A Short History of the BC Spirit Festival

0 Posted by - August 10, 2010 - Blog, Policy

Back in February of 2008, I attended a concert with a good friend of mine. For a relatively casual afternoon affair, all the stops were pulled out. Headlining the show was then-quintessential Canadian songstress Feist, supported by the complete Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. The party was hosted by Ben Mulroney, and played host to all the goofy Olympic mascots: Quatchi, Miga, Sumi and Gordon Campbell.

It was the starting point for the events of what VANOC called the Cultural Olympiad — a two-year running program of dance, music, theatre, music and installation art that showcased for the world the diversity and creativity of BC’s artistic community. Two years to the day after Feist wowed the crowd at the Orpheum, the 2010 Winter Olympic Games were officially opened at BC Place. On display was some of the finest culture BC and Canada had to offer. The centrepiece of the opening ceremonies was BC’s own Shane Koyczan, whose impassioned spoken word piece brought damn near everyone to their feet. Our Olympics were to celebrate our creative prowess as much as our athletic grit.

But running alongside this celebration of BC arts was the spectre of massive financial cutbacks. Before the games even opened, the BC Liberals projected a 90% cut to provincial arts spending provided through the BC Arts Council for the 2010 budget (for what is still one of the best articles on this scheme, read this piece by Mark Leiren-Young of The Tyee). When the March 2nd Budget Lockup announcement rolled around, these cuts had been scaled back to 50%, a devastating blow to an arts sector that already received the least per capita funding of any Canadian province, at a mere $9.67.

So in the words of Leiren-Young, we filled our Olympics with culture, then slashed that same culture to within an inch of its life. Ever since the Liberal cuts have been introduced, community arts groups, particularly outside of major urban centres where significant corporate sponsorship simply doesn’t exist, have been folding at an alarming rate. Even fallback funding for cultural infrastructure, traditionally provided by gaming revenues, has been drastically undercut by the provincial government, which has diverted the vast majority of these revenues back into general operational funding. As Stop BC Arts Cuts says, “this is not just poor policy, it’s a breach of the social contract in which gambling was legalized only if it supported community charities.”

In the wake of established arts organizations like the Victoria Fringe Festival failing to qualify for once-assured gaming and funding grants, and a number of community culture groups closing their doors, the BC Liberals found themselves under tremendous pressure from the arts community to explain themselves and provide some logic to the seemingly arbitrary and ill-conceived cuts.

Here’s the solution they dreamed up: In the same March budget that devastated arts institutions across the province with 50% cuts to existing culture spending, the Liberals also included a strange provision of $10 million in new arts spending. On the surface, there isn’t much sense to cutting if you’re just going to introduce new spending, unless that new funding is serving some purpose for the folks who introduce it. As it turns out, this is precisely what has happened. It was announced this week that the vast majority of this $10 million — the so-called arts legacy fund — has been ear-marked by the Liberals to fund BC Spirit Festival Days: a multi-community series of festivals that, as Faith Dusevic of the Golden Star reports, will be largely