More protests planned as City responds to budget backlash

City of St. John’s finance committee chair says council will consider taking grant money from other sectors to reinstate its arts investment, but residents say that’s not good enough.

The arts community’s resistance to the City of St. John’s new municipal budget has been so strong that the chair of the City’s finance committee has said council will review its 50 percent cut to the $200,000 arts grant fund. But the announcement hasn’t quelled the public outrage over the austerity measures being levelled against residents and businesses of the provincial capital.

Councillor Jonathan Galgay told CBC News Tuesday that in light of the public response to the budget he feels council should “re-evaluate [the arts grants] portion of the budget to determine whether or not we can reallocate funds outside of the arts in other areas and grants and top it up to the 100 per cent,” and that he will put forward a motion calling for this when council reconvenes on Jan. 4.

Galgay also said if the motion is approved he thinks the City “should be able to make up the shortfall in other areas of grant allocation.”

While some in the arts community consider Galgay’s decision to revisit the cuts a small victory, others say the move doesn’t go far enough.

They argue that in a city and province where arts and culture industries are so intimately tied to the people and place’s identity, and with government investments in the arts producing such a strong return economically, socially and culturally, the municipality’s per capita arts funding should be at least on par with other Canadian cities.

According to local theatre producer Pat Foran, per capita arts investment in St. John’s pales in comparison to that of other cities.

In a petition calling on city council to “plan for a sustained increase in municipal arts funding,” Foran says St. John’s $1.72 per capita funding for arts grants is woefully inadequate, and that the Newfoundland and Labrador capital should be investing in the arts at least as much as other large municipalities do. He listed several cities and their per capita arts grant funding numbers to contextualize St. John’s numbers: Barrie, Ont. ($2.53 per capita), Victoria, B.C. ($4.11), Toronto ($8), Ottawa ($10), Montreal ($17), Calgary ($18), and Vancouver ($28).

Artistic Fraud Director Pat Foran says.... Photo by Daniel Smith.
Artistic Fraud Director Pat Foran says the City of St. John’s should invest in the arts (via grants) to at least the national average, which is about $4 per capita. Photo by Daniel Smith.

Foran’s petition calls for St. John’s City Council to achieve a “municipal arts investment of $4 per capita by the end of this council’s term in 2017.”

In an article published earlier this week, Overcast Editor Chad Pelley noted Statistics Canada’s 2010 data reveals cultural industries in Newfoundland and Labrador generated $424 million, “while other ‘entertainment industries’ like sports only contributed $49 million” to the provinces’s total GDP.

“Why aren’t stats like these part of the conversation around The Arts?” he asked.

Pelley also pointed out that of the City’s $302 million, the arts will receive $100,000 — or 0.03 percent of the total budget.

“Our city places that much value in a sector we are known for nationally?” he wrote. “Like many citizens, the majority of our councillors just don’t get it: Arts grants are business grants, because the arts are a business – retailers sell art and books and music, and, artists aren’t hobbyists: we make money off what we make, from our publishers and producers, or ticket and album sales.”

Investing in the arts to at least the national average “should be a no-brainer”

At a demonstration held on the steps of St. John’s City Hall Monday afternoon, Neighbourhood Dance Works Executive Director Calla Lachance, who coordinates the annual Festival of New Dance, which brings hundreds of performance artists from around the world to St. John’s every year, told the 400 or so gathered in the cold that artists “may not be seen as [providing] a core service, but we function at the very core of our city.”

She said with its funding cuts city council is “perpetuating the idea that art is frivolous, non-essential, a waste of time and not worthy of long-term investment.”

Actor, writer and director Andy Jones said the City “has in many ways been wonderful,” and that council “had it right” for a time.

“And we are begging them,” he said, “please don’t mess up this good thing. In fact, it’s time to make this good thing better.”

Visual Artists Newfoundland and Labrador (VANL) Executive Director Dave Andrews told the crowd Monday that “the return on investment in the arts is one of the highest in the City’s budget,” and that the budget cuts to arts grants and the suspension of the arts procurement program “sends a profound message to the public that the city does not value the arts.

Protestors hold up signs at Monday's "Support the Arts" demonstration outside St. John's City Hall. Photo by Daniel Smith.
Protestors hold up signs at Monday’s “Support the Arts” demonstration outside St. John’s City Hall. Photo by Daniel Smith.

“In the scheme of things it’s a small amount but it’s important income that allows our hard-working St. John’s artists to continue to work and be able to live and work in our provincial capital.”

Lana Payne, the vice president of of the Canadian Labour Congress and the Atlantic director of Unifor, called the arts investment cuts a “tragedy this day and age,” and said “investing in artists, and in our arts and culture, and in investing at least to the national average, in this place of all places, should be a no-brainer.

“It makes good economic sense,” she continued, “and more importantly it’s good for our soul.”

Filmmaker, activist and St. John’s Centre MHA Gerry Rogers also condemned the City’s arts investment cuts and joined the call for council to invest in the arts at the national average.

