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Art and the city

The arts community is focused on Stephen Harper's funding cuts and hurtful words, but is Halifax city council getting off too easy?

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It's a telling sign that more than 500 people showed up last Friday in Grand Parade to protest federal arts funding cuts and to rally around the concept of "Vote Arts," and yet, six hours later, only about 40 to 50 people attended a District 12 municipal candidates debate, hosted at NSCAD University by that school's student union. As pointed out in the meeting, District 12 is home to the most artists, theatre groups, artist-run centres and musical venues---so where did all the arts supporters go?

At the debate, when it came to talking about how the candidates---incumbent Dawn Sloane, Jerome Downey, Cameron Ells and James Stuewe---would represent the interests of their district's cultural community, a lot of floating-bubble words like "passion" and "vision" were tossed around (except for Ells, who doesn't see a difference between those who make their living in the cultural industries and creative thinkers in business, science and natural resources sectors, and expects that tax reform will assist culture "consumers" by reducing the Business Occupancy Tax).

Because arts in Halifax is not a hot municipal election issue, or receiving the same attention as the federal debate, we asked those who make their living in the cultural sector what they think of the municipality's support for their work, and what politicians should consider when trying to get local "votes for arts." We also asked them to grade the city's efforts to date (spoiler alert: they fail miserably).

"The city needs an arts council. All major cities in Canada have three-tiered funding opportunities, Federal, Provincial and Municipal. In Halifax, we don't have municipal funding."
Read what else Eleanor King has to say.

Shahim Sayadi is artistic director for OneLight Theatre. He says the city is lacking artist-support programs that focus purely on individual artistic creation. "There is no policy and there are no indications of any interest to do anything about it. Not by the council, nor the staff...What the city has right now is various community outreach or tax reduction programs for some artists. That is not an arts program. The city apparently feels that it is supporting arts because it sometimes hires artists---for murals, concerts, etc. This is quite different from supporting artists to pursue their own craft---either through project funding or operating assistance." Sayadi would like to see a municipal, arms-length funded council: "This does not have to take another four years to do. All progressive urban centres already have such bodies." Sayadi's grade: "On arts, I have to give our dear HRM council and staff an F."

Filmmaker and AFCOOP director Walter Forsyth would also like to see creation grants for artists and greater community organization funding as well (his grade: D). But as he points out, the lack of repertoire theatres or appropriate screening venues in the city also poses a challenge to the local filmmaking community.

Physical space is also an issue for Briony Carros, director of the advocacy organization Visual Arts Nova Scotia. "For the members of my organization in HRM, lack of affordable studio space is a major issue. HRM does not necessarily need to create these spaces but they can assist by encouraging development of specific spaces with incentives, tax breaks or zoning changes."

"The amount of talent that comes through this city is staggering yet it is near impossible to keep them here."
Read more Briony Carros

While she's seen some positive initiatives such as the new public art policy, Carros also believes that an arts council could provide "leadership and direction in terms of an arts policy and programs...an arts council that is responsible for pushing an arts agenda forward and integrating it into the fabric of our city would be a more efficient and representative way of addressing these issues." Her grade: C.

Artist Emily Jones, co-creator of the backyard Fuller Terrace Fundamental Freedoms Lecture Series, is frustrated by the underutilized Bloomfield Centre and the Khyber building, which will hopefully see new life after council gave $30,000 to Khyber Arts Society to develop a business plan.

Still, Jones believes "HRM council and staff have no idea what the arts community in this city is capable of. The more the city is involved, less is accomplished, because they're too busy doing 'feasibility studies'...I think that a city government should be a big part of the arts and culture. HRM needs to put its faith in the arts community first, before it can possibly begin to make decisions on our behalf. Artists are incredibly resourceful, but like most bureaucracies, the HRM isn't."

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