Toronto reeling from culture cuts

With a newly installed Conservative government closely following patterns set in the U.S., Ontario is weathering budget cuts at all government agencies. And the scalpel is being keenly felt in Toronto’s nonprofit cultural community.

Reaction is coming hard and fast: Faced with the loss of C$125,000 ($94,000) in grants at mid-season, National Ballet of Canada artistic director Reid Anderson resigned last month after seven years in the post (he serves out one more season before leaving). The Ontario Arts Council (OAC), the province’s cultural funding agency, has just chopped 25% out of its grants to the “big five” performing arts companies – the Ballet, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, the Canadian Opera Company and the Shaw and Stratford festivals. The cuts were prompted by the OAC’s own ’95 cut of 10%, to be followed in 1996 by another 19% hit.

But the mid-season ax is swinging everywhere. The Ontario Film Development Corp. is being cut by more than half ($4.9 million out of a total operating budget of $8.25 million), while its investment wing takes an additional loss of $1.3 million. TV Ontario, the province’s public broadcaster, is facing a cut of $937,500 million (out of a $61.5 million budget), as are the Royal Ontario Museum (a cut of $470,000 from its operating budget of $18.75 million) and the Art Gallery of Ontario (a cut of $356,000 from its operating budget of $18.4 million).

Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre may have a hard time surviving the cuts. The group receives around $375,000,45% of its total operating budget of $975,000. Its cut could end up as high as 30% by the time the new fiscal year begins in July.

“It’s hard to imagine making that up,” says general manager Mallory Gilbert. “Our fundraising goal is already double that of two years ago. We are here to do new Canadian plays and if we don’t have an audience because we have no money to build one, then there’s no need for the theater.”

Playwright Daniel Maclvor has cut the run of his newest play, “The Soldier Dreams,” presented by Da Da Kamera, a feisty, homeless alternate theater company. Maclvor has targeted the abbreviated run at investors in order to raise funds for future productions of the same play.

For some of Canada’s flagship performing arts companies, the cuts may mean slipping to second-class status after years of working toward – and in some cases, achieving – recognition in the international cultural community.

“We suddenly have ($360,000) less than last year and there’s nothing we can do about it in-year, or for that matter next year, because we have to plan so far in advance,” says Elaine Calder, general manager of the Canadian Opera Company. The company recently announced ambitious plans for a new $30 million opera house to be built by the year 2000. “We think we can go ahead,” Calder says. “But we’re going to have to design a period of transition that will get us through the next five years.”

Calder is angry that the council didn’t ask the arts community to help set priorities in the crisis. She’s not alone.

“We offered the OAC the assistance of our board,” says Christopher Newton, artistic director of the Shaw Festival. “Our members have contacts. The OAC should be setting up meetings with the boards of the big five in order, at the very least, to create a climate in which questions could be asked.”

The council, says Calder, “just choose their own solution and then ask us to fix it.”

But Gwenlyn Setterfield, the council’s executive director, insists the agency has set priorities and is doing what it can to help the community. Setterfield says the council board had few options when hit with a midyear cut equaling $3.15 million.

“The major institutions were receiving 22% of our grant money and we could not have found that much without taking a substantial amount out of those grants,” says Setterfield. “The actual cut to their budget was less than 4%.”

Setterfield also said there’s a perception that only the big five were hit, when in fact the cuts were far more widespread. Cultural institutions remain a priority, she insisted. The artistic directors and managers of the big five remain unconvinced, however, as do managers working in smaller Ontario theaters that have also been hit. And many feel that the current practice of giving out smaller grants to many diverse groups is no longer the best way to support the industry.

A hopeful note is the government’s decision to introduce legislation allowing some organizations, such as the council, to reorganize as Crown foundations, which automatically gives them a 100% tax write-off, making it easier to attract major donations. But finding this private money will take time.

“We recognize that a new public funding model for the arts is needed,” said Stan Shortt, managing director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, which lost almost $300,000 in the October cuts. “But we need time to develop new sources of private sector funding.”

And the Stratford Festival, which is in the black and has announced 11 shows for next season, two more than in 1995, proceeds without, according to artistic director Richard Monette, “any financial safety net whatsoever.”

Added Monette, “You can’t take a hit of this kind, let alone the one to come next season, and not have it seen on our stages.”

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