“The ask is so modest — $4 per capita,” she said, citing the statistics provided in Foran’s petition. “That means 33 cents per person per month, or one penny a day! Why would we not? We should. We could. We must.”

“The struggle against austerity is a common struggle”

In response to Galgay’s announcement that the City will consider cutting grant funding in other sectors to reinstate the arts grant funding cuts, organizers planned a second protest, this time to coincide with City council’s Jan. 4 meeting.

The event’s Facebook page says the reinstatement of arts funding wouldn’t go far enough to undo the damage expected from the City’s austerity measures:

There are many other harmful items in this budget that will affect us. The raise in taxes, cuts in services, and the overall tone of the budget towards citizens is troubling.

Several councillors have expressed an interest in meeting with us and we need your support to keep the pressure on.

St. John’s has the 6th highest concentration of artists in the country. Last year, the City of St. John’s awarded $203,000 in grants to artists and arts organizations. That’s $1.90 per capita.

After the proposed cuts, the City will award $100,000 in grants to artists and arts organizations. That’s 94 cents per capita. (Arts grants) $100,000 divided by $302,200,000 (City Budget) equals 0.03%. The arts are worth far more than one thirtieth of a percentage point in investment to St. John’s.

On Wednesday former Great Big Sea member and local business owner Bob Hallett took to social media to criticize the City’s budget cuts and tax hikes, and to call for the resignation of Galgay, Mayor Dennis O’Keefe and the other councillors who voted in favour of the budget.

Hallett said Galgay’s “turnabout” was “predictable — a mere diversion, a distraction from the taxation debacle.”

He also took aim at O’Keefe’s announcement Tuesday that the City would purchase 20 acres of land from the owners of the upscale Galway development in the city’s west end.

“The fact that this land might have been purchased, or bargained for during the planning process, seems not to have occurred to [O’Keefe], or anyone else on Council,” Hallett wrote. “These lands were bought for comparative pennies from our own provincial government, and yet the beleaguered taxpayers must now pay a fortune to buy it back. This is not a triumph of timing, it is an epic disaster of planning.”

On Tuesday CBC reported that between 1998 and 2007, “Danny Williams and his blind trust, paid more than $1.5 million dollars for about 2,000 acres of land in the capital area.”

"Art is cultyre" Photo by Daniel Smith.
“Art is culture. Art is us,” scrawled on the steps of St. John’s City Hall. Photo by Daniel Smith.

Though resistance to the City’s budget has so far been initiated by St. John’s arts community, the local business and social justice communities are chiming in, saying austerity will further jeopardize the city and province’s economies.

On Saturday the Social Justice Co-operative of Newfoundland and Labrador (SJCNL) called for the formation of a province-wide coalition of people and groups to stand together against the austerity increasingly being levelled against the people of this province.

In its statement of solidarity with those who will be negatively impacted by the city’s budget, the SJCNL said residents, small business owners, the arts community and other sectors of society in St. John’s “are justifiably angry,” and that the people of St. John’s are not alone in their subjection to austerity.

“Many communities throughout the province are likewise experiencing hardship,” the letter reads. “Communities across the country and around the world are experiencing the pain of austerity where costs are increasing while public services are being cut.

“We must remember that austerity budgets are happening at a time when the gap between the rich and poor grows exponentially. For too long the burden of debt is carried on the shoulders of the many. It is time we organized to oppose austerity locally, nationally, and globally. This common project challenges us to recognize the linkages between our own struggles and the struggles of others,” the letter continues.

“It’s time we organized as a broad grassroots coalition capable of expressing common concerns against austerity. It is to the advantage of those who attempt to impose austerity that society remains fragmented, so that each grievance is isolated.

“Let’s get together to reclaim people power. Let’s meet and figure out ways to build a movement against austerity now and into the future.”

Jon Parsons, a board member of the SJCNL and an Independent columnist, says the City of St. John’s budget and Galgay’s suggestion that council could take funding from other sectors to reinstate its investment in the arts is a “divide and conquer” tactic commonly used by governments imposing austerity on their people.

“It’s particularly troubling that when governments are looking for ways to make cuts that various sectors of society are put in a position whereby they are expected to compete with one another,” he says. “The usual target of ire is often public sector unions, but the same thing can happen when groups are competing for a limited pool of funding. This is unfortunate because it is the entire society that is being harmed by austerity and the best way to resist is through solidarity.

“Unions should support the cause of small business and the arts, just as artists and small business owners should support unionized workers. The community must come to see that the struggle against austerity is a common struggle, and that it is the logic of austerity and neoliberalism that needs to be opposed.”

Toward the end of her speech at Monday’s demonstration, Payne urged protestors to make sure City council, including the mayor and deputy mayor, hears their messages.

“Because solidarity, my friends, is an action,” she said.

The next “Support the Arts” demonstration outside St. John’s City Hall is planned for Monday, Jan. 4 at 4:15 p.m. On the Facebook event page, organizers “encourage you to post, tweet, converse and challenge all through the holidays!” 

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