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B.C. art attack: Interview with Stop BC Arts Cuts' Lindsay Brown

Lindsay Brown is the founder of Stop BC Arts Cuts

Q. The Chair of the BC Arts Council recently resigned. What was your reaction?

Jane Danzo's resignation broke the logjam we've been stuck in for a year, so I was hugely relieved. She was a government appointee and she knows the premier personally, so her public stand against the Arts ministry was fairly explosive. It certainly won her the admiration of thousands of British Columbians concerned about arts and culture. Her letter of resignation protested two things: the government's unreasonably devastating cuts to the B.C. Arts Council, and its political interference in B.C. arts and culture.

It's worth mentioning here that on both points, B.C. is quite unique in Canada. No other province has made arts cuts like these, and many provinces have in fact increased funding. And compared to other provinces, the B.C. Arts Council has only ever had a weak version of a proper "arm's-length" relationship with government. Some have jokingly called it "wrist's-length." When the government eroded the last of the Council's independence, Danzo of course had little choice but to quit in protest. About two weeks after her resignation, undoubtedly partly the result of her resignation, the government reversed its cuts somewhat by re-allocating $7 million back into the Council. This is an inadequate amount, but at least it will help the Council save a number of organizations from collapse. The Council must now pressure government for a proper arm's-length relationship, and they need to get it in writing.

Q. Small arts and cultural organizations that have an incredible amount of institutional memory, 30 or 40 year histories, are facing a deep crisis with these funding cuts. What are some of the impacts that you are hearing about?

These small B.C. organizations are effectively the cultural archives of the province. They preserve B.C.'s cultural history and allow successive generations to build on it. We're not just talking about galleries and theatres but a wide diversity of community and regional institutions, including such things as small local museums. Cutting all of these community assets will have a devastating impact on B.C.'s self-image and cultural vibrancy. It's quite surprising that the government is so willing to jeopardize organizations which, despite their small size and overly lean budgets, have put B.C. on the map, held communities together, and attracted tourism.

As for current impacts, right now of course some organizations are closing their doors and many others are on the verge of closing. The survivors just shrink, producing less and less programming. Often the first things to be cut are those that produce the greatest benefits -- innovative and experimental programming, community outreach programs, free and affordable public programming, and cultural exchanges with regions beyond B.C. I hardly need to explain the importance of these things for B.C.'s cultural health. We are seeing the beginning stages of a cultural stagnation, and we know from history that this will have a stagnating effect on the social life and economy of the province.

Q. Are you worried that there will be an exodus of emerging artists from B.C.?

Oh yes, this is already happening. Within weeks of the first drastic cuts at the end of August 2009, I lost two of my smartest colleagues to other cities. They were extremely smart, rapidly-rising people in their late 20s. And this pattern has steadily continued over the year. The award-winning choreographer Crystal Pite left for Germany with her entire dance troupe, Kidd Pivot. There are plenty of opportunities for smart, innovative people elsewhere, and every time a centre closes or shrinks we'll quickly lose those people to places like Toronto and Berlin or London or anywhere with a more positive attitude toward creativity. Why would they stay here, working in Dickensian conditions and in an increasingly hostile climate? People have remained here for a long time despite lesser pay, because they like it here, but eventually enough is enough.

Q. How does the arts community plan to fight back?

We are of course using every strategy at our disposal. As they say, 200 mice can do more damage than one lion. Fortunately many new people have recently joined the fight and there's been surprisingly little attrition considering that everyone was overworked even before the cuts. We're organizing in every region of B.C. and finding ways to rally B.C. audiences, which of course number in the millions. One of the effects of decades of inadequate cultural investment is that many British Columbians simply aren't familiar with the sheer extent of their own culture, because funds to deliver their culture back to them have been lacking, so a lot of education has been necessary. We're talking to every one of B.C.'s MLAs directly. We're conducting letter-writing campaigns -- we crashed the Arts ministry's server last year with the deluge, and we will repeat that. We are producing public information about B.C. arts, running ads in major papers, producing videos, and many other things. To win a fight with government takes two years or more, apparently, and we're at the one-year mark.

