The scope of our impact

by Jini Stolk

“How the arts helped kill off the NEA — by trying to play the conservative “economic value” game”. The title alone of this piece caused me a few sleepless nights.

It’s a cri de cœur from arts advocate Matt Burriesci who’s facing up to the reality “that the NEA and the NEH as we have known them are likely to be completely dismantled in the next 24 months…” (Or sooner ) How have the arts been complicit? “…because we, as cultural leaders…have spent far too much time articulating the economic and ancillary benefits of our disciplines and not enough time actually building and serving the culture.” Nor communicating that “The arts and humanities have value because they make us better human beings.”

A grave cautionary tale, for sure. But I wonder if our problem in Ontario isn’t that we’ve spent too little time articulating any of the benefits of the arts? The provincial government hasn’t provided an increase to the Ontario Arts Council’s $60 million annual base budget since 2009. The OAC receives $4.29 per capita compared to $13.33 for Quebec’s provincial arts funder. Not the best way, I’m afraid, to develop a “creative economy” – one of our government’s stated priorities – nor to “create jobs and growth”.

It’s unlikely we’ll see any unexpected announcements in 2017, but thankfully the arts community is gearing up to press for increased funding in the 2018 pre-election budget. Cheers to the Provincial Arts Service Organizations (PASOs) for taking on this important leadership role. Here are my hopes and dreams for a year of successful advocacy:

The true value of the arts – that they are the highest expression of humanity, that they touch and change hearts and minds, that they are the best way to stir empathy, compassion and understanding – is understood by millions of people. They should all – board members and audiences, school kids, teachers and parents – be encouraged to become our Champions. Letters, phone calls, emails, and personal communications from Ontarians who love but don’t earn their living from the arts would be a powerful underpinning to the direct advocacy of a.s.o.’s, arts organizations and artists.

But once you’re in a meeting with an elected official you need a range of facts, statistics and arguments to secure their support. Of the many politicians I’ve met with over the years:

  • Some are devoted to the arts, understand their impact and are willing to work on our behalf. They’re energized by hearing from their constituents and want facts and figures to help persuade their colleagues.
  • Some appreciate the arts personally, but are afraid that supporting them will put them off-side with voters. (I suspect this describes many members of the Ontario government.) Their spines can be stiffened by hearing from voters, and by cogent arguments about the arts’ contributions to tourism, the economy and jobs.
  • Some have nothing against the arts, but feel it’s an issue that lacks “urgency.” A groundswell of support would increase urgency, and this sort of politician will be open to arguments about inclusion, equity, youth and community development through the arts.
  • Some feel that government shouldn’t prop up a sector not supported by the market; they don’t want to fund the playtime pursuits of snobs and elites. U.S. politicians who’ve been trying to defund the NEA and NEH fall into this category – and we shouldn’t forget that there are and always have been Canadian examples. Would a public outcry give them pause? It’s worth a try.
  • Last but not least, it’ a rare politician who wants to deny their own children or grandchildren the opportunity to be inspired by the arts. Arts education is our secret weapon, one we use too rarely and not well enough.

Even though we prefer to be valued for our profound impact on people’s lives, it’s important that we don’t underestimate or dismiss the economic and social value of what we do. Ontario’s cultural sector is 4.1% of Ontario’s GDP, contributing $27 billion a year to the Ontario economy. This is larger than agriculture, forestry, fishing, and hunting ($4.8 billion), mining, quarrying, and oil and gas extraction ($6.2 billion), accommodation and food services ($10.8 billion), utilities ($11.4 billion), and transportation and warehousing ($21.5 billion). In 2010, there were 301,100 jobs directly related to culture industries in Ontario in 2010, or 4.5% of total employment. Far more is done by the province to support sectors with smaller economic impact providing fewer jobs.

I would love to see a provincial version of Toronto Arts Facts,which has been successful in detailing the economic and social value of the arts to Toronto, and Toronto Arts Stats, which has been equally successful in detailing the population’s wide support and involvement in the arts.

I would also love to see the Ontario government put their money where their “creative economy” mouth is and provide an appropriate, generous increase to the Ontario Arts Council in next year’s budget.

Other readings:

Why art matters to America? By Thomas P. Campbell, the director and chief executive of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

How to block Trump arts cuts

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