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Reaping Without Sowing: Government Support for the Arts in NL

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Newfoundland and Labrador’s Transportation, Culture, Industry and Innovation Minister Christopher Mitchelmore loves the arts. He is very excited about all the wonderful work being produced in this province by its artists, and he cannot wait to share their stories with the world.

This is wonderful. Unfortunately, Minister Mitchelmore seems to have some trouble listening to stories from local artists when they’re directed at him.

Spearheaded by playwright Robert Chafe and director Courtney Brown, local artists last week organized a letter-writing campaign to the provincial government looking for an increase in funding to ArtsNL.

“[ArtsNL is] the only pot of funding, really, that exists in the province [and] that goes directly to working artists to start the product that will actually fill the theatre, fill the CDs, fill the film halls, that kind of thing,” Chafe told the CBC. “The cultural programming in the province wouldn’t exist without it.”

ArtsNL funding has stagnated as costs rise, at the same time as more and more groups are competing for smaller pieces of the pie. Current funding for ArtsNL sits at roughly $2.1 million, with $1.6 million in available grants. The letter-writing campaign pushed by Chafe and Brown would see overall funding increased to $5 million over the next three years.

But if local artists are struggling, it’s news to Minister Mitchelmore. When questioned in the House of Assembly by NDP MHA Gerry Rogers about ArtsNL funding, Mitchelmore was quick to deflect by noting that the government has made a number of investments in end-stage cultural infrastructure like theatres, publishing, and gallery display spaces. He then went further and suggested that artists feel so supported in the province that many have migrated here specifically for the purposes of creating art.

As it turns out, this was news to some of the artists Mitchelmore cited in his own defence.

When pushed on Twitter to name some of the creative professionals seduced here by the province’s allegedly lavish arts funding, the minister offered up local author Sharon Bala as an example. (This conclusion appears to be based on a 2017 Central Voice article that ran substantive corrections on their reporting of Bala’s comments.) The Minister then took a trip to The Rooms and began posting the biographies of individuals who had arrived from away but became celebrated local artists (like Philippa Jones or the late Collette Urban), presumably as evidence of the art that flourishes here thanks to government stewardship.

While ministerial promotion is always welcome, some of the artists cited by Mitchelmore were compelled to supplement his public comments. Sharon Bala wrote that she saw “fire engine red” after hearing Mitchelmore tote her as a government success story, calling his tweets an “absurd” diversionary tactic: “the fact is that funding to artists via grants has been steadily declining over the last 7 years.”

Likewise, when she was celebrated on Twitter by the the TCII minister as one of NL’s great contemporary artists, Philippa Jones was quick to remind Mitchelmore that she has to work two jobs to support her craft because direct funding for artistic production is so dire.

For his part, Mitchelmore is unfazed by the criticism and assures us that the provincial arts and culture industry remains a top priority for his government. He did not have a whole lot to say, but he did have lots to say it with. (As to whether his conflation of infrastructure funding at the end-point of artistic distribution with funding at the starting-point of artistic production is deliberate, we hazard no guess.)

The Independent caught up with him at the House of Assembly yesterday for some clarification on his comments this week. What follows is a transcript of that conversation.

Drew Brown (The Indy): Hi, Minister. Yesterday [March 20] in the House the issue of arts funding came up. You referred to $20 million of spending across all programs on arts and culture. According to Robert Chafe, the industry is worth about $450 million. You referred to arts funding repeatedly as a grant, but tax breaks etc. going to something like Canopy Growth as an investment. I’m curious about that phrasing.

Christopher Mitchelmore: Well I have responded to Dr. Chafe because he had written me, and I had clarified there has been no money that has gone to Canopy Growth or Biome. But we certainly value the arts. I had said in question period yesterday that the cultural industries here in this province are 5,000 people employed generating $450 million to GDP is quite significant. And this is why the department of TCII invested over $20 million in our cultural industries. We have a very strong economy when it comes to Newfoundland and Labrador and this is why we’ve seen increases in investment in the arts such as the Film Development Corporation. We see two additional million dollars in the Film Equity Program because the industry has been seeing growth there and we’ve been able to have our highest year in production value of $50 million last year and over 650 full-time equivalents. So we are investing in the arts. That’s why we created the Status of the Artist legislation to highlight the value of the arts and payment for professional artists. We are also committed to renewing our cultural plan and we’ve consulted extensively with artists and practitioners and the industry to ensure that we are able to deliver on a renewed cultural plan for a creative Newfoundland and Labrador.

Brown (The Indy): Right. Actually, on the question of the cultural plan, the EngageNL website quotes from “The Way Forward: Realizing Our Potential” and says that the government will release its cultural plan by the 31st of January 2019. Do you have any update on that?

