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Art and the Megacity


01 December 1997

The Toronto West Journal

Politics are often defined, at least in polite company, as "the art of the possible". In the new City of Toronto, however, the politics of Art are being relentlessly defined by diminishing possibilities.

Well before publishing the amalgamation and downloading Bills, the Provincial government had begun the trend towards subsidising deficit reduction through cuts to the Arts. Last year alone, the non-profit culture sector in Metropolitan Toronto was "asked to absorb" a reduction of 21% in net public support.

By the time the Bills receive Royal Assent, our recently elected Toronto Councillors will be grappling with the costs of constructing a new megacity bureaucracy and delivering downloaded services, for which the Province will have passed on responsibility but not financing. The Councillors will face the temptation of continuing the trend of eviscerating the Arts in an attempt to stanch the City's fiscal haemorrhaging.

The Council's ability to resist the temptation of this false economy will be an early test of the new City's character. If it fails that test, the future of the City would be irretrievably prejudiced. In the short term, it would set a tone of intellectual bankruptcy in political decision-making. In the medium and long term, it would accelerate the City's plunge into financial bankruptcy.

Currently, the Arts are directly or indirectly responsible for 7.3% of all employment in Metro. The sector employs more Torontonians than manufacturing, transportation, utilities, business services, finances, and real estate combined, and injects $2billion in wage stimuli into the City.

In total, over 1996, cultural industries centred in Metro had an economic impact of $8.5billion. This is in addition to the $1billion in funds introduced to the City via cultural tourism. The value of additional foreign business brought to Toronto by the Arts is difficult to quantify, but Tourism Toronto reports that one-quarter of all business travellers who chose Toronto as their destination came here in preference to other world cities because of our artistic and cultural attractions.

In the face of such a colossal yield, the $32million municipal support for the Arts in Metro, accounting for less than 0.6% of budgets, appears well invested. The corollary, however, is that cuts in that funding would be of equally dramatic effect. The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) estimates that every $1 per year in municipal funding is tied to a further $24 every two years from other levels of government and the private sector.

Hence, while municipal financing is responsible for only 9.6% of Arts support in Metro, the results of clawing back that funding would be catastrophic to Arts organisations, and in consequence to the new City's economy and the Council's own budget. For every $1 the Council removed from the Arts budget, it would deprive the public accounts of more than $2 in taxes and governmental user fees.

Not only is it ethically unacceptable to try save the City's financial skin by destroying its soul, it is fiscally impossible.

The debate amongst Toronto's Councillors of whether, in the context of amalgamation and downloading, the new City can afford to continue supporting the Arts is divorced from reality. The real question is whether the City can afford not to make those investments.

If this basic financial question goes unasked in the political discourse, a deeper issue passes completely unnoticed.

The Arts not only help vast numbers of Torontonians to earn a living; the Arts make Toronto a city worth living in. They remind us of our shared and diverse past; they speak to our common civic future. They reassure us of the universal truths; they challenge our basic beliefs. They not only reflect the City's essence, but shape the City's destiny.

In this context, Toronto needs to develop a meaningful and comprehensive vision of the appropriate role of municipal government in the Arts. Its current function as financier is vital, but insufficient.

How can municipal government foster a common civic commitment to the Arts? How can it act as a catalyst to engage a wider cross-section of our citizenry with a broader base of artistic activity? How can it build true partnerships across sectors, not only to invite free-market funds and efficiency to the Arts, but to spread the humanising influence of the Arts throughout the economy and society?

Until our newly elected Councillors begin asking the right questions, Torontonians are unlikely to get the right answers.

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