a crossroads in the wake of last weekend's Progressive Conservative leadership election. After nearly 20 years of being shut out in the cold, arts and culture have finally found their way back onto the political agenda: During the election campaign, three candidates made increased government arts funding a priority in their platforms.

Which can only be a good thing, say those in the arts and their supporters. Despite its flush of oil revenues, Alberta currently ranks 11th out of the 13 provinces and territories in its per capita funding for the arts. The budget for the Alberta Foundation for the Arts, an arms-length granting agency now housed within the Ministry of Community Development, has remained stagnant at about $20-million for 18 years.

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Ed Stelmach, the sleeper candidate who slid up the middle to become the Conservative leader, was not the arts community's first choice. The new premier-designate hasn't said he will increase the AFA's budget, and he did not mention arts and culture at his press conference on Monday.

He has, however, promised to increase the Alberta Tax Credit for private charitable donations. And his proposed Community Spirit Program would match donations, from a fund of surplus royalties, to any non-profit organization, including arts and cultural groups.

Earlier this week, Alberta's cultural development became part of the national conversation after it was announced that the National Portrait Gallery may be going to Calgary. Now, many of the province's artists, cultural leaders, concerned citizens and corporate supporters -- the proponents, in short, of a more vibrant and better-funded cultural community -- are wondering what this enigmatic farmer and former cabinet minister is going to do on a strictly provincial level.

Will it be the same old story of want and apparent ignorance? Or will Stelmach grab the reins, embrace the arts and become a patron saint who delivers miracles (or at least a few presents)?

"He really is an unknown quantity," says Gillian Steward, editor of AlbertaViews, a magazine with the motto, "Leading the political, social and cultural debate."

"Nobody, myself included, can remember anything he said and did while in cabinet," says Steward of the former transportation minister.

"I'm told he's a very nice man and very bright and very competent," says Tom McCabe, president of TheatreCalgary and the unofficial leader of various arts groups who threw their support behind Jim Dinning, the Tory candidate who had promised to double the budget of the Alberta Foundation for the Arts and create a premier's advisory committee.

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"I suppose the mood is one of resignation," says Michael Hope, assistant principal bassoonist for the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra, who had urged his colleagues to buy a PC party membership and to vote. "However," adds the musician, "the really encouraging thing is that for the first time ever, the arts were an issue in a political campaign. Perhaps this is a launching point for a significant transformation in Alberta. If the government recognizes the value of the arts, maybe the business community and the population will follow, and the province will become a friendlier place for artists than it has been."

So who is this man who could become king of the artists? Steady Eddie, as his friends call him, was raised on his family homestead near the village of Andrew (pop. 500), 105 kilometres northeast of Edmonton. There's a story, recounted with much myth-making fanfare in the Edmonton Journal this week, of how Stelmach sacrificed his dream of law school to help his elderly parents run the family farm after his older brother died. And how he quit university and bought the homestead from his parents, so that his brother's orphaned children would receive an inheritance.

Today, he sings in the choir at the Protection of the Blessed Virgin Mary Krakow Ukrainian-Catholic Church, as does his wife, Marie, and helps care for the church cemetery. Edmonton author and filmmaker Fil Fraser, for one, sees hope in Stelmach's strong ties to the Ukrainian community and in his pioneering roots, which go back to 1898, when his grandparents settled in Andrew.

"The Ukrainian community has been a very strong cultural force in and around Edmonton," says Fraser, who has written extensively about its multicultural influence on the development of the province's heritage policies in Alberta's Camelot: Culture and the Arts in the Lougheed Years.

Fraser's book is an ode to the leadership of former premier Peter Lougheed, who created a program of matching grants, similar to what Stelmach is proposing, that allowed the arts to flourish from the early seventies to the mid-eighties, when oil revenues were also gushing.

Fraser, former chief commissioner of the Alberta Human Rights Commission, would like to see Stelmach increase the government funding of the arts. But he also points out that support for arts and culture can't get much worse than it was under Ralph Klein, whose government folded the Department of Culture and Multiculturalism into the new Ministry of Community Development, began winding down the matching-grants program, and dismantled a number of funding agencies with a determination that, he says, was "almost gleeful in its bloody-mindedness."

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Damian Petti, president of the union that represents stagehands and technicians in the Calgary-area film and TV industry, says he's encouraged by comments Stelmach made during the election about the importance of the arts for attracting people to the province.

"Now that we're on good financial footing, it's time to reinvest in arts and culture," Stelmach told the Journal, pointing to the film industry as an example. "This is an industry that is really valuable because it diversifies our economy."

"There are still a lot of unknowns, but it does seem to be a shift," says Petti, who was part of a group that found it impossible to get the Klein government in gear. He noted, as well, that Alberta does not have a labour-tax credit, which has helped other provinces attract high-budget foreign productions.

Meanwhile, Edmonton Arts Council executive director John Mahon says that he isn't overly impressed with Stelmach's Community Spirit Program, which would only follow corporate initiatives. "It doesn't show leadership. . ." he told a reporter this week. "It doesn't support new work and risk."

There are other stakeholders, however, who have more confidence in Stelmach. "He gets it," says Ken Chapman, an Edmonton-based consultant, who in the early eighties was almost single-handedly responsible for the creation of SummerFest, the umbrella organization that co-ordinated Edmonton's pioneering summer festivals, including the Fringe, the Edmonton Folk Festival and Jazz City.

"He's not going to be a great attendee at the ballet or opera," predicts Chapman, "but he has a definite appreciation for how arts and culture and heritage are fundamental to quality of life."

Chapman also notes that Dave Hancock, a Tory candidate who promised even more arts funding than Dinning, threw his support behind Stelmach after falling off the first ballot. (Chapman wrote Hancock's cultural policies).

"[Stelmach]doesn't see arts and culture as a frill or an add-on, but as something that is highly important in attracting people in the development of a value-added economy," Chapman says. "He will be developing a comprehensive plan. It won't happen before Christmas, but it will happen sooner than most people think." At least, that what those across the arts community are left hoping this holiday season.

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