The State of the Arts: Fight or Flight?

The City of St. John’s recent handling of a public art installation and council’s arbitrary budget cuts to arts funding have spurred major resistance from artists in Canada’s most colourful and creative city. Some say decision-makers’ disregard for the arts could prompt artists to leave Newfoundland altogether.

Little did some municipal workers know when they dismantled and disposed of a local visual artist’s public installation along a walking trail in St. John’s last week that they were so dramatically portraying the attitude toward art among bureaucrats and decision-makers in a city widely regarded as one of Canada’s most colourful and vibrant provincial capitals.

They also inadvertently foreshadowed the major cuts to arts funding handed down by St. John’s City Council in Monday’s budget announcement, which has prompted major backlash from the arts community, including plans for a demonstration outside city hall next Monday.

In its 2016-2018 triennial budget the City announced it will halve its funding for tourism, sports and arts grants. The Independent learned from the City on Wednesday that this will specifically result in a 100 percent reduction ($20,000) in art procurement (with the exception of the $300,000 already committed to purchase artwork for the new convention centre), a 50 percent reduction ($50,000) in funding for special events and festivals, and an almost 50 percent funding cut ($100,000) for grants to artists and organizations 

Ruth Lawrence, a well-known Newfoundland actor, producer and director who is helping to organize next Monday’s demonstration, said she was “surprised” by the cuts and wondered why, at a time when the province is in a recession, the City would so drastically reduce funding to artists, “the most renewable resource we have.”

“It baffles me that you would cut an area like the arts, that is already underfunded, in order to save what amounts to pennies in the overall scheme of the budget for the City,” she said.

Others, like photographer and former councillor Sheilagh O’Leary, are less surprised by the cuts.

Despite a growing body of evidence that well-funded arts sectors not only contribute to a city or province’s cultural vibrancy, but are in fact wise investments and important economic drivers, O’Leary says the underappreciation of the value of the arts is endemic on St. John’s City Council, evidenced by the City’s historical chronic underfunding of artists and arts organizations.

“This is the same story that I was fighting, to get even the slightest of increases,” she says, referring to her term as a councillor at large from 2009-2013. “Everything was pushing boulders uphill all the time to get any recognition [for artists].”

Art addressing missing and murdered Indigenous women “not appropriate” for public display: City

Whether the budget cuts were surprising or not, some feel they necessitate a discussion about the role and value of art in Newfoundland and Labrador society.

It turns out that visual artist Pepa Chan’s latest work of art, which made local and national headlines last week after ending up in the city dump, may have unwittingly struck at the heart of this very issue.

Resurfacing was an installation of sculptures constructed from dolls and discarded materials, paired with Aboriginal poetry and strung from trees on a path alongside Quidi Vidi Lake in the city’s east end. Through it Chan was “exploring empathy [for Aboriginal children] and trying to make the public engaged and interact with the sculptures and get that sense of intimacy,” she told The Independent

Resurfacing. Photo by Pepa Chan.
Pepa Chan’s ‘Resurfacing’ installation drew passersby, who interacted with the sculptures and read Aboriginal poetry, says the artist. The City of St. John’s tore the work down and disposed of it after allegedly receiving a complaint that someone was frightened by the art. In 2014 the City turned down Chan’s application for a similar installation, citing the possibility it “could frighten people”. Photo by Pepa Chan.

“I was trying to make people feel compassion, and to read the poems — because I believe that probably not many people have read these Aboriginal poems before.”

The young artist said she scheduled the installation to run three weeks, and that she discovered it had been taken down the day before she had planned to dismantle it herself.

Though the City awarded Chan a grant to complete the artwork, it argues the artist did not apply for a permit to install the work on city property — and when it received a complaint from a frightened passerby, it moved to clear and dispose of the installation.

To date at least three members of council have offered Chan an apology for the loss of her work, but all have maintained that permission is needed to install public art.

Chan told The Independent she would have applied for a permit but was discouraged by how the city responded to her request in October 2014 to install a similar piece that addressed the problem of missing and murdered Indigenous women.

