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Keeping A Promise: Funding the Arts in Toronto

January 15, 2013.

German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche observed, “One must have a good memory to be able to keep the promises that one makes.”  Could any statement be truer than this when it comes to politics?

In 2001, a campaign was launched by young artists and activists to introduce a billboard levy in the City of Toronto with the objective of leveraging those funds toward increasing public art, improving the public realm and supporting the arts across the

city.  Fast forward to 2009 and after much advocacy, City Council approved a motion implementing a tax on billboards.  Mayor Ford, then the Ward 2 Councillor, offered his guttural reaction to the proposed allocation of the billboard revenues to arts funding, “The arts and culture people that think you’re getting this money — you’re not getting this money.”

The billboard advertising lobby quickly challenged the tax in court and after a lengthy legal battle, the Supreme Court of Canada declined to hear their appeal in December 2010, meaning the new billboard tax will stand.  During the 2013 budget discussions, the Economic Development and Culture staff recommends that city council defer arts funding targets until the 2014 budget process and cites the need for additional reports, more consultation and deferred planning on how to use the funds before disbursement.  The question during this year’s budget deliberations is do we fulfill the promise we made to those young artists and dedicate this revenue to the purpose it was intended for?  Or do we make a new promise to keep our old promise?

Two years after the first proposal of the billboard tax, in 2003 City Council passed the Culture Plan for the Creative City, which called for, amongst other things, raising the city’s per capita funding of the arts from $14 to $25 by 2013.  The issue arose again in 2010 and again Council reaffirmed their commitment to achieving the goal of $25 per capita by 2013.  This time Councillor Ford campaigning to be Toronto’s new mayor voted in favour along with 40 other council members.  It appears that the Councillor from Ward 2 now believes this is “gravy” worth spending.  One year later, the thinking behind the city’s most prolific penny-pinching mayoral aspirant is evolving and for the arts community, it can’t come soon enough.

The benefits of investing in arts and culture are well documented. According to the Arts Education Partnership and numerous studies, students engaged in the arts perform better academically.  At-risk youth find an outlet and a home in arts and cultural organizations.  The arts function as catalysts for civic engagement, creating a sense of place and a desirable quality of life.  It provides us with cultural legacies, preserving our heritage and giving us a window into the histories of others.

The challenge with art-driven societal benefits is that they are difficult to measure.  Held up against the concrete numbers of TCHC backlog repairs or the costs of subway construction, these intangible benefits can lose their significance.  So let’s focus on the tangible.  Let’s talk about the economics of arts and culture.  One of the best kept secrets in Toronto is that investing in the arts is not only one of the most socially responsible things we can do, it’s also one of the most fiscally sound investments we can make.

According to a 2006 report from the Council for Business and the Arts in Canada, government investment in the performing arts sector earns a positive return of more than 200% when direct and indirect benefits are taken into account.  The Ontario Arts Council estimates that 252,000 Ontarians are employed directly by the culture sector. In the Greater Toronto Area, there are approximately 8500 arts and culture organizations employing 150,000 people, generating an estimated $9 Billion for the nation’s Gross Domestic Product says the Greater Toronto CivicAction Alliance.  The city’s own website says that in 2009, 2.9 million visitors reported cultural activity as the reason they came to Toronto and cultural tourists, the Travel Industry Association of America tells us, tend to stay longer and spend 36% more money at their destinations than other kinds of travellers.  The Canadian Opera Company receives just under $1.32 million from the city and generates over $35 million in local revenue.  The Toronto International Film Festival generated $131.7 million for the local economy in 2008-2009 and created 2365 jobs from a city grant of $800,000.  Bay Street would be thrilled to receive returns like that.

The City of Toronto is now projecting a 2012 end-of-year surplus of $232 million.  This is double the earlier projection of $115 million and in addition to the accumulated billboard tax; the larger surplus allows the city to increase funding for arts and culture without further excuses.  This is one investment that can achieve so many of our goals including improved academic performance, increased neighbourhood engagement and connectivity, energized civic discourse, better quality of life, strengthened cultural and historical awareness, more employment opportunities, higher tax revenues, greater international reputation and excellent return on investment.

Toronto currently spends $19 per capita on arts and culture.  Ottawa spends $28, Calgary, $42, Vancouver, $47, Montreal, $55. The global success of our arts and cultural institutions is a testament to the talent and drive of our artists and the prescience of the private sector to recognize the benefits of investing in the arts.  Imagine what Toronto could achieve if we fulfilled the decade long pledges, utilize the billboard tax for its original purpose and increase per-capita arts funding to $25.  I shudder when thinking about our decade of missed opportunities.  City Council should ensure we don’t lose another ten years.  Let’s keep our promise today.