Can I fight back right here? If readers want to help out, there are two easy ways to do that -- write a short letter to your MLA, telling them why B.C. arts and culture are crucial to you and your community. Don't laugh -- this works. And every British Columbian who cares about the arts should add their name to the membership list at Arts Advocacy BC. Right now AABC is offering memberships free so sign up and get all your friends to do it too. The larger the membership list, the more clout all of our groups will have with government.

Q. What would be an appropriate level of funding for the arts in B.C. to put it in line with other jurisdictions?

$21 per capita, minimum, and that's just to start. It's closer what Alberta and Ontario invest, while Quebec and Yukon contribute much, much more. Right now B.C. invests about $6.50 per capita, which not only makes us last in Canada, it makes us last by a disgraceful margin. The fact is, even if B.C. tripled its current annual contribution, we'd still be last in Canada. The national provincial average is $26 per capita which, by the way, is considered low by the standards of most western nations. B.C.'s goal should be to exceed that figure. Interestingly enough, even at this low rate BC is an extremely important player art-wise internationally (in visual arts, for example). Imagine what we could do with better funding. It would benefit the arts, it would benefit B.C.'s quality of life, and it would draw cultural tourism.

Q. What is your message to Tourism, Arts and Culture Minister Kevin Krueger and the provincial government?

I feel a bit like the Ghost of Christmas Past addressing Scrooge. For reasons that will become clear, I'll just address the premier. Mr. Campbell, I'd like to take you on a tour of all the top-quality BC institutions that your government, for no good reason, is starving. Arts funding is a microscopic portion of the budget, yet it provides British Columbians with access to their own culture. Arts are not just for the rich, Mr. Campbell -- but your cuts will make them so. I'd like to humbly remind you that your government's own reports clearly show that public investment in the arts actually fattens rather than impoverishes the B.C. economy, so why would you cut something as important as our own creativity? As it says on the $20 bill, how can we know ourselves in the slightest without the arts? Have you forgotten that the cultural sector and its spinoffs generate $5.2 billion dollars to the economy annually, of which you currently reinvest only a paltry $20 million? This means that the rest of our $5.1+ billion is used for things like health and education.

Therefore I would respectfully ask your government to stop saying that you can't support arts because health and education are more important. That's frankly nonsensical, Mr. Campbell. I'd also like to point out to you that every time you cut investment in the arts, B.C. not only loses its own culture, it also loses matching funds from the federal government as well as from foundations and private donors, and this means that your cuts hurt B.C. arts and the B.C. economy many times over. I'd like to reiterate that B.C. lags way too far behind the rest of the country in cultural investment, and I would ask you to stop making an example of the arts in order to justify your draconian cuts in other sectors. I'd also like to remind you that political interference in art is seriously frowned upon in a democracy.

Really, Mr. Campbell, cancelling excellent existing cultural programmes in favour of a ham-fisted government-invented series of festivals designed to commemorate the Olympics? Even you must realize this smacks of Leni Riefenstahl. And I'd ask you to advise Minister Rich Coleman that since most arts funding comes out of his Gaming fund, maybe he could stop denying the arts their promised share, especially considering the fact that Gaming was expanded in BC only through the support of the arts charities it promised to support.

And lastly, I would ask you to find us an individual who can negotiate with the arts sector in good faith. Minister Krueger has not only failed to go to bat for our sector, which is his job, but he has utterly failed to consult with anyone, he has threatened to respond to our inevitable yet polite pressure by hurting us further, has repeatedly quoted Christian scripture at us in meetings (do we not have separation between church and state, Mr. Campbell?) and has described a number of prominent senior BC artistic directors, who met with him politely on the topic of our total demolition at his government's hands, as threatening him like "junkies waving needles." By anyone's standards, these things more than constitute grounds for his removal from this portfolio, let alone from caucus and from office. We conduct ourselves professionally and as B.C. citizens we demand to be met with professionalism in return.

Q. Anything else?

I'm a 4th generation British Columbian, and I'd rather not leave the province if I don't have to. But we're on the verge of losing something here that has taken many decades to build, and things are looking pretty bleak in the arts. Starting from scratch might sound like a fresh idea, but historians have a name for that cultural phenomenon -- "The Dark Ages." No one wants to search for some sign of cultural life amidst the open pit mines and the casinos.

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