What Matters Most

Our current City Council has supported arts and culture in our city like no other before it. They adopted culture as an economic driver as one of their priorities, and showed clear vision in purchasing the old Scotia Bank at Five Points for our first Theatre. Repeatedly, this Council has stepped up to the plate for arts and culture because they understand its importance to the people, our city and our economy.

Council’s attitudes and actions have buoyed artists and arts groups. It is easier to pour yourself into your work and to make the financial sacrifices so many artists make when you feel appreciated, when you feel the backing of your city. The community has stepped up too, donating time and equipment to our Theatre, and through use and attendance. Since it opened, our only community-centred performance space has been well and innovatively used, and has prompted new series like Six Strings at Five Points.

So when staff presented a draft budget entitled ‘Doing What Matters Most’ in which they chose to leave out funding for our Theatre, thus jeopardizing a time sensitive multi-million dollar federal grant and our city’s reputation, the arts community was surprised and more than a little apprehensive. The draft budget, it appears, not only ignores one of Council’s stated priorities, but reflects an old misperception that arts and culture are a frill, a ‘nice to have.’

This idea that we ‘subsidize’ the arts while we ‘invest’ in other sectors of the economy is not new. In the recessions of the 1980s and 90s, and with Mike Harris’s Common Sense Revolution, arts and culture budgets were slashed and a huge part of our economy reeled, with parts of it collapsing. Many small and medium sized businesses – the ones that employ the people and drive our economy – went under or downsized significantly.

The reality is that in this land of drawers of water and hewers of wood, culture represents twice the economic clout of agriculture and forestry together.  Culture far outstrips the auto sector which has recently been subsidized with billions of tax dollars. Indeed, culture is equal to gas and oil extraction and mining combined. Ontario receives $2.20 for every dollar the province invests in the arts. The federal government claims higher still. If only our RRSPs performed so well.

Barrie was very fortunate to receive the offer of a grant from the federal Cultural Spaces program. Grants, at least in the arts, are not easy to get, and the idea of rejecting one is unheard of and may damage all future applications. This infrastructure money is now proclaimed by a federal funding billboard, just like the road work and other stimulus funding our city has received. The federal government is offering this investment because they understand that they will get out more than they put in. Likewise, according to our City’s own numbers, our investment of $2.5 million will result in a $4 million boost to GDP downtown in the first year alone.

Despite the fact that the numbers are on our side, the arts community is worried that culture will once again fall victim to short-sighted, bottom-line thinking based on old misperceptions. This is felt all the more acutely because our community has felt some real support from this Council. The community is concerned that if the renovation does not proceed this year, we will lose the federal funding and the revitalization will never occur. Without profession facilities, we will continue to lose our young talent and we will fail to capitalize on the economic opportunities for growth within our grasp.

The arts community commends Council for the support it has shown, and the measurable impact on the arts and downtown revitalization that have resulted. It is unfortunate that we must rally for our city’s share of funding for a project that will boost our economy when little is said about spending far, far more on recreation facilities or police and fire service infrastructure. But the arts community is resilient and committed. More than that, we remain hopeful that Council will stay the course and see this vital community project through.

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