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Proposed city budget reneges on arts funding increases

Long-sought funding target pushed back another two years in staff proposal

The city will delay its promise to increase funding to the arts to $25 per capita by an additional two years if the budget proposed by city staff passes without amendment.

City council initially proposed raising its contribution to the arts from $14 per capita to $25 per capita in 2003 to match arts funding levels in other major Canadian cities. After extensive consultations last year, council finally gave direction to staff to make the final necessary increases to reach that goal by 2016.

By 2016, annual spending on the arts would increase by $17.5 million under the plan. Cultural funding was increased by $6 million in 2013.

But city staff balked at the increase and altered it in the proposed budget presented to councillors. They propose instead to phase in the increases by 2018, in order to lessen the impact on the property tax base. Arts spending will increase but at a much slower rate.

“Seeing that that request is now being recommended for a two-year delay is not acceptable,” says Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam. “We have to ask questions of staff on why they didn’t follow council direction.”

Increases to the city’s arts and culture budget are directed to the Toronto Arts Council, which awards operational and project grants to artists and organizations, including Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, the Local Arts Service Organizations in the inner suburbs and the Majors, a group of block grants for the city’s largest cultural institutions, including Pride Toronto and the Toronto International Film Festival.

“It’s taken a while to get councillors to understand that we’re not asking for more than what was already committed,” says Claire Hopkinson, CEO of the Toronto Arts Council.

Hopkinson says that the Toronto Arts Council had dedicated its increased funding to three streams: half goes to increased funding in its existing granting envelopes to increase the number of artists and organizations eligible for funds, 30 percent goes to enhancing arts outreach in diverse communities and the suburbs, and 20 percent goes into arts training and innovative programs.

“We had really been struggling to fund at an adequate level many arts organizations, particularly those that had come on stream since amalgamation,” Hopkinson says.

Councillor Gary Crawford, who chaired the task force that pushed for the arts funding increase last year, says he’s confident that council will restore the funding and meet its commitment.

“This year staff had recommended a $3 million increase. That will go up, but . . . I haven’t worked out the details yet,” Crawford says.

In order to mitigate the impact of the increased expense on the tax base, the city is drawing on a reserve fund created from revenues from the billboard tax, which were not spent pending the outcome of a court challenge on the constitutionality of the tax. The city won the case and continues to collect the billboard tax.

Crawford says he will propose a mix of increased draws on the billboard tax reserve as well as draws from the tax base to meet the funding commitment going forward.

Even if city council meets its commitment in 2016, it will be 13 years behind the goal it set in 2003 of matching Montreal’s per capita arts spending. Since then, Montreal has raised its per capita arts spending to $55. Vancouver and Calgary fund the arts at $47 and $42 per capita.

“Every year that Toronto fails to meet its target puts us further behind in . . . cultural competitiveness,” Hopkinson says.

But Wong-Tam is doubtful that Toronto will reach those levels of spending soon.

“Working within the realistic framework of what’s before us, if we can keep within the promises council has made, that’s already an ambitious goal in this administration,” she says.