Should government foster creativity?

By Chris Creighton-Kelly, May 2013

Why funding the arts makes sense.

There is a half-way decent case against arts funding. It goes something like this: We taxpayers should not have to pay for activities that are elitist. Art is commodity production like anything else. Put it in the marketplace. If it sells, that means people like it and therefore, it must be good. And if it is good, it will sell. So no need to subsidize it.

If you look at public funding through a limited lens, this argument seems to make sense. Well, sort of. The problem with the “if it is good, it will survive in the marketplace” argument is that we, as a society, fund many human activities that cannot survive in the so-called free market. Or put another way, if they did survive, necessarily by making a profit, our whole understanding of what they are would change drastically.

Take education, for example. In the Victoria region, quite a few families pay for their kids to go to private school. Why not everyone?  Imagine how low our taxes could go if we, especially those without school age children, did not have to pay for public education. The rich would still be able to pay. Maybe some middle-class families could scrape up their pennies (OK, I know, let’s say nickels) to make it work. 

The rest of us? Yeah, well, that is the problem. You cannot make a profit on people who cannot pay at all. Not to mention what would happen to all those kids who would suddenly not go to school. It would mean a radical re-structuring of our society.

Or consider healthcare. A quick glance south of the border shows what that looks like. If you have enough money or even a decent insurance plan, you get some of the best health care in the world. If you cannot pay, well, hmmmm, ahhhh…please do not get sick.

Even under the much lauded Obamacare, with its Byzantine conditions of opt-out and opt-in, private companies will still make huge amounts of money. More folks will get healthcare, yes, but more profits will be built in. 

If we encouraged a market-based healthcare system in Canada, some citizens would certainly get excellent care. Others not so much. And still others, not at all.

So we do fund lots of activity that would not survive if it had to make a profit. But why the arts? The answers are legion and growing every day. Let’s get beyond the stale ’60s argument—art is good for the soul, and the lame, limited ’80s argument—art is good for business. Here are a few of my responses:

1. The arts encourage critical thinking—handy in an increasingly complex society.

2. The arts help people to be empathetic and compassionate—qualities that enhance the impulse for social and economic equality.

3. The arts stimulate a deeper understanding of cultural and racial diversity.

4. The arts are fun; they give us pleasure, we dance, we sing, we make marks on paper or canvas or walls. Ask any cultural evolutionist why this is important.

5. The arts are good for R&D. Not unlike scientific research, the arts create creative contexts which generate useful research in architecture, fashion, pop music, commercial design, etc.

Now, I am just getting warmed up here. How about community cultural development, urban planning, spirituality, cultural tourism, innovation, emerging technologies, etc. Seen through these lenses, it becomes obvious that we should fund the arts.

In Victoria, we have perhaps the highest level per capita of artists in Canada. They are visibly active in visual art, performing arts, writing, and media arts. Plus most audiences for their work are arts-literate, educated and blessed with disposable income. 

The majority of our region’s arts organizations are based in Victoria, yet most arts funding comes from a regionally-based CRD pot of money. But that is another column for another day.

Right now, we have a provincial election coming up. The Liberal government has had an uneven, mostly inexplicable, record on arts funding. In 2008-09, they unexpectedly slashed arts funding, particularly the BC Arts Council. 

This was also the beginning of the redirection of so-called “gaming funds.” This is a pot of money that comes directly from lotteries and other forms of gambling and was committed to non-profit, charitable organizations as a condition of extending the legalization of gambling. It should not go into general revenues.

Then in the lead up to the Vancouver Olympics, there was suddenly bushels of money to restore some of the Arts Council funding; for arts consultations; to create a Cultural Olympiad; and for special commissions and projects. Full disclosure: I gladly accepted some bucks as an arts consultant. 

So it seemed that a new, post-Olympic-party truce was in place, that the government had seen the absolutely vital role that the arts had played in showing off BC to the world. At the very least, it seemed that they “got” the cultural tourism argument.

Then, suddenly, within a few months of the closing ceremonies, organizations were slashed, some over 50 percent, causing protest and outrage in the arts community. This with no consultations with cultural organizations or even the government’s own bureaucrats. Staff at the BC Arts Council itself were surprised. One employee mentioned that if the government had simply asked, the staff, would have told them not to cut, but rather to build on the amazing success of the Cultural Olympiad and related Olympic arts events.

When I talked with Spencer Chandra Herbert, the NDP critic for culture, about why this had happened, he responded, “Honestly, I think it was a mistake. I do not believe that the Liberal government understands the crucial link between the creative economy and the BC economy in general.” 

I asked him what that means in real terms. He continued, “Take the BC film industry. Over the last couple of decades, our province has built up a thriving, creative industry that provides thousand of direct jobs, shows off BC to the world and also creates spin-off employment. With the policies of this government, we are losing our edge, we have slipped from third place to fourth after LA, New York and Ontario. We are simply not providing the incentives to keep productions shooting here.”

Even the Liberals themselves seem to recognize that their slash-burn-restore-and-then-repeat policies are not working. In January 2012, a few months before stepping down as finance minister, Kevin Falcon acknowledged that arts groups got the short end of the stick in the name of fiscal discipline. He stated, “In retrospect, it was a mistake at how aggressively we did that.” 

Now as we approach an election, the provincial government has miraculously announced new, record levels for arts funding! At the press conference, Minister Bill Bennett declared, “There is a natural resource more important than any other—creative minds.” I guess creativity is especially important in an election year. 

When I queried Herbert if things would be different under the NDP, he offered three components of their arts and culture plan-in-progress: money for cultural infrastructure not just operating funds; multi-year funding so arts organizations can plan properly (increased, multi-year funding is also part of the BC Greens’ platform) and thirdly, a fresh look at revitalizing incentives in the the film sector.

Chandra Herbert, who could easily become the next provincial Minister of Culture, ended by saying, “Honestly, I would like to see more creativity in all aspects of government.”

Something else to think about when you mark an X on your upcoming ballot.  

Chris Creighton-Kelly is a Canadian artist and writer who lives in the Victoria area. Along with France Trépanier, he is the co-author of Understanding Aboriginal Arts in Canada Today.