Mitchelmore: We’ve lead consultations and had public consultations extensively throughout the province. We had initially set our target for January 31st. That time has since passed but we will be releasing our cultural plan in the coming weeks.

Brown (The Indy): Can you give me any particular reason for the delay? All the data from the consultations is posted publicly online and they seem to have concluded by the end of May 2018.

Mitchelmore: So well, there was an advisory committee that was struck. We meet with all disciplines in the industry. We have a number of engagements with the entities that are within the department and across departments to look at the cultural plan and make sure that what we are delivering is certainly meeting the needs for the cultural community. We’re also looking at various components of how we can use various spaces throughout the province and how we’re making investments there to provide venues for artists and then other entities like The Rooms Corporation. The Rooms Corporation has just announced that they’re renewing the Indigenous Artist in Residence program. That’s something that’s really positive.

We will release our cultural plan. We’re looking forward to that in the coming weeks. We want to make sure that we don’t do something in haste.

Anthony Germain (CBC): Just to be clear on Drew’s question, can you explain why it is that you weren’t able to make that end of January deadline?

Mitchelmore: It’s a matter of a number of initiatives that are put forward with government. We continue to work with our stakeholders and timelines. This is a high priority item for us and we want to make sure that when we release our cultural plan that we certainly get it right. It’s very interesting to see the diversity that exists here in our arts community and I appeal to people to certainly be patrons of the arts and to support the arts because it’s very important to all of us.

Brown (The Indy): How would you characterize the feedback you’ve received from artists during these consultations? You went on the record yesterday, and yesterday evening, in suggesting that there’s a lot of support for the cultural funding that’s currently in place. Is that the feedback that you’ve been hearing from artists in your consultations, that things are more or less going pretty good?

Mitchelmore: Well, I attended some of the consultations that was held throughout the province and I certainly meet on a regular basis and speak with artists. I was in Port Union and just seeing what Port Union is doing in partnership with the Department of Advanced Education, Skills, and Labour, and what they’re doing to create artist-in-residence programs and spaces, and studio space, gallery space, an after-school program bringing arts to rural communities, is all very important.

I’m listening to, and working with, the industry. When Dr. Robert Chafe wrote me, I also highlighted that I was more than willing to meet with him. And I had spoke to the Arts Council as well to see what solutions exist in terms of looking at other partnerships that exist as well. There is an arts endowment fund which I’m not sure many people know about, but it will allow those who want to gift or bequeath investment into the arts to put it into this endowment fund, and they’ll be able to fund an artist for life. These are things that we should be able to get the message out more to encourage further investment in the arts. It’s important to all of us whether it’s government at the provincial, municipal, and federal levels, or the private sector, as well as the community as a whole, to continue to invest in the arts.

Brown (The Indy): Just one final quick question. So Wednesday evening on Twitter you went to The Rooms and showcased a number of local artists. You were suggesting that because there’s been so many people who moved here and found success in the arts, that this sort of indicates that the arts support in place is currently working. What do you make of the artists themselves, like Philippa Jones, responding to you saying that she has to work two jobs to pursue her craft and that more direct funding for the production process of art is necessary?

Mitchelmore: I think it’s very important that there is a variety of supports that exist for artists in the creation and production. We need to look at municipal supports as well as provincial and federal supports. There’s the Canada Council for the Arts that has increased funding entities. The Rooms is a real incredible space, and for artists to be able to display at our premier cultural facility is very important.

The Eastern Edge Gallery where Philippa Jones works is very important as well, and they’ve received an increase in Canada Council funding. So it’s great to see where the federal government has stepped up as well in that area. We recognize that for those who work in the arts, not everybody is able to fully work on their career as an artist and that sometimes there is some supplemental income that will be needed. I know that in my own personal life, I’ve had to hold multiple jobs and we want to strive to where those who are passionate and professionals in their fields are able to work in that space.

We want to make sure that our artists are fairly and and duly compensated so that they are able to pursue the arts here in Newfoundland and Labrador full-time. But I have received stories and firsthand remarks from individual artists who highlight how supportive the ecosystem here in Newfoundland and Labrador is for the arts. You know ArtsNL is a very important entity and they do great work and also the provincial government also supports the arts and we must continue to do that. I’m more than happy to work with the artists that are out there, to continue to hear what they have to say and work with them to advance artists here in this province.

[This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.]

Well, there you have it. The future of the arts is looking bright. Majestic theatres and spacious galleries to showcase whatever you’re able to cobble together out of federal pocket change in the spaces of free time between shift work. We can only hope that the province’s new cultural plan—whenever it finally appears—will take its arts and culture mandate more seriously than the minister.

Perhaps it will also take less creative license with what artists themselves actually have to say.

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