4 min

Future of Toronto’s cultural plan in jeopardy

Economic Development Chair may not back funding increases

Brendan Healy says infrastructure is a major problem for artists in Toronto. Credit: Andrea Houston

UPDATE: The city has provided Xtra with a list of upcoming consultations and focus groups. An invitation-only focus group will be held Feb 16 from 8-10am at City Hall to discuss “Sustainable Space and Entrepreneurship.”

Additional public meetings will be held at City Hall’s Council Chambers on Mon Mar 28 and Thu Apr 7 from 6-8:30pm. The meeting on Apr 7 will be focused on “Youth and Youth-focused Cultural Organizations.”

The city’s Rita Davies, executive director of culture, says that members of the culture task force will be present at these meetings.


City council under Mayor Rob Ford is launching public consultations on a new strategy for arts and culture, but the first round of consultations leaves much to be desired, some artists are saying.

Under the direction of Councillor Michael Thompson (Ward 37, Scarborough-Centre), chair of the city’s economic development committee, the Creative Capital Initiative was announced to review the 10-year Culture Plan for the Creative City. Launched in 2003, that plan’s goal was to position Toronto as a globally competitive creative city.

Most of that plan’s intermediate goals have been accomplished, but a key plank — to raise the city’s per-capita spending on arts and culture from $18 to $25 by 2013 — remains in limbo, despite council’s renewing its pledge last year in a vote that Ford supported when he was a councillor. Arts spending is frozen in this year’s proposed budget, and the mayor has not ruled out cuts to the arts in next year’s budget. Thompson has also told Xtra that he may not support increases to the city’s culture budget.

Queer and minority artists often need public support because their audience bases are smaller than mainstream artists’.

Thompson’s new initiative is a task force chaired by Robert Foster (CEO Capital Canada), Karen Kain (artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada), and former federal cabinet minister Jim Prentice. The task force is holding invitation-only focus groups with arts stakeholders and will help Thompson draft a new cultural plan. Artists can ask to be placed on the guest list by contacting the city’s culture department; media are not invited to these closed-door meetings.

In addition, open consultations are being held, but these are led by city staffers who will report back to the task force only. People are also encouraged to post comments on the city’s blog.

Thompson says that the public will be able to influence the cultural plan after its report has been completed.

“When the task force brings the report to the committee, through that process, we’ll have recommendations that will be brought into public dialogue for discussions and debates,” he says.

The city councillor insists that this process is inclusive.

“Everybody will be invited and consulted with, and we will make available opportunities to consult. We want everybody in the tent,” Thompson says.

“It’s a very positive process,” says Rita Davies, the city’s executive director of culture. “It’s about looking at the arts community, updating our understanding and getting their ideas so that we can frame a set of recommendations to city council that will both support the community but support the cultural community’s engagement in city building.”

A Feb 9 invitation-only focus group on cultural attractions included representatives from Caribana, Ontario Place, Artscape, Mirvish and Pride Toronto, among others, Thompson says. Calls to Pride Toronto were not immediately returned. 

The process is similar to the process used in 2003 when the original ten-year plan was created, but that it has been accelerated for political reasons, says Davies.

“We’re moving quickly because we want to be able to positively impact the 2012 budget process and that timeline has been accelerated to start around June,” she says.

Buddies in Bad Times Theatre had not been invited to any of the focus groups as of Feb 10, says artistic director Brendan Healy. He plans to attend the downtown public consultations when they’re scheduled, to tell the city to commit more funding and resources to the arts.

“I would encourage them to stick to the [$25]-per-capita funding plan as stated. I think that’s the one point they haven’t quite reached,” he says. “I would say that building and infrastructure, those are huge weaknesses in our city for all of our major theatres and mid-sized theatres.”

Buddies’ building is owned by the city and Buddies is housed there rent-free but does not receive city money for major renovations and upkeep, Healy says.

Davies says the city now is aware of Buddies needs and invited Buddies’ general manager Shaun Daudlin to a focus group on facilities on Feb 14, but he was unable to attend.

“We’re hoping that he will follow up on our suggestion that he send his comments to the Live With Culture page,” she says.

The first public consultations were held in Etobicoke and Scarborough. City staff said there will be additional consultations downtown, but no dates are scheduled. Most of the city’s working artists live in the core, according to census studies.

At Assembly Hall in Etobicoke on Feb 9, more than 100 people showed up to give input to the process. Only a handful of attendees were professional working artists. Most were community artists and activists.

The city’s official notice of the event left some attendees with the impression that they would be able to communicate directly with the task force or Councillor Thompson. Thompson left after giving a short welcome speech.

“Did anyone else think the actual task force would be here today? I did. They’re not,” tweeted Praxis Theatre’s Aislinn Rose during the meeting.

Davies later clarified that task force member Che Kothari of ManifesTO was present, although he was not singled out by city staff.

While participants differed on what the city’s priorities should be in the arts — professional artists tended to stress the need for job opportunities and marketing initiatives while community artists and activists stressed access for youth and geographic distribution of the arts — all participants seemed to be united on two points: the need for more funding for arts and culture, and the need for more physical spaces for workshops and programs.

Still, Thompson says that he may not support raising arts and culture spending.

“To be quite frank with you, that whole issue of funding has not been front and centre in any discussions I’ve been privy to. In fact what I’ve seen is that there’s some amazing ways for opportunities and revenues to be generated through a number of ideas,” he says.

But Davies contends that raising funding for culture remains a top priority.

“The per capita goal has not been diminished in anybody’s mind,” she says of the focus groups she’s participated in.

Have your say. An invitation-only focus group will be held Wed Feb 16 from 8-10am at City Hall to discuss “Sustainable Space and Entrepreneurship.” E-mail to be placed on the guest list. Public meetings will be held at City Hall’s Council Chambers on Mon Mar 28 and Thu Apr 7 from 6-8:30pm. The meeting on Apr 7 will be focused on youth. Post your feedback on the city’s livewithculture blog.