OPINION: Arts & culture, an essential government service

Screen Shot 2015-07-05 at 8.41.53 PMIt’s time we recognize arts and culture as an essential government service that is a vital component in the fabric of our community. The arts express to ourselves and the world our identity as a city, the stories of the people who live here, and our unique perspective. If the importance of the arts for its intrinsic values wasn’t enough, there is also a clear benefit to investing in the arts for economic prosperity and the general quality of life in our city.

The cultural sector makes a $540 million direct contribution to the City of London’s annual GDP (per CBP Data). Cultural establishments estimated to have contributed $329,705,349 in wages and salaries in 2011 (per CBP data). According to the Canadian Urban Institute, London spends $60 per capita on culture and receives a direct contribution of $1,475 per capita in return. There are 1,298 cultural industries and businesses in London. There are 7,703 cultural jobs in the City of London (2011), contributing to an additional impact of just over 3,100 jobs in the region outside of the City of London.

 In London, the arts play a critical role in making our city more vibrant, more tolerant, and more connected. Our city is incredibly fortunate to have a mix of nationally-renowned artists and local favourites, of large institutions and grassroots community groups, and of traditional artists.

Nonetheless, recent events in London makes one beg the question: Is it time we rethink our strategic plan as a city towards the arts and culture sector?

Last week’s strategic priorities and policy committee at city hall voted 15-0 against Orchestra London’s formal request of $375,000 to help pay for their bills and to manage their bankruptcy. The $375,000 request included $215,000 to cover musicians and staff salaries for the month of December, $50,000 to pay for a company to handle their bankruptcy, and $110,000 to pay off what they currently owe to the Canada Revenue Agency.

Let me be clear; the City of London is not in the business of bailing out private entities. To some, this request was solely to compensate individual board members for their poor financial management. If your expenses are higher than your income, you have a problem.

This appeared to be the case for Orchestra London. Orchestra London’s 10 board of directors could be forced by the Canada Revenue Agency, under Sec. 227.1 of the Income Tax Act, to pay $110,000 from their own pockets or they could face prison time. So be it. Over $700,000 in ticket sales are gone, and ticket-holders have every right to be furious. Local musicians were also thrown under the bus. There is no excuse; every board member is responsible for their actions.

Orchestra London’s bankruptcy is an opportunity for us to discuss alternative methods of supporting our local artists and the cultural sector.

Large arts organizations are primarily focusing on designing their programs for an older demographic. This can no longer continue. There needs to be a fair balance to accommodate all artists. The arts need to be more relevant to youth.

 The city needs to continue supporting and implementing the Cultural Prosperity Plan. There needs to be affordable performance spaces available that seat a small group of people in multiple locations. There needs to be affordable studio and multi-use rehearsal spaces to rent. Our community needs to provide more funding towards small arts organizations (or large that provide low-cost services to existing and new artists) and individual artists. The city should develop a vision and plan for cultural facilities as an important investment in city-building. Likewise, we need to continue supporting and investing in our local festivals each year that bring our community together (i.e. Fringe Festival, the Nuit Blanche Festival, Sunfest).

Continued support in these areas will not only strengthen our identity as a local ­community, but it would also effectively ­utilize London’s arts community as a driver for economic prosperity.

Amir Farahi
Amir Farahi

Amir Farahi is the Co-Founder & Executive Director of the London Institute. He is an entrepreneur, columnist, public speaker, and is currently specializing in Economics and Political Science at Western University.

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