In an email to David Crowe, Operations Supervisor for the Division of Parks and Open Spaces, Chan outlined in detail the composition and meaning of her With Eyes That Close exhibit and her desire to find a suitable space to install the work.

She explained to Crowe that Parks Canada had denied her request to install the piece on a Signal Hill trail, so she proposed other locations, such as Bannerman Park or the Rennie’s River Trail.

“This project reflects on human strength and vulnerability, with a focus on my desire to nurture and encourage compassion and understanding in the community. I hope this project brings awareness and create new and emotional connections,” she wrote in the email, attaching a photo of the work.

Crowe wrote back three days later: “I have reviewed your request and do not feel this is appropriate for family oriented parks or trails.”

Chan asked for a more detailed explanation of the decision.

“The image portrayed is dolls (children) hanging from trees and this is not conducive to a family atmosphere,” Crowe replied. “This could frighten people and it is quite likely the dolls will be removed from the trees and vandalized, causing additional debris.”

Chan was disheartened because she had put so much work into her art. She had met with members of the local Indigenous community, researched missing and murdered Indigenous women, and used her Newfoundland and Labrador Arts Council grant to create the artwork.

She was also determined, so found a space along a trail behind the Geo Centre on Signal Hill that neither Parks Canada nor the City of St. John’s claimed jurisdiction over — and she installed the work there.

With Eyes That Close remained on display for one month. She tended to it daily to ensure everything remained in place so that passersby could interact with it if they wished.

Some photographed the art and shared and praised it on social media, and Chan said some of her friends told her workers at the Geo Centre were “guiding visitors to the site and giving directions,” she said. “So it seems they were excited about it and people were trying to find it and it also brought clients to the Geo Centre.”

On the installation’s significance, Chan said “basically we’re all representing these women, and what happened to them, and their courage and strength. And I just wanted to show my compassion to them, and I wanted people to know.”

When it came time to display her latest work, Resurfacing, Chan bypassed Crowe and the City’s bureaucracy and installed the work herself, this time on a trail that circles Quidi Vidi Lake.

 The image portrayed is dolls (children) hanging from trees and this is not conducive to a family atmosphere. — David Crowe, City of St. John’s

As she did with the previous installation, the artist tended to her work on a daily basis. She said she met people there who had stopped to observe and interact with her sculptures, and to read the Aboriginal poetry.

But then one day early last week she showed up to find her sculptures were gone.

When she contacted the City to find out if they had her art, Chan said she talked to Crowe and that he admitted he had ordered the removal of her work because there had been a complaint filed about it.

The Independent attempted to contact Crowe for comment, but a City spokesperson would not grant the interview, saying Crowe “is not a media spokesperson for the organization.” The spokesperson also did not confirm or deny that Crowe had ordered the removal of Chan’s installation.

St. John’s filmmaker Mark Hoffe launched a petition in support of Chan’s work. It demanded that St. John’s Mayor Dennis O’Keefe and council members “offer a public apology to Pepa and consider monetary compensation for the labour, art materials, and public funding you threw away with the city’s trash.”

At the time of publication, almost 300 people had signed the petition. 

Councillor Danny Breen, Chair of Public Works Standing Committee, told The Independent he and Deputy Mayor Ron Ellsworth met with Chan and Visual Artists Newfoundland and Labrador (VANL) Executive Director Dave Andrews this past Monday at 2 p.m. and offered Chan an apology.

Breen said the incident was “unfortunate” and that the City “has to do something to prevent that from happening,” but reiterated that artists must obtain permits before displaying art in public.

“If she had [applied] and received a permit, then we would have known when the complaint came in what it was, but as circumstances have it…our parks staff just acted on that because they had no record of any approval for a public display,” he said. “So we’re going to work with [VANL] on how we can improve the process so we can avoid this happening again.”

Asked who makes decisions on what art gets approved for public display and based on what criteria, Breen said “the definition of ‘family-oriented’ I guess would vary by family.”

He said there are no by-laws or regulations regarding criteria for judging art, but that if a similar incident were to occur again where an artist’s work was deemed inappropriate and denied a permit, “then reach out to us as councillors and we can help through that situation.”

