Yes, art matters

Op-eds Opinions

Why is it that when budget cuts must be made, whether within the government or a university, the arts are always one of the first to get hung out to dry? What will it take for the arts to be taken seriously? Why are they under-appreciated and underfunded?

The truth came out in a speech Stephen Harper gave in 2008. He said “ordinary people” don’t care about arts funding, painting a picture of the arts consisting of rich people attending lavish, tax-dollar-funded galas. He added that it was a “niche issue,” and that anyone contesting this was elitist.

And who can forget that unintentionally funny and now infamous 2011 interview on the conservative-leaning Sun News Network featuring an ignorant news reporter berating Quebec dancer Margie Gillis about arts funding?

Most of us know that people in the arts actually earn very little. According to the B.C. Arts Council, the province has more than 25 600 working artists, making up over one per cent of the labour force — more than any other province in Canada. But in 2006, the average income for a B.C. artist was $21 069 compared with average earnings of $36 000 for the entire workforce. The Council also acknowledges that artists usually have to dedicate time to working in other fields to make up for low income in their chosen field.

The B.C. Arts Council also points out that many arts managers and art directors are nearing retirement, but younger people who would ideally replace these soon-to-be retirees don’t have the proper experience and training to do so. Maybe some of the recent cuts to arts education have something to do with that.

Earlier this year, Camosun College announced a budget deficit and decided to cut its Applied Communication Program, a popular program that many figures in the media industry have called their starting ground. The outcry over this decision revealed more government ignorance, this time from the now-former Minister of Advanced Education Naomi Yamamoto. She asked, “Do we need communications people in B.C.?” Students and advocates said yes by organizing a campaign to save the program. But in the end, it was still axed. Ironically, within the provincial government there’s a major communications department on top of other ministerial communications branches. Who will they hire to do those jobs properly?

In 2011, Brock Smith of UVic’s Peter B. Gustavson School of Business conducted a study on the economic impact of Greater Victoria’s arts and culture sector. The total economic activity was found to be $170 million in net income activity in 2010, equivalent to 5 400 person-years of employment. Whether or not people truly grasp the social and economic contributions of theatres, galleries, festivals and museums, to name a few, at least the provincial government is trying. This year, the Ministry of Community, Sports and Cultural Development is supporting B.C. arts with $16.831 million the same amount provided last year. This is a significant improvement from the drastic 50 per cent cut in 2010 from around $14 million to around $8 million.

It’s up to artists and students to prove the importance of the arts in Canada. If Prime Minister Harper or even the former education minister couldn’t understand, then many other Canadians likely also share their views. Could this be why so many people with creative intelligence can’t find stable work or participate in fully funded programs supporting their interests, skills and abilities?