Arts organizations reel in wake of cuts 

After years of increased arts funding leading up to the 2010 Games, the rug has been pulled out from under many of the province's arts organizations.

Whistler Arts Council is one of the many community groups that recently discovered they would be left without support from the provincial Gaming Grants fund for a second consecutive year.

Earlier this month, WAC received word that the provincial Gaming Grants would not be restored, but also that funding from the B.C. Council for the Arts had been slashed by two-thirds. In 2008, WAC received $40,000 from the Gaming Grants, which went towards three key events: the Whistler Children's Festival, ArtWalk and the Art Workshops on the Lake. Together, the two funding sources represented almost 10 per cent of WAC's overall operating budget, which sat at around $900,000.

Doti Niedermayer, executive director of WAC, says it's a different world now that the Olympic party is over.

"For us it means taking an enormous step backwards, really," she said. "In the last five or six years, we have been really forward in terms of building our capacity and building our programs."

WAC has been working with the Resort Municipality of Whistler, Whistler Blackcomb and the Whistler Chamber of Commerce to build up the community's cultural sector leading up the Games.

"The provincial government has talked about increased tourism as a legacy from the Winter Games," Niedermayer pointed out. "When we talk about why we spent money on the Winter Games, there are sport legacies, there are infrastructure legacies and then there are tourism and cultural legacies."

In 2008, an economic impact study of arts, culture and heritage in the Sea to Sky corridor showed that the collective annual income of arts organizations and artists is about $16.5 million, most of which is spent within the region. The sector also employs almost 650 people and has made more than $35 million in capital investments over the past five years. Factoring in indirect and induced impacts, this translates into a gross economic output of about $26 million annually.

"British Columbia did augment funding for the arts because the Cultural Olympiad and the cultural component of the Winter Games is so important - it's one of the pillars," Niedermayer said. "I think we all benefited from that and we were about to build capacity and build our programs and build the sector, especially in Whistler, because that's what we've been aiming for."

The idea was that visitors who came for the Games would see the artistic community that has been cultivated here in Whistler and return to explore it further.

"We've all worked together very, very hard to build this and suddenly it does feel a bit like the rug's been pulled out, because it's a huge cutback," Niedermayer said. "It's not a small cutback, it's not a small reduction that you might expect after all this lead-up to the Games and a lot of money invested. It's an enormous step back."

While Niedermayer was expecting that the Gaming Grants would be eliminated again this year, and that they might see a 15 to 20 per cent cut in funding from the B.C. Arts Council, she was "hugely surprised" to see the magnitude of the cuts.

"I kind of figured it would take a few years to even out. I didn't put Gaming money in my budget this year and I knew we needed a new strategy for the next three to five years," she said. "But I really wasn't expecting the cutbacks from the B.C. Arts Council. I really did think the provincial government would continue that funding, knowing what they had invested up to this point."

While cultural legacies may be more intangible than the infrastructure investments in Highway 99 and venues like the sliding centre and Whistler Olympic Park, Niedermayer said they were meant to be just as lasting. She is concerned now that much of their hard work could be undone.

"What was the point? It's sort of like putting in a highway and then taking it out again," she laughed. "Because really, the reason you put in the highway in the first place was to ensure that there was an ease of traffic to Whistler in the future and to ensure that tourism would grow and that the highway would be a long-term legacy. It's the exact same thing."

Anne Popma founded and operated the Whistler Centre for Business and the Arts for 10 years and did consulting work for WAC in the years leading up to the Games. She expects the provincial cuts to have a "significant" impact on the local arts sector.

"It was a wonderful opportunity and now we're going to have a tough time," Popma said. "I don't think there's any way we're going to be able to retain the same level of activity as we've had over the past couple of years."

Popma was always concerned that funding would diminish after the Olympics, so they worked towards raising the profile of local arts and cultural offerings and setting up lasting legacies, like the Whistler Museum's new exhibit and the Community Foundation of Whistler's Endowment for the Arts fund, which were designed to help after the Olympic funding dried up.

"We've always been looking at 'what is the value added?' And of course we put on a big party and that doesn't necessarily build infrastructure, but I think we have built considerable infrastructure over the past few years and that's not going to disappear. The challenge is going to be, 'how do we sustain it and strengthen it?'"

Now, Popma said WAC will need to consolidate and choose the most important pieces of the artistic puzzle to hang onto and build on, while shifting some of the responsibility from higher levels of government to the private sector.

"Some of the local businesses well, they had a tough time too, so the relationships are going to really have to be nurtured," she said. "Also, the people who have experienced the arts in a different way are going to have to come to the table, too."

Now that these provincial funding sources have almost completely disappeared, the WAC team is looking at "creative" ways to make up for the shortfalls. Rather than just live with a bare bones programming budget, WAC will be stepping up efforts to raise funds at the corporate and private levels, appealing to benefactors to join their patron program and continue to support their work.

"Even $50 to $100 makes an enormous difference," Niedermayer said. "I mean, if you multiply that by 40, you've got $2,000, and that makes the difference with the Children's Festival and ArtWalk."

But it won't be an easy task. The provincial grants boosted the credibility of their organization, making it easier to leverage alternate funding sources.

"It's a matter of priority, too, and some people say, 'well, if it's not the provincial priority, then why should it be a federal priority?' It sets a tone."

Niedermayer is confident that the RMOW won't follow suit, and will remain supporters of arts and culture in the community. According to the draft financials for 2009, the RMOW made over $400,000 in contributions to WAC through various grants and fee for service agreements.

Staffing cuts are another option, though Niedermayer points out that their four full-time employees, two term workers and two contract summer employees are already stretched thin.

Niedermayer said it is "daunting" to face such radical cuts at the provincial level, especially knowing that Whistler won't have $500,000 from the Cultural Capital fund again this year.

"Last year, with the Gaming cuts, it really didn't impact us an enormous amount because we had the Cultural Capital funding, which was a huge boost to the cultural sector here," she said.

"On the plus side, we've created so many new, great relationships within the municipality with other partners that we've developed over the last few years that... I think we will be finding other ways to make an impact culturally."

The amalgamation of WAC and MY Place Society should also help alleviate the sting of the cutbacks, with additional efficiencies between the two organizations emerging as they "streamline" and share responsibilities.



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