Make Art History takes on BC’s arts future

With the gutting of government arts funding, local group asks, 'Now What?'

Credit: Flickr / Napalm Nikki

Now What? symposium on Friday, June 25 addresses the development of a sustainable arts and culture sector in Vancouver

On a recent trip to Montréal, I was struck by the vibrancy of that city’s arts scene. I began with a free Saturday visit to the McCord Museum. Next, I heard (or rather felt, given their bass-heavy performances) the minimal dub-techno of Vladislav Delay, Tim Hecker and Ben Frost at the Mutek Festival. My rainy Sunday brightened with another free museum—this time the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Montréal—and a (ticketed) visit to a multimedia exhibit on Miles Davis, once a fixture at the city’s Jazz Festival.

I share this experience not to brag about my trip or to make any tit-for-tat comparison with Vancouver, but rather to highlight the cultural events a clueless tourist can discover in a single weekend. And the fact that these high-quality, heavily attended events all benefitted from government support.

Make Art History symposium: Now What?

Friday, June 25, 2010

7:30–9 p.m.

W2 Storyeum, 151 West Cordova St, Vancouver

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In Vancouver, we’re lucky to have a dedicated, diverse, vibrant arts community. But we also face the challenge of recent funding cuts. In March 2010, the BC Liberal government’s 2010–11 budget sliced the BC Arts Council budget in half, withdrawing approximately 50 percent of Gaming Grants for arts and culture.

According to Make Art History, a local group dedicated to facilitating  discussion around the topic of arts and culture in Vancouver, prior to these cuts, we already had one of the lowest levels of arts funding of any Canadian province: just one-20th of 1 percent of the provincial budget.

Many argue the arts are intrinsic to a vibrant economy and sustainable community building. But to do this, how can the arts themselves be sustained?

A group of panelists explore this problem at the Now What? Symposium, a panel discussion produced by Make Art History about the development of a sustainable arts and culture sector, on June 25, 2010, 7:30–9 p.m. at W2 Storyeum (151 West Cordova St).

I asked several speakers from the even to reflect on the connections between art and sustainability. A major current running through all of their answers is the need to reassess how we value the work of the artist—giving full credit and compensation for artists’ contributions to the good of the whole community—and create reliable means for sustaining them in their work.

Kate Armstrong, Vancouver-based artist, writer and independent curator; instructor at Emily Carr University:


Kate Armstrong on BC arts funding cuts

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For me, the discussion is: “how can we reorient our understanding of culture so that it becomes the central thread that attaches everything to everything else?” We need to treat art and culture as a huge fat strand of creative activity that runs through everything, creating connections across sectors—business, social ventures, health, environment, technology, urban planning, government, media, the academy. Culture has been treated as a decoration, but it’s not the decoration. It’s the glue.

David Jordan, executive director of the Vancouver International Fringe Festival:

Art must be born out of community to be sustainable. Theatre in particular needs community. People support it by attending, volunteering to paint sets or run box office, because they know the actors on stage, the playwrights or the directors. Art needs to have direct connections to people. Once it’s institutionalized, it’s in danger. That’s not to say that it doesn’t need infrastructure—it needs organization… [But] fundamentally all we do is connect artists and audience[s]. Government funding is about helping these things that are naturally sustainable to flourish.


Spencer Chandra Herbert, MLA, Official Opposition Critic for Tourism, Culture and the Arts:

Einstein said it best when he wrote “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” But that is what we as a people, and through us our government, have done for far too long… I firmly believe we as a community can lead the change and build a fair, prosperous and environmentally sustainable world, but only through embracing creativity, innovation, curiosity and the great diversity of ideas, cultures and peoples in coming up with solutions—all practices the arts do so well.


Keith Higgins, administrative coordinator, Helen Pitt Gallery; honorary board member, Art Speak:

When the public’s focus is on cutbacks to funding of arts organizations, it is worth reminding everyone that the largest source of support for the arts—for galleries, dance companies, media art production centres, small publishers and everyone else—is not private donors, not corporate sponsors and not government funding agencies. The primary source of support is the underpaid and often unpaid labour of artists and cultural workers. Any new vision for economic sustainability of arts organizations needs to address the economic sustainability of artists’ lives first.


Amir Ali Alibhai, Executive Director, Greater Vancouver Alliance for Arts and Culture:


Meet Amir Ali Alibhai

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The arts are ultimately about exploring, communicating and affecting our values. The arts and culture have the capacity to “move” us—to help us shift our perspective. If social, economic, cultural and spiritual sustainability is to be achieved in our society, it will require that we be moved from our current position, and the arts and culture are integral to such a project. In order to realize such a world, it is important that the investments made by the provincial government in arts and culture are sufficient and sustained. The arts and cultural community needs to create open and clear relationships with the public and elected officials.



Rob McMahon

Rob McMahon is a Vancouver-based freelance writer who covers music for the Metro News chain and has contributed to the Georgia Straight and Northword, among others. A doctoral student at SFU’s School of Communication, he researches and writes about intercultural journalism, media democracy and online media.