2 min

The funny thing about SummerWorks’ success

It’s a classic good news, bad news story.

After a year of being hounded by the Sun chain of newspapers for putting on a play about the legal proceedings against an actual accused terrorist — and being condemned for it straight from the Prime Minister’s Office — the SummerWorks Theatre Festival was told a mere six weeks before its opening night that it would not be receiving a Heritage Canada grant that had previously totalled 20 percent of its budget.

Resolving not to go down without a fight, festival organizers launched a very public fundraising campaign and media blitz that generated stories in newspapers across the country. 

The festival has earned a lot of goodwill over its 20-year history and has launched the careers of many of Canada’s great performing artists, directors and writers. So, in two weeks, organizers raised more than 70 percent of the funding they’d lost. And despite a $5 surcharge slapped on all tickets, the festival is reporting a slight bump in attendance this year.

While we should be pleased that the SummerWorks Festival has survived the loss of federal government support, its success this year follows straight from the Conservative playbook.

For years Conservatives, including Toronto’s mayor, have said that support for the arts and other public programs is unnecessary because organizations can simply rely on private-sector sponsors, donors and fundraising efforts. The fact that SummerWorks has managed to do this with no noticeable drop in attendance seems, on the surface, to confirm the Fordian narrative.

The danger is that slash-and-burn Conservatives will look at the success SummerWorks had this year and tell other arts and community organizations that it’s time for them to dig in and find their own resources, too. After all, they’ll likely argue, SummerWorks just proved government support isn’t necessary.

But don’t think that because SummerWorks raised this money this year that every other organization can, now and in the future. There are only so many major donors and sponsors out there. Forcing every organization, from the Toronto Symphony Orchestra to Pride Toronto to the AIDS Committee of Toronto, to seek millions of dollars in new annual private sponsorship at the same time would be devastating.

Organizations that can’t compete for scarce private donations would fold or scale back their activities, while those that survive would shift more resources to fundraising and soliciting. And in the end, we’ll all need to pay more for the services, cultural events and advocacy we cherish.

It’s also not clear that private sponsorship and fundraising would be any more safe and predictable than government grants have been. Will SummerWorks have the same success fundraising next year when it’s no longer the cause du jour?

But this shouldn’t just be a story about what we can and can’t afford. Instead, the logic should be about what we support and why.

Sometimes the public purse is there to pay for things that society can do more efficiently together than individuals can do alone. Sometimes it’s there to provide a safety net for those in need or to mitigate social problems before they become worse. Sometimes it’s there as a collective expression of the desire the community has to see a good thing be done.

Eliminating or reducing public grants for community and artistic endeavours will make our city, province and country a less ambitious and hopeful place, a meaner place and, ultimately, a financially irresponsible place.

The jury’s still out over whether SummerWorks was specifically targeted for programming a show that challenged rightwing thinking, but even if not, its surprise loss of funding was a major blow to an important arts institution. That it recovered and is even stronger now is not a happy ending that other groups should strive to repeat; instead, it should be a cautionary tale to keep progressives on our guard.