Creative Cities

On October 13, an estimated 20,000 Haligonians crowded the streets of downtown Halifax and Dartmouth to see and enjoy Nocturne. The evening’s array of hugely diverse and engaging art is the kind of thing that makes Halifax a wonderful place to live and work.

More generally, Nocturne spoke to the importance of having a vibrant and thriving arts community in our city.

Admission to Nocturne was free, so it needed other sources of funding from donors, corporate sponsors, and governments. This is true of almost all arts activities that are collectively experienced. In 2011, professional arts organizations received $3.8 million from the provincial government and $2.6 million from the federal government. Both have left their arts budgets unchanged at a time when many other areas are being cut. Corporations contributed $3.3 million. By comparison, the city provided a paltry $222 thousand in cash.

(HRM also claims credit for $415 thousand because it does not charge property tax to Neptune Theatre, which of course is vastly more than it costs to provide civic services to that location. Such exemptions are standard practice for regional theatres across Canada.)

Because cities do not all do their accounting the same way, it is difficult to produce exact comparisons. But by almost any measure, Halifax’s funding is extraordinarily low. One report done for the city of Hamilton shows an embarrassing comparison.

Cities per capita funding arts & culture

(Graph sourced from Report on Findings from the City of Hamilton Arts Advisorn Commission's Arts Funding task force, May 2012)

This is not about subsidizing poorly attended concerts by the Black Eyed Peas. Nor is it about worthy areas such as recreation or museums, which deserve separate consideration. It is about supporting the uniquely expressive activity that is art, especially art which provides shared experiences that strengthen the community. A painting that will hang in a private home may not qualify. A painting in a public gallery could, as would presentations of theatre or dance.

On October 15 candidates for the municipal election were invited to a discussion of municipal culture policy. All five mayoralty contenders were there as well as a number of candidates for council, mostly from the peninsula. An additional number have also participated in an online poll. The overall tone was supportive of improved financial support to the arts and a casual listener would come away optimistic about improvements after the election.

Unfortunately, Halifax is also identified as having high residential and commercial taxes so there is not much room to grow revenues. Finding another $1 million for operating grants should be possible—a huge increase that would still leave us well below the national average. But money for new facilities, and agreement on what they should look like,  will be harder to come by. Getting to a satisfactory place will require elected officials to work with the arts community to make the necessarily difficult choices.

Artists are not well paid. But that is not by itself an adequate argument for providing financial support. As they did at Nocturne, artists must demonstrate how their work, at a practical level, helps our city be a more interesting and fun place to live and work. If the elected officials are willing to engage with artists on this basis it will create the foundation of a winning argument for funding.