As ArtsNL funding crisis deepens, province’s arts organizations fear for their future

Several of the province’s arts organizations are in a bind after ArtsNL—the body which adjudicates grants and disburses provincial arts funding—has cut their funding over what the arts organizations say are very minor errors in online reporting forms.

Last week the Folk Arts Council—which puts off the annual Newfoundland and Labrador Folk Festival, one of the province’s premiere music and culture festivals—learned that the second and third years of a pre-approved three-year funding grant had been cancelled due to reporting errors. They have since announced they’re suing ArtsNL over the decision, since funding was supposed to be guaranteed for three years and they say minimal effort was made to alert them to the reporting discrepancies.

Wreckhouse Jazz and Blues Festival and Gros Morne Summer Music have also had their funding cancelled, and on Tuesday the provincial arts and culture magazine Riddle Fence made a public statement announcing their funding was also cancelled, and calling for a review of the decision.

What irks the arts organizations is that they say minor administrative errors are being used as an excuse to cut funding which arts adjudication bodies have deemed important and necessary for the province’s arts and culture fields.

The NL Folk Arts Society lost $44,000 in sustaining funding. They acknowledge that errors were made in the reporting software, but don’t feel it merits cancellation of their grant.

“Normally you would have an opportunity to go back and make corrections, right? I mean that’s the normal course. But this year [ArtsNL] took a very hard line and if it wasn’t a hundred percent on the deadline then too bad for you,” says John Drover, president of the NL Folk Arts Society.”

Heavy-handed administrative decisions demand too much from volunteer-run groups, arts organizations say

Provincial arts and culture magazine Riddle Fence also lost their funding because of an administrative reporting error. Board member Emily Deming Martin says the group acknowledges errors, but says the online reporting software is very confusing and since their board is comprised of volunteers, they had to interpret the questions on the forms as best they could. She said they also haven’t been able to figure out precisely what errors they made since they can’t see on their end what was rejected. She said they’d hoped ArtsNL would work with them to help them understand the reporting software and allow them to correct any errors they may have made, but Arts NL has taken a hard line and cancelled the remaining two years of their grant. The Riddle Fence board wrote a letter appealing the decision, but ArtsNL responded with a rejection.

“It was really frustrating and the letter was really condescending, it felt a little insulting,” said Martin. “It sounded like somebody scolding someone. It’s disappointing. It’s understandable that they need to follow their rules and that they feel that that’s the most important thing, but it definitely felt like ‘we have this money that we have to give out and you’re not worthy’. But that’s not what the money is for. They’re a conduit for money that is for the arts. The money is there in their pockets because we exist. So there is money to fund the arts and it should be going through them out to arts organizations. It sounded more like a letter from a peevish Rockefeller letting us know that we hadn’t lived up to standards.“

Martin says that when they requested minutes of the ArtsNL Board meeting where the decision was made, ArtsNL refused. Riddle Fence has submitted an ATIPP request to obtain the minutes.

Martin said one of the challenges faced by arts organizations in the province is the instability generated by lack of funding. She said it’s ironic that the funding which could help organizations handle this sort of administrative work more efficiently is being withdrawn because of administrative errors.

“As a volunteer board-run organization that has had a lot of turnover, mostly because there’s not enough funding to keep things steady, we do deal with mistakes on our end all the time, and we’re always trying to learn,” said Martin. “With our arts professional organizations each year there’s a massive learning curve for everybody involved, and it’s always a side-gig, except for maybe one employee.”

“That sustainable funding, it makes such a huge difference. Like how do you not make mistakes when you don’t even have enough funding to have any sort of stability. It just seemed like they’re not understanding the issues that we’re facing and the reason that we want to get funding to begin with.”

Operating on a shoestring budget

Riddle Fence operates with a total budget of around $70,000, so the $15,000 they were supposed to receive from government makes a difference. The organization has one part-time employee, puts out three issues a year and holds a range of arts and cultural programming throughout the year as well.

“Our organization gives so much back,” said Martin. “We enrich the economy of our province so deeply. Even if you just look at the tourism industry, the fact that we have this really high-end, not hokey, vibrant arts and culture scene—it is the attraction. So to keep us on this shoestring where we can barely keep a foothold, it just feels frustrating. I don’t think that it’s nefarious, I just think that they seem to have forgotten what the point is. And that feels really frustrating.”

She said she feels it’s important to remember that arts organizations aren’t being gifted money they don’t deserve. She said their organizations generate enormous revenue for the province in the form of tourism and other cultural industries. The purpose of funding agencies like ArtsNL is not to disburse money as though it’s a gift, she said, but to fairly redistribute the monies that arts organizations bring to the province in the first place.

“There’s just an amazing tangle of community that gets their lives improved and their economic viability improved from our organization. And because of that the province has decided that it’s worth funding because we give so much back. So there is money there, that exists and that is supposed to go out to promote the arts because the arts promote the province. That [money] is there for us, and that is there because of us. It’s not like there’s money that we’re asking for. We’re not saying give us money. There is money that basically we have generated. It’s like a circle, there’s money that we’re making that we’re giving back to the province so that money is coming back to us to help sustain it. I would really hope that the public understands that.”

