The rough guide to Canada cultural funding cuts

At the request of good friend and audioblogger joshuavt.com, I've put together a quick and dirty guide to the Government of Canada's recent funding cuts in the cultural sector. If you're an artist, or work/volunteer in the arts community, you've probably been hearing a lot about these funding changes. And no doubt, one or several of your Facebook contacts have gone "faceless for the arts" in protest. But what's it all about? First of all, it's important to understand what exactly has been cut. The erased funding totals over $60 million and includes the following programs. I've grouped these by the type of artist affected:

Literature/Print:

  • Book Publishing Industry Development Program ($1 million)
  • Canada Magazine Fund ($500,000)

Music:

  • Canada Music Fund - Canadian Music Memories Component ($150,000)

Film/TV:

  • Canadian Independent Film and Video Fund ($1.5 million).
  • National Training Program for the Film and Video Sector ($2.5 million)
  • Northern Native Broadcast Access Program ($2.1 million)

New Media:

  • Canada New Media Fund ($14.5 million)

Everyone:

  • Culture.ca and Culturescope.ca ($4.36 million).
  • Trade Routes ($9 million).
  • PromArt ($4.7 million)
  • Audio-visual Preservation Trust (cut $150,000).
  • Canadian Culture Online ($5.64 million)
  • Canadian Memory Fund ($11.57 million)
  • Canadian Arts and Heritage Sustainability Fund (Stabilization) ($627,000)
  • Canadian Arts and Heritage Sustainability Fund (Capacity Building) (cut $1.8 million)
  • Canadian Arts and Heritage Sustainability Fund (Endangered arts organizations) ($500,000)

So what's the upshot? Operating funds for arts organizations through the Canada Council and similar agencies are still more or less intact (for now), with the exception of the Canadian Arts and Heritage Sustainability Fund. So, if you run a theatre company or are an individual artist that gets federal funds, you're probably safe for the time being. The elimination of PromArt and Trade Routes will make it harder (ie: impossible) for Canadian artists to receive Government support to travel abroad and for the purposes of promotion, education or exchange. But, as the ever awesome Michael Geist points out, the biggest impact will be on Canada's e-culture and digitization strategies. A lot of the cuts are aimed at organizations that are moving Canada's cultural heritage online or into digital archives, so it will be a lot more difficult to Canadians to access home-grownn music, art, literature and a host of other cultural products online. And for those older treasures that have not yet been digtized, they will continue to languish in fragile and inaccessible physical mediums.

So why is the Government making these cuts? Part of it is ideological, and the majority is practical. Neo-conservatives a la Harper and friends tend to believe that if an art form or artist can't survive in the market, then public funds shouldn't be used to support it. In addition, many have suggested that the elimination of PromArt and Trade Routes is a form of de facto censorship. Conservatives claim these programs supported "marginal and offensive" artists, and therefore an inappropriate use of tax dollars. Critics have responded that these "marginal and offensive" artists are really just individuals who disagree with the Harper Government's policies. A fair point, but one that is prone to overstatement.

The real reason for these cuts come to down to money and political expediency. Conservative tax cuts have pushed Canada dangerously close to a budget deficit, so the Government needs to find ways to trim costs. The Conservative voter base is non-Urban and, by extension, have lower levels of educational attainment and income. So, they're not that interested in the arts, particularly art they consider "elite" or inaccessible. The Conservative Party can thus cut arts funding with very little political consequence. The arts community is just not politically powerful enough - both in terms of size and financial clout - to influence policy in this area. Harper can easily transfer funds from the arts to ward off a politically dangerous deficit, and slush some money into far more popular programs, like support for amateur athletics.

For all the worried artists out there who read this blog, let me say this by way of closing: relax, things aren't as bad as they seem. Unless you were planning a government-sponsored international trip or are a proponent of digitization, then the short term impacts will not be severe. However, the big question mark is whether the cuts are over, or if the announced $60 million is just the thin-edge of the wedge. More cuts could be coming, and these are likely to be the ones that start to erode basic operating and support funding.

How do we stop more cuts? Facebook advocacy is a good start, but it won't carry the day. The arts community needs to start making a better case for public dollars. It's not enough to take the importance of the arts for granted. Artists need to make a nuanced economic and cultural argument for arts funding that speaks not only to other artists, but to everyone in Canada. Unless you can meaningfully articulate the need for more theatre to a farmer in Alberta, it will be difficult to maintain arts funding in the current political environment. And with a looming global economic crisis, that funding will be more important than ever.

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