NL Election 2021: The Arts as Renewable Resource

More than five hundred full-time jobs were created by the Newfoundland and Labrador film and television industry in 2019 and 2020.

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We haven’t heard much about the arts during this election cycle. The oil and gas industries are in freefall, airlines are abandoning the province en masse, and there’s the ever-present threat of an austerity budget in the spring. All of this is happening against the backdrop of a global pandemic and confirmed community spread in the St. John’s metro region—so maybe it’s not surprising that the arts have been largely ignored. 

On the other hand, one could make the case that elections should encompass more than just the economy and healthcare. Elections are about what kind of place we are and the kind of place we want to be.

The Ghost of Election Promises Past

In the 2019 provincial election, a coordinated and concentrated push from artists in Newfoundland and Labrador paid off when the Liberal government increased ArtsNL funding by one million dollars—with the promise of increasing that amount to five million by 2022. Both Allison Coffin of the NDP and Ches Crosbie of the Progressive Conservatives pledged to honor this funding increase.

The arts community has not figured quite as prominently in the 2021 campaign.

In their platform, the Liberals have indicated that they would continue to invest in infrastructure, build partnerships with existing arts organizations, and enhance equity and tax credit programs to keep Newfoundland and Labrador competitive for Film and TV Production. But it does not specifically mention the ArtsNL funding commitment.

The Progressive Conservative platform says “a PC Government will develop tax credits to support the work of artists, writers and other cultural producers.” There is no mention of ArtsNL or the funding increase.

The NDP platform states the party “would increase the Arts NL grant to $5 million to support necessary arts creation and development work, and work to find creative and productive ways to keep our arts community employed.”

Last but not least, the NL Alliance released a one-page vision document on Twitter. It does not include an arts-specific component, but does say they will “invest in community based businesses.”

According to Economic Impact Reports produced by the St. John’s International Women’s Film Festival, more than five hundred full-time jobs were created by the film and television industry in 2019 and 2020. The film industry in Newfoundland and Labrador was also one of the first to safely reopen in North America, positioning filmmakers here as leaders in the industry.

“A really good return on investment”

Ruth Lawrence directed her independent film Little Orphans in 2019. This film recently won the Borsos Best Canadian Feature Award at Whistler Film Festival.

That’s a big deal. Distributors are now interested; the film will be shown in theatres, and soon Lawrence’s debut feature will be available to purchase on iTunes. Little Orphans was made with a micro-budget of $300,000 and was funded by Telefilm, the Newfoundland and Labrador Film Development Corporation, and received other financial and in-kind support from various funding bodies.

Lawrence explained how that money is redistributed back into the community. 

“Roughly 33% of the money came from the province, but 85-90% of that total budget was spent in NL,” she told the Independent. “We leverage the money and the creative resources we have here and we get a really good return on that investment.” 

These numbers, Lawrence believes, are pretty similar to other productions that are created and shot in Newfoundland and Labrador.

“Economically, there is a stimulus, born of our creative talent—and that translates into jobs and money. Where there is art, there is an economic benefit. The more investment, the more return.”

Lawrence makes an excellent point. Funding the arts is very much about investment in the brand of Newfoundland and Labrador. When we make things here, we spread awareness of place and culture, which impacts tourism and other sectors.

“If you look at places where the arts are valued, encouraged, and supported, you find a population that has more mental, physical, and emotional well-being,” she explained. “If funding was cut to the arts in the next budget, it would affect many areas of our lives as citizens of this province. Our arts and culture are integrated into pretty much every aspect of our lives here.”

Gone to the Dogs

Paul Pope, an executive producer of the hit television show Hudson & Rex, says that the show is proud to show off Newfoundland and Labrador.

“We don’t make a secret of the fact that the show is set in Newfoundland,” Pope told the Independent. “In fact, we celebrate it. It’s a big part of the show.”

One of the show’s partner’s is Beta Film, a production company based in Munich, Germany. They are one of Europe’s leading distributors of licensing rights for television. Through their promotion, over six million people in Italy, France, and Germany have watched Hudson & Rex.

“We’re doing gangbusters in Europe,” Pope said. “At one point we had the second highest ratings in France. We haven’t made it to American markets yet, but Hudson & Rex is the highest-rated drama that Rogers has ever produced. We’re quite pleased with that.”

The show just wrapped its third season and employs around two hundred individuals.

“About 140 of those folks live and work in St. John’s and the Avalon and about 110 of that 140 would be considered full-time.”

Filming in St. John’s wouldn’t be possible without local support, Pope explains. 

“We’re very grateful that folks let us shoot here and open up their businesses and homes. The community support for the program has been terrific.”

Balancing the Books

It’s not just film and television that invigorates the economy.

Bridget Canning’s debut novel The Greatest Hits of Wanda Jaynes was a finalist for the 2017 BMO Winterset Award and longlisted for the Dublin International Literary Award. She makes her home in St. John’s. 

“I’ve received two separate grants for my work and they’ve definitely helped me, but I see them as investments in my work,” Canning told the Independent. “When my books sell, that money gets spent in the community. I go to restaurants here. I support the work of other artists here. Over 75 percent of the books on my shelves are local. It’s not just me. The money that authors make gets put back into our communities.”

Canning also points out that the industry around book publishing and book events add to the economy.

“When you think about Winterset and the Sparks festival, those attract writers and readers and promote a sense of place,” she said. “For my first novel, I traveled to Ottawa, New Brunswick, and Halifax to promote it. Yes, that kind of touring promotes the work of authors, but it also promotes Newfoundland.”

For many writers, it’s been a tough year. 

“I’m lucky to have work outside of writing because the sales of my second novel were definitely impacted by Covid-19. It’s harder to promote your work during this time. You can’t do book signings. That’s why it’s so important for the government to honor their commitments.”

Art in the Time of Corona

Robert Chafe, artistic director of Artistic Fraud, was one of the individuals who spearheaded and lobbied the provincial government in 2019 for the aforementioned increase to the annual budget of ArtsNL.

“I do want to acknowledge that the provincial Liberal Party did honor the first two increases to the ArtsNL budget, which is very encouraging,” Chafe told the Independent. “That said, it worries me that we haven’t heard [much commitment] to the last increase when they pledged to do so in 2019.”

Chafe argues that this last funding push is essential. 

“It’s great to see ArtsNL has been able to rectify some of their long-standing insufficient funding issues, but so much work remains. I would hope that the last funding increase would lead to the creation of new grants for Indigenous arts and have a focus on inclusion and diversity.” 

It won’t come as a shock to anyone to hear that artists are struggling during the pandemic—something Chafe is very worried about. 

“Our company is okay,” he explained. “The government has not touched our core funding, but what does concern me is the individual artist. These are the folks that are engaging with CERB and the CRB funding. Many of them are re-evaluating their lives.” 

“This sector is going to lose incredible people. That’s why the government needs to honor their commitment.”

Photo by Jesse Evans.

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