Artists Fear Indifference From Megacity

By David South

The Annex Gleaner (Toronto, Canada), February 1997

The Harris government’s proposed megacity is stirring up fear, rumour and speculation in many quarters, and no group is more worried than Toronto’s artists.

The merger of Toronto into a new megacity will place arts funding in jeopardy. Toronto’s generous contributions to the arts far exceed those of any other municipality in the region, meaning the city’s artists could be devastated if Toronto receives only a sixth of a new mega arts budget.

Currently, Annex-based artists and arts groups can turn to two levels of municipal funding: the City of Toronto and Metro Toronto.

Even at the Metro level, Toronto artists receive the bulk of arts funding, and a healthy share of that money goes to individuals and groups based in the Annex.

Alas, the Annex’s vibrant milieu of resident artists, festivals and respected institutions is small comfort to many arts supporters who fear the indifference of politicians from the satellite cities and the cost-cutting measures of the Tories.

They worry because the budget of the Toronto Arts Council, which will be eliminated under amalgamation, far exceeds the contributions to the arts made by the surrounding cities. In 1996, Toronto’s arts budget was $4.7 million, compared to $325,905 for the five other Metro municipalities combined.

Many fear Toronto’s superior cultural activities will simply be overlooked by philistine councillors from Metro’s satellite cities.

Tarragon Theatre general manager Mallory Gilbert, a former resident of Detroit who witnessed first-hand that city’s decline, worries Toronto could go the same way.

“Once you get a population that doesn’t work or entertain downtown, they will just want an expressway through the city.”

As Gilbert sees it, those voters who never patronize the arts in downtown Toronto are going to pressure politicians not to fund them. Gilbert also worries that suburban councillors will demand quotas to ensure arts funding is redirected away from downtown Toronto.

Anne Bermonte, associate director for the Toronto Arts Council, also fears downtown artists will be lost in the megacity abyss.

“The political make-up will resemble Metro rather than Toronto – the councillors who realize the arts accrue benefits will be out-voted.”

Not surprisingly, officials at Metro don’t think downtown will be neglected. John Elvidge, cultural affairs officer at Metro Parks and Culture, doesn’t believe suburban politicians will pull money out of the core of the city. He says this never happened in the past and sees no reason why it would in the future.

“The 28 councillors from the geographic area understand the core of arts is in the downtown. Look at our almost 40-year-funding history: 90 per cent is based in Toronto organizations. If you are a councillor in Etobicoke, you know people go downtown. (North York councillor) Howard Moscoe is the biggest supporter of the arts.”

Statistics show the Annex has a strong competitive advantage over other areas when it comes to receiving arts grants. Bermonte estimates the Annex area currently receives close to $400,000 in grants in the course of a year, from both Metro and Toronto. While half of the Metro culture budget goes to the “big four” (the Toronto Symphony, the Art Gallery of Ontario, the National Ballet and the Canadian Opera Company), the Annex receives 10 per cent of the remaining $3 million, estimates Elvidge. Out of the combined Metro and Toronto budgets of $10.7 million, the Annex receives just under five per cent. All for a population of 36,000.

“There are a lot of artists who live in the Annex area,” says Bermonte. “And the Annex enjoys the economic impact of the presence of those activities. If the Fringe disappeared, there wouldn’t be the animation in the area.”

Unfortunately for artists, the past five years have seen shrinking arts budgets at all levels of government.

While TAC has held on to its current funding level since 1994, Bermonte is worried this could change. TAC’s highest funding level was in 1991, when the board received $5.5 million. Metro has seen its budget drop from $7.5 million in 1993 to today’s $6 million. Both budgets are up for review, with Metro’s expected to drop by a further five per cent.

If the megacity goes through, Bermonte hopes the new municipality will commit to arts funding levels appropriate for a modern, cultured city. She points out that London, England spends $30 million, while Berlin, Germany spends $930 million on culture.

As Gilbert says, if the arts aren’t funded, the Annex will become less interesting to the many notables living here, such as writers Margaret Atwood, Rick Salutin, Judith Thompson, Stuart Ross and MT Kelly.

Deputations will take place at City Hall on Feb. 17 to defend the Toronto Arts Council’s 1997 budget.