Martin said she also worries the decision risks undermining the entire arts jury selection process. The ArtsNL structure is such that a jury of artists active in each field judges applications from other artists and arts organizations, to determine which projects are worth funding. Once the jury decision is made, Martin said it undermines the autonomy and integrity of that process when arts juries go to the trouble of making funding decisions, and then bureaucrats are able to essentially veto decisions based on minor administrative errors.

“The jury decided that we were worthy of sustainable funding for three years. One of the reasons that you’re judged worthy of sustainable funding is that you’re putting out a good product and you’re doing programming that is sustained and consistent…if we’ve been judged worthy of that and in need of that, then it’s such a big thing to take away multiple years of sustainable funding for such a small mistake. That’s where I feel that it undermines the process. That was a big process. Applying is a really big process. There is no fluff in any of our applications. We put in the work. If we say we’re going to do something we do it. All the programming is put off, no money comes in and sits there. It all goes directly back out to artists and to putting out the journal. We’ve been judged, and that’s a big judgement, and a lot of work that the adjudicators put in to say that this is a worthy organization. So the art is worthy, the work behind it is worthy, and the work behind it is in need. And so then to take those big decisions and revoke them based on one small thing, that undermines the meaning of the process. It’s not that we don’t need to follow the rules, that’s not it at all. But the scale of the punishment just seems out of place.”

“We’re all volunteers doing it,” said Martin. “Because of turnover in all of our organizations, we rarely have somebody doing the same thing each year.”

“The adjudicators, the panels of artists have decided that the art that we’re doing is worthy, and then when the money that was supposed to be given to us to make that art is taken back because of an administrative error, it seems disrespectful to everybody all around.”

Drover: “A bureaucratic nightmare”

The hardline actions of ArtsNL has also sparked questions about the bureaucratic drift of the funding agency in recent years. Drover said that in addition to the new hardline policy, he feels ArtsNL has been drifting away from its key purpose in supporting arts organizations and is becoming overly bureaucratized.

“I don’t know why they’re turning it into a bureaucratic nightmare down there…over the past five or ten years, it’s become more and more its own little bureaucratic bubble. I think it’s time for a review of what’s good about it, what’s not working about it and get the arts organizations and the artists who use this funding to put some input into it and government should redraft legislation.”

“I think people have been having problems with ArtsNL over the past five years or so…Maybe this will get things moving.”

Martin also said the situation indicates a larger problem which needs to be addressed.

“Once we started talking to other arts organizations we realized this has happened in the past and this has happened this year to other arts organizations,” she said. “So this is not just us learning to deal with one problem when we’re learning how to fill out a form. This is a pattern, and we want this entire process, we want to come together with everybody involved in this process and learn how to make this a more functional process going forward. If one administrative error happens, we can learn how to fix that error. If this error is happening all over the place, then that error is telling us something other than that we messed up the form. It’s telling us that maybe we can all work together to make this process more doable. Because we have a lot of really smart hardworking people who are all making the same mistakes, and the consequences for all of those small mistakes are really really large.”

Legal action isn’t an option for everyone, but Drover hopes his organization’s action can help spark some change.

“I feel terrible for all these other arts organizations. It’s only because I work in a law firm and I’m a lawyer so it’s no problem for me to [take legal action]…So it’s only lucky that I’m in this situation. Because how’s anybody else going to take on a lawsuit?”

He hopes if they win, it’ll create a precedent that other provincial arts organizations can use to get their funding back as well.

For their part, Riddle Fence released a public letter this week asking ArtsNL to reconsider its decisions. Martin says they respect the work of ArtsNL in administering arts funding, but they also question whether the organization has lost sight of its purpose.

“I feel like somehow in trying to make the process fair and covering bases and making sure that…nobody’s doing anything wrong, they’ve somehow lost sight of the fact that the money is there for the arts organizations. I really appreciate all that administrative work ArtsNL is doing, but I really hope that we can come together over the next year and figure out how to redirect. It seems to have gone in an unhelpful direction, in an unprogressive direction.”

“This is this tiny amount of money that we’re all desperately scrambling over, and if we could just have some kind of a model where it’s not a stressful live-or-die scramble every year, to know that the $5000 that somebody gets means that they can fund programming that gets used, that would be great.”

“The arts generate so much. They generate well-being…the fact that we have accessible art, they bring our community health, well-being, happiness and community. And they also generate money for our economy…And we pay artists, we pay up and coming artists.”

If ArtsNL refuses to reverse its decision, it won’t mean the demise of Riddle Fence, at least not this year. But without funding, Martin says arts in this province simply won’t survive.

“We would have to cut back on things, we will still put out our journal, we’ll just have to work a lot harder and it’ll be a lot more of a scramble. This year we will do it but if this kind of thing keeps happening, the end result is that Riddle Fence closes. We’re not an emergency care clinic, no one dies if Riddle Fence closes. But we do stop paying artists, and then Newfoundland and Labrador has no independent journal that is only dedicated to current arts and literature. I think it would be a really big loss.”

“It won’t happen this year, we run a really tight ship financially, but if funding dries up or if funding is too difficult to get and it’s too onerous a process and we’re never in a position to get enough money to have enough full time staff to go through the onerous process, then eventually the arts go away.”

The Independent contacted ArtsNL for comment, but ArtsNL representatives declined the opportunity to comment before publication.

-With files from Michelle Porter

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