Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

What will Doer's exit mean for arts?

Culture lobby's vigilance crucial to keep gains made in last decade

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As the news broke about Gary Doer's resignation Thursday morning, Winnipeg's arts courtiers had gathered at the The Forks to kiss the hem of James Moore, the federal culture minister.

He's the Conservative culture minister. The guy whose boss prior to last October's election implied they were "rich" people who attended taxpayer subsidized "galas" to complain that their grants weren't big enough.

Fortunately, no one had the effrontery to bring up that little incident, and most had yet to hear the Doer bombshell (or fireworks, depending on your politics) explode.

Moore was in town to announce the infusion of $2 million into our arts sector by designating Winnipeg as a "Cultural Capital of Canada" for 2010.

Doer didn't get a mention, even though he's been a pretty good friend to arts and culture -- and maybe after Thursday's news, Miriam Toews and Guy Maddin will get an invitation to Washington to meet Barack Obama.

But back to Moore and this "cultural capital" honour. It's not as though the Ottawa mandarins in Canadian Heritage surveyed their kingdom and said, "Winnipeg, they are the centre of the universe. We must anoint them."

Cultural Capitals is a longstanding federal program that communities apply for. It does not recognize a hopping arts scene as much as a hopping grant-application scene.

It was the Winnipeg Art Council's canny executive director, Carol Phillips, who proved her mettle there. She's also the one who has snagged writer Salman Rushdie for WAC's 25th anniversary lecture Oct. 22.

Most of Moore's one-time $2-million gift will underwrite a slate of programs during Manitoba's 2010 Homecoming party. Since March, Moore's department has been busy dropping similar cheques across the land; in fact, they've promised $100-million worth over two years in their Marquee Festival and Events package.

The Calgary Stampede got $3 million, the Edmonton Fringe Festival $400,000.

The big deal for Winnipeg remains the $22-million annual operating grant being allotted the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, a truly transformational amount.

Winnipeg, of course, has long thought of itself as a cultural capital. In the mid-'90s, the Toronto-based arts consultants Genovese, Vanderhoof & Associates produced stats that showed Winnipeggers attended the performing arts at twice the per capita rate of Torontonians.

After the Globe and Mail wrote about it, we became "the arts capital of Canada." That's our title and we're sticking with it.

Since then, numbers crunched by the likes of urban economist Richard Florida and Hamilton's Hill Strategies show us having an arts community, size-wise, that's consonant with our population. Yes, we continue to throw exceptional talent onto the national scene, but so do other cities.

In fact, there seems to be increased recognition nationwide of the value of the arts industries, both from an economic and reputational perspective.

Despite the bad PR Stephen Harper has earned among the arts crowd, his funding record is respectable. The Canada Council budget has risen a reported 21 per cent since 2006.

In preaching to the Winnipeg choir Thursday, Moore noted that culture contributes $46-billion to our GDP. It employs 640,000 people and is three times as large as the insurance biz and twice as large as forestry.

Doer, too, became a convert, following in the path of Conservative Gary Filmon before him. Doer has been on the CMHR bandwagon from the first press conference. His government has increased spending on culture over its 10 years in power, and has not cut back during this recession.

Through his longtime culture minister, Eric Robinson, Doer has overseen the development of several affirmative action initiatives to encourage the growth of aboriginal arts -- without visibly alienating establishment interests.

Now things could revert to square one. Will the arts lobby decide to publicly support one candidate over another?

What will they do to make sure their interests remain on the table? The film industry, for instance, has been lobbying Doer to hike the tax credit yet again, to gain back the advantage recently stolen by Ontario.

Culture has made gains in the last decade, but at the risk of making a bad pun, the arts leaders should never take anything for "granted."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 29, 2009 c3

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