Karl Schwonik is the president and artistic director of the Wetaskiwin Jazz Society, a former board member of the Alberta Foundation for the Arts and is currently a doctoral student in music at the University of Southern California.
Spring is upon us: graduations, final concerts and recitals and, of course, hockey playoffs. Perhaps not as riveting, but nonetheless important, it's also government budget season.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Liberal Party unveiled a federal budget last month that sees arts and culture gaining nearly $2-billion more in support over the next five years. Earlier this month, Alberta Premier Rachel Notley unveiled hers with the "Alberta Jobs Plan." Unfortunately, the province missed a golden opportunity to follow Ottawa's lead in supporting and prioritizing arts and culture.
A good portion of the federal increase in arts funding – roughly 30 per cent – is headed to the main public arts funder, the Canada Council for the Arts. The Council will receive a $40-million infusion this year, with projections of incremental increases in subsequent budgets. The new money represents an increase of just more than 20 per cent in grants to artists and arts organizations around the country for the current fiscal year. It also represents the beginning of what could be a transformational period for the arts in Canada.
Ottawa's good news comes with a caveat for Alberta, however. Its arts community receives disproportionately less funding from the Council, less than 6 per cent of total grants last year. This leaves a void that needs to be filled by the province and municipalities.
Alberta's NDP government pledged during last year's election, and in its fall budget, that money to our own arts funder, the Alberta Foundation for the Arts (AFA), would see a marked increase. It did not. In fact, it saw a flat line. If they were to have mirrored the approach of the federal budget, an increase would have equalled $5.8-million this year and brought the AFA's funding to $7.48 per Alberta resident, or just more than $32-million. Although this would be considerable in the short term, the AFA's total budget would still fall millions short of 2009-10, when it peaked at nearly $35-million. Surely numbers this small are far less than a rounding error in a provincial budget that has ballooned to well over $44-billion.
Why invest in the arts when Alberta is suffering from its greatest recession in 30 years? Because every dollar given to the arts yields a substantial return to the economy, more so than many other prominent sectors in the province. In a report published by the AFA entitled "Arts Impact Alberta: Ripple Effects from the Arts Sector," the research shows that each dollar invested garners an exponential return in the economy, not only in investment but also employment.
More than 22 full-time jobs are created for every million public dollars spent compared with less than three full-time equivalent jobs in many other sectors. Prioritizing the arts is an investment plan for jobs in Alberta and growth for the future.
Furthermore, the top two priorities of Alberta's cultural policy, The Spirit of Alberta, state that "Albertans, no matter their income, have the opportunity to experience culture" and that "Communities have the resources they need to support culture."
Given the aforementioned recession and the recent roll back of the federal Children's Arts tax credit, the arts are running the risk of becoming unaffordable for the average Alberta family. Organizations are receiving lower levels of corporate and personal donations and thus may see the need to raise ticket and program prices. Government should have reinvested in the AFA – not only to help organizations deliver the vital programs they offer but to ensure access is maintained for all Albertans.
Ottawa has set a precedent for the value and reinvestment in arts and culture. This needs to be emulated in Alberta. We have an inspiring sector full of brilliant artists and world-class organizations. The budget has missed an opportunity to ensure the sector can continue to thrive and that all Albertans have the opportunity to reap the benefits.