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4 min

An injury to culture

BC arts cuts hurt richness of our community

FEELING THE PAIN. Seán Cummings of queer theatre group Screaming Weenie Productions, says that without arts much of the colour is lost from queer lives. Funding cutbacks are endangering the group's future. Credit: Jeremy Hainsworth

One of the landmark cases in Canadian legal history was when Little Sister’s Book & Art Emporium took Canada Customs to the Supreme Court of Canada over book seizures.

Again and again for almost two decades, store owners Jim Deva and Bruce Smyth, manager Janine Fuller and book buyer Mark Macdonald told the courts and the media that the gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans community needs access to their own stories and images.

The reason, they argued in part, was that it allowed queers to know they were not alone, that they had a distinct community, that they had specific culture.

Now, Fuller says, the recent provincial government cuts to arts and culture groups, including queer ones, have a big impact on “a voice that needs to be supported.”

Fuller says the cuts are “something we should feel a deep sense of shame about.”

She says the government has a moral obligation to support the arts.

In addressing how the arts impact the queer community, it’s important to avoid stereotyping.

It is, however, a fact that an incredible number of talented, imaginative and creative people are gay, both locally right now and throughout human history. And our lives are reflected in creative works in print, music, film, sculpture and emerging media.

Both Drew Dennis, executive director of Vancouver Queer Film Festival, and Jeff Gibson, president of Pride in Art Society, acknowledge it as a simple fact.

And, both argue, queer artists tell not our community’s stories to ourselves but also to society in general.

“In a society if you don’t have a face or something you can identify with,” Gibson says, “what it means is society is lacking something.”

He says that given the high proportion of queer folks in the arts and culture sector, our community is affected far more directly by the cuts than are other parts of society.

Further, Gibson says, “visual arts and culture are a record of what we say and do.”

Without the funding to create that record, he argues, queer history is lost and a culture has no background.

“Like any community, the richness of the community is preserved in the arts,” he says.

And, explains Seán Cummings of queer theatre group Screaming Weenie Productions, without arts much of the colour is lost from queer lives.

To illustrate that point, Screaming Weenie revamped its website to protest the arts cuts, posting it only in shades of grey.

Cummings says Screaming Weenie lost a $10,000 grant which helps keep the doors open.

The company is doing a production of Dave Deveau’s Nelly Boy at Performing Arts Lodge Theatre at Cardero and Georgia from Oct 22-Nov 1.

“Caught in the middle of opposing gender ideals, Nelly is forced to confront hatred and his/her own perceptions of the world in order to survive suburbia,” the company’s website says of the production in the West End’s only theatre.

“After that, we don’t know what we’re doing,” Cummings says. “Our metaphorical doors are closing.

“It’s a definite blow to queer theatre in Vancouver. People need to get angry and speak out. This is a competition for public opinion.”

BC’s minister of tourism, culture and arts acknowledges the contribution of queer community members to the arts.

Kevin Krueger says he hopes no arts groups are irrevocably damaged due to grant losses and can continue to provide the community and support they do to queer people.

“I think arts communities are among the most inclusive in any community, and that’s an aspect I’m concerned about,” he says.

Dennis says the importance of queers seeing images of ourselves cannot be stressed enough.

“We turn to our artists to tell our stories,” Dennis says.

It’s through seeing and hearing the stories of others through the arts, Dennis says, that queer folks coming out have that “Wow, I’m not alone” moment.

“How do we find each other? A lot of how we connect is through arts.

“Our lives would be sterile without arts and culture. It permeates our lives and so many things that we take for granted.”

Dennis says cuts to arts funding are throwing a hurdle in the way of that process.

And, adds, gay NDP arts and culture critic Spencer Herbert, the rest of the population having access to queer images creates a more tolerant society, one in which queers would not have to worry about savage gaybashings and hatred.

Both Dennis and Gibson agree with that.

“Art as a form of education,” Gibson says.

Pride in Art was a new applicant for a gaming grant this year and hadn’t counted on the money. Gibson says new applicants were not being considered for grants, so the cuts had little impact.

Not so for Out on Screen, says Dennis.

The festival found out less than a week after it wrapped up this year’s events in August that it would not be getting a $22,000 Gaming Grant they had counted on to help fund the festival and Out In Schools program.

“Given our 16-year history with the Gaming Branch, we reasonably counted on these funds,” reads a statement from the festival. “Notice of an intent to shift priorities at the beginning of the granting process would have allowed us time to plan accordingly. Now, in the short term at least, this leaves us with a shortfall.”

And explains Dennis, many arts organizations use the fact they’re receiving financial support from one level of government to get support from others.

The cuts throw a wrench into that, Dennis says.

“It’s a concern both in leveraging support and in honoring promises that were made. We can’t phone filmmakers and say ‘We can’t pay you.’

“It puts arts organizations in a situation. It was reckless and irresponsible for the province to do that. If nothing else, it’s unfair and being unfair, it’s unjust.”

Gibson says the cuts were a knee-jerk response to sticky economic times.

“They weren’t thinking,” he says. “Communities start to suffer.”

“It’s a very sad time. Sad,” Dennis sighs.

For more info, check out stopbcartscuts.ca.