Breen said the Division of Parks and Open Spaces works “on a complaint basis,” and that “if a citizen voices a complaint then we’ll deal with it.

“In this case, that’s what happened, and because there was no permit or no information, what happened happened,” he said.

Chan said she appreciated the apology, that the meeting “went well,” and that she, Andrews, Breen and Ellsworth “talked about public art and contemporary art and how they are represented in the city,” as well as “regulations and how sometimes artists choose to break them (or not), for different reasons.”

Barely two hours after the meeting, Breen and Ellsworth joined the mayor and the rest of council in the chambers to unveil the City budget. Both Breen and Ellsworth voted for the budget, and in favour of slashing arts funding.

The optimism Chan felt after the meeting quickly dissipated after she, like the hundreds of other artists in St. John’s Monday evening, heard the budget news.

“It makes me feel a bit hopeless,” she told The Independent on Tuesday.

The role and necessity of public art

City councillor and chair of the city’s finance committee Jonathan Galgay defended the City’s decision to cut arts funding in the budget summary.

“The stark reality is we had tough decisions to make, and that was an area that we just had to allocate a certain amount of money,” he said. “This could have been a lot worse. We could have eliminated 100 percent of all grants, but we didn’t think that that was the fiscally responsible thing to do.”

He said he didn’t understand the magnitude of the blowback from the arts community and emphasized that the City will still purchase $300,000 worth of artwork for the convention centre.

“To me that’s a significant investment, do you think?” he said.

The deadline for artists to apply to have their artwork considered for purchase for the convention centre was 3 p.m. Monday, an hour and a half before the budget announcement.

Critics speculate the kind of art chosen for the new facility will likely be very specific — mostly paintings, and not the kind of art that provokes discomfort, like Chan’s installations. 

“I think the issue with the cuts is it’s not just the actual money, but also what they choose to prioritize,” said Chan. “I’m afraid that thought-provoking and critical works won’t be getting as much support. It feels like going backwards a bit.”

Andrews said adequately supporting the arts in St. John’s and province-wide is an important way to facilitate healthy social and cultural growth, and that he’s glad to see Chan getting so much support from the arts community and general public following the incident involving her work.

Sculptures in Pepa Chans Resurfacing installation featured Aboriginal poetry. Photo by Pepa Chan.
Sculptures in Pepa Chan’s ‘Resurfacing’ installation featured Aboriginal poetry. “Art helps people reflect on things, and to think,” says Chan. “And it educates people, it brings awareness to the community and to the culture of the city.” Photo by Pepa Chan.

“In a lot of ways artists are sort of ahead of the curve in terms of what’s fashionable or acceptable, and politically acceptable, and a lot of that can be fairly strange or challenging,” he said.

“I think maybe public art is the place where the rubber meets the road in terms of getting that out where people can see it and discuss it and that sort of thing. So just its visibility makes public art [important], and I think a lot of times if it does operate outside of the institutional [parameters] that artists have to create art within, that’s part of its value as well.”

Activist, blogger and Independent columnist Jon Parsons wrote a public letter to Chan late last week, supporting her form of artistic expression and encouraging her to “continue to produce such challenging and important public art, as this fulfills a vital function in our community, even when or if it clearly and purposely causes offense (I am not suggesting the piece[s] under discussion were necessarily offensive, but that if that was the case it would be fine and good).”

Parsons argues in the letter that “some works demand that you not ask for permission, and not just because it is inconvenient or time-consuming to get permits, but because to ask for permission would contradict the purpose of the art.

“It strikes me that the current piece(s) are just such art that demands no permission is sought, because of the relationship of the subject matter to…[a]uthority and authorities,” he continues.

“[P]ublic art has this wonderful potential to be anti-authoritarian, and I see this quality in your work. As I understand it, the way authority and authorities interacted with the current piece(s) completed the work (this is especially striking given the way authority and authorities also helped create the subject matter). It is possible to use authority and authorities in the production of art in just the way it played out in the current piece(s).”

Kelly Anne Butler, a member of the Bay St. George Mi’kmaw Cultural Revival Committee in western Newfoundland, said Chan’s work is “important” in the context of colonialism and the growing awareness of Indigenous history and identity in this province.

Butler also said she’s not surprised authorities responded to the art as they did.

“I think when you talk about any marginalized groups…it’s difficult for the maintstream establishment to feel that empathy because then along with it there comes some sort of guilt,” she explained.

“For example, the city approved the funding for that project and put money into it, and that’s an acceptable way to show you support Aboriginal initiatives — to say we’re putting money into this and we’re funding artists who are doing this. But then on the flip-side it’s causing discomfort, and that discomfort is what’s leading someone to say, ‘Get this outta here.’”

Butler said the discomfort some may experience in seeing art such as Chan’s is “necessary”.

“For us to have a conversation, we have to have that discomfort.”

Chan said she finds it interesting that someone may have been frightened by her sculptures.

 For us to have a conversation, we have to have that discomfort. — Kelly Anne Butler, Bay St. George Mi’kmaw Cultural Revival Committee

“It was meant to be maybe a bit eerie, but also a very positive thing in showing [Aboriginal children’s] strength and survival in what they had to go through.”

She pointed to relative perceptions of what’s frightening and what’s not to highlight the importance of art that challenges us, saying when she arrived in St. John’s in 2009 it was “shocking” to her to find old artillery on Signal Hill and Form Amherst.

“It’s kind of funny because we’re used to seeing canons and weapons — things that kill people. And then someone is afraid of a doll?” she laughed. 

“Art helps people reflect on things, and to think — and it educates people, it brings awareness to the community and to the culture of the city,” she explained.

Lawrence said she supports Chan’s work and Chan’s willingness to publicly share the story of what happened last week.

“We can’t always ask permission for what we say and what we think. I don’t think anybody in our society would advocate that,” Lawrence said. 

“It’s the artist’s role to speak out, and we’re not always going to speak out with permission. We speak what we think. Often we have people who agree with those thoughts, and if they don’t agree with them, then OK, it starts a dialogue. But that’s the role of the artist — that’s what we’re there for, to keep that conversation going. Our art doesn’t always please people — sometimes it offends people, if that’s what it’s supposed to do. So I completely support her right to say it, and to say it where it needed to be said.”

Lawrence also said the time is now for all artists and those who support the arts to be heard.

“We have to speak up,” she said. “If we’re not speaking up then our stories are not going to be told. Our story is important, our story as a culture. So if the artists are silent, what’s our culture going to be?”

Artists, business owners not going down without a fight

The arts funding cuts in Monday’s budget will deliver a significantly harder blow to many in the arts community, as the city’s residential property taxes are being increased by an average of 12.7 percent, and commercial property taxes an average of 14.3 percent.

Erin’s Pub owner and former Great Big Sea member Bob Hallett told CBC News the commercial tax hikes will mean a 20 percent increase for his business, which plays an important role in St. John’s downtown music scene.

Meanwhile, musician and small business owner Greg Hewlett took to Facebook to air his grievances, saying “what’s at stake [with the municipal budget] is the fundamental quality of our lives and livelihoods.

“I’m coming at this as a small business owner, a musician, and a young adult; from all 3 perspectives, this budget has life in this city as we like to live it looking unfeasible.”

Hewlett, who co-owns Fixed Coffee & Baking, and many others have commented on social media about the hypocrisy of touting St. John’s and the province’s artists and arts community as a reason for tourists to visit Newfoundland. 

 This budget has life in this city as we like to live it looking unfeasible. — Greg Hewlett, artist and business owner

“Those tourist commercials featuring all that beautiful culture and heritage… that celebratory tone has become bitterly ironic,” Hewlett wrote in his Facebook post. “Know that every time you councillors draw on these things in the future, all things cultural and artistic and character-making, it will be in the spirit of exploitation.”

According to VANL, the “average income of a visual artist in the Atlantic provinces is $19,471, which is just below the low-income cut-off point for a single person living in a community with 100,000 to 500,000 residents ($19,500) and which is is 53% lower than the income of the overall labour force.”

O’Leary, who lost her bid for mayor in the last municipal election and is presently running in a by-election to try and regain her seat on council, says city council is “talking out of the side of their mouth” when they “see fit to wave the flag about how wonderful our Newfoundland culture is” on one hand, while “helping with very minimal financial support to these artists and organizations who create the flora for an incredible tourism industry” on the other.

On Tuesday Business and Arts Newfoundland and Labrador General Manager Bryhanna Greeough issued a statement on the municipal budget, pointing out that artists “contribute new knowledge” to the city and province, and that “this diversity of thought and imagination makes us more resilient, and more able to thrive in times of great change.

“As the City is facing a period of economic challenge we believe that our cultural industries will be of heightened importance,” she continued. “Now is entirely the wrong time to reduce investment in this critical business sector.”

Greenough called for a meeting between her organization and “politicians and officials at St. John’s City Hall to discuss the seriousness of the threat to the well-being of our cultural community.”

On Wednesday the Newfoundland and Labrador Arts Council issued a statement saying the cuts to arts grants “undoes the achievement that’s been made over the past three years where some [funding] increases had been seen.”

This image appeared on Twitter earlier this week in response to St. John's City Council's budget cuts to arts funding. Twitter
This image appeared on Twitter earlier this week in response to St. John’s City Council’s budget cuts to arts funding. Twitter

The statement also identified city arts grants as “trigger funding” for artists, meaning those artists and organizations that are awarded municipal grants are then better positioned to generate grants from provincial and federal governments and organizations.

The Writers’ Alliance of N.L. (WANL) also responded to the budget cuts, calling the municipal budget “counterproductive to these forward-looking initiatives to help grow a strong and essential industry.”

WANL President Denise Flint said the City’s decision to slash arts funding “contradicts what the City has long been saying, that ‘St. John’s is known for its arts community,’ and that a vibrant arts sector is what makes St. John’s a great place to live, and makes it attractive to visitors and to business investment.”

The WANL also asked for City council to “reconsider” the budget cuts, and for a meeting “to discuss potential impacts and to work collaboratively toward a more forward-looking solution.”

Well-known local performance artist Liz Solo told The Independent following Monday’s austerity budget announcement that “for an administration that blows its own horn for how it values the arts this is hypocritical.

“To an already beleaguered arts scene it is a significant blow. In a sane world this fund would be increased, not slashed. In the scope of the annual budget the funding for the arts is a small amount (compared to some of the other subsidies). Targeting artists undermines everything people are trying to build here and it will have repercussions.”

Solo’s Facebook post reacting to the budget perhaps most dramatically expresses the impact the arts funding cuts and tax rate hikes could have on many artists and small business owners who are crucial to the arts community here.

“Nothing to do but leave…” she wrote.

Lawrence said the arts grants are “a small patch in a lot of people’s quilt that they put together to stitch up a living every year, and I would very much advocate for [the City] not to cut in that place.

“I’m really hoping that if we speak up we’ll show what the value of those arts grants are.”

Calla Lachance, Executive Director of community non-profit Neighbourhood Dance Works, which coordinates the Festival of New Dance and brings artists from around the world to St. John’s each year, took to Facebook to publish an open letter to the City of St. John’s.

“I can’t help but feel a tad embarrassed, perhaps even a fool,” she wrote. “To work so hard to ‘show off’ our great City and our festival, to what end? So The City can ride the coattails [sic] of our vibrant arts community while they simultaneously starve us and take us for granted?

“You don’t get to brag about us, about the great, world-class art and events we produce if you are going to continue to pull the rug out from under us, if you continue to undermine and disrupt our hard work, efforts and progress.”

Lachance went on to say the arts in St. John’s “needs to be supported by an economic visionary plan that is long-lasting, forward thinking and that understands the REAL business of the arts. Artistic communities do not thrive, let alone survive, with a yo-yo spending mentality. There can never be real progress, impact and measurable, long-term growth if you continue to see the Arts as an expendable line item in your budget. And it’s not just about economic returns right? It is also about bettering our society.”

She offered some reading for City councillors who might see her message, including a list of resources on Shannon Litzenberger’s website and a resources page from Creative Community Network of Canada’s’s website.

“I believe there are folks who work at City Hall who get it, but overall the City of St. John’s does not understand the true value and potential of supporting REAL growth of a creative economy and community,” Lachance continued.

“If you did understand this you would not continue to mismanage your spending on the arts by pouring thousands upon thousands of dollars into establishing a Cultural Blueprint, conducting feasibilities studies, hosting meetings with the Artist’s Infrastructure Committee, the Art’s Advisory Committee, conducting endless community meetings to gather our ‘input’, and hire facilitators who take notes so they can prepare a report that you make into a PowerPoint presentation.

“Stop wasting our time. What have you honestly taken away from the years of spending money consulting with us?”

"We’re not an industrial community — we’re a cultural capital," says St. John's City Councillor Sandy Hickman. "That’s what makes St. John’s special. That’s what makes it special to live here. That’s what attracts tourists. That’s what attracts business." Photo by Zach Bonnell.
“We’re not an industrial community — we’re a cultural capital,” says St. John’s City Councillor Sandy Hickman. “That’s what makes St. John’s special. That’s what makes it special to live here. That’s what attracts tourists. That’s what attracts business.” Photo by Zach Bonnell.

City Councillors Sandy Hickman and Dave Lane voted against the budget and have been speaking out against the arts funding cuts.

Asked if council based its decision to slash funding for arts grants on empirical evidence that doing so was in fact “fiscally responsible” as the budget states, Hickman told The Independent Wednesday that council “probably didn’t have enough time to really digest this,” but that “everyone on council understands the value of the arts to the city, and the value of our culture — they all understand that very clearly. You’d have to be asleep not to understand that.

“But are they willing to take that little bit of extra funding and support [the arts] and move forward? I’m not sure they would see that as a priority. I would, and a few others would,” he continued, “but not all [councillors]. There’s no question that artists drive this community. We’re not an industrial community — we’re a cultural capital. That’s what makes St. John’s special. That’s what makes it special to live here. That’s what attracts tourists. That’s what attracts business.”

Local musician Jerry Stamp also took to social media to criticize City council and its budget.

“When I was young growing up in St. John’s most folks said things like ‘I can’t wait to get out of this place’. There wasn’t much pride here. I think we were starting to buy what we were often told by Canadian press about being a ‘welfare state’ or Canada’s dumber cousin,” he said.

“But somewhere in there Art started to poke fun at that notion. Then it shone a light directly on it and said ‘we are better than that’. Then it grew louder and bolder to exclaim ‘we are all proud Newfoundlanders and Labradorians and we have heart and mind and soul!’. We have that pride now. We found it. Art helped to lead that charge. Please don’t thank it for all it has done one moment and then leave it to fend for itself the next. Do the right thing.”

On Monday the cabinet ministers of Newfoundland and Labrador’s new provincial Liberal government were given their mandate letters.

Newly appointed Business, Tourism, Culture and Rural Development Minister Christopher Mitchelmore has been mandated to “develop a Status of Artist Act,” which will entail “collaborating with the arts community to review funding mechanisms and identify innovative models to help improve the social and economic status of professional artists in Newfoundland and Labrador.”

The Liberal government is expected to announce its 2016 budget early in the new year. The budget will include an amount of money designated to the department for Mitchelmore to carry out his mandate for the arts.

Asked on social media if she was concerned about losing her funding by speaking out against the cuts, Lawrence responded, “Never.”

“Being silent would be losing.”

The St. John’s Supports the Arts demonstration will take place Monday, Dec. 21 at 4 p.m. outside City Hall. Organizers are encouraging people to bring “signs, placards [and] noisemakers” and to “get REALLY creative in our messages!” The Facebook event page description continues: “Your presence, in person, is most important but we also encourage you to write a short (or long) letter of support to city councillors. To e-mail all the members of the St. John’s City Council at once, please e-mail [email protected] We encourage you to post, tweet, call in to radio shows, express yourself!”

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