As difficult as it can be to muster enthusiasm for municipal procedures, I have to admit to keeping a close and eager eye on the City of Hamilton’s current 2015 Budget Process. After four years of research, consultations and countless presentations to City Council, we have a formal request on the table for an additional $500,000 in arts funding to bolster the new City Enrichment Fund. It took a lot of digging and an assist from Tourism & Culture staff to find the right bit between two massive PDFs so here’s the relevant page for ease of viewing:
Given how long local arts funding has been flatlined by municipal indifference – this is the first proposed increase to arts and cultural spending in about15 years – even this modest first step towards closing the yawning gap between Hamilton's arts investment and that of similar Canadian cities comes as very good news. Unfortunately, the timing could scarcely be worse in the context of what’s already shaping up to be a taut negotiation to cut costs in favour of addressing Hamilton’s notorious infrastructure deficit.
We’re also entering these budget deliberations while dragging along the shadow of recent announcements from provincial and federal arts funders – those who have been providing significant funding to Hamilton artists and organizations while our municipal programs remained stagnant and inaccessible to new initiatives. The Ontario Arts Council has been the first funder of many new projects in Hamilton but five years of receiving no additional funding from the Province of Ontario has finally taken its toll. In their own words:
But after several years of stopgap measures, such as the use of reserve funds that are now depleted, we are out of options. If OAC grants were to continue next year at the same level as this year, we would have an unsustainable $1.6 million gap between revenues and expenditures. To address this, OAC plans to reduce all operating grants, and all project program budgets, by five per cent starting in 2015-16.
Representatives of the OAC came to Hamilton (among other communities province-wide) to personally explain these developments, which went a long way towards recognizing their efforts to both minimize the damage of these cuts and keep the arts sector moving forward. A portion of the funding gleaned out of all those programs by that 5% cut - $500,000, to be exact, in a telling parallel to what could come to pass here in Hamilton – has been earmarked for the sole purpose of providing long-overdue increases to operating grants for organizations whose exceptional performance has not been matched by additional funding, while another $500,000 will be reserved for new and emerging artists.
Reassurances aside, these reductive measures from the OAC will create an even more competitive climate for accessing provincial funding for the arts, one that will no doubt be further exacerbated by the Canada Council for the Arts’ more nebulous forewarnings of a new funding model in the works. Simon Brault’s announcement at this week’s Annual Public Meeting was thin on details, but we do know that the Canada Council intends to reduce its existing portfolio of 142 to somewhere around ten through a process of simplifying programs into non-disciplinary categories that will be developed and announced later on this year. While it’s difficult to envision what the Canada Council will look like once these programs are implemented in 2017, Simon Brault’s references to the Australia Council for the Arts and their new grant model may provide a telling glimpse of the future of arts funding in this country.
So what does this mean for Hamilton? With resources dwindling at both the provincial and federal level, it will become increasingly necessary to seek support from within our own communities, from those who know our work best and have first-hand experience of its positive impact. This will mean a stronger push to expand audiences and repeated calls to become more entrepreneurial in how we operate – no matter the corrosive epidemic of a society that doesn’t want to pay for arts and culture, as Elizabeth Renzetti so compellingly reminded us this week at The Globe and Mail. Now more than ever, Hamilton needs to take the opportunity to lead a charge to invest in the arts community it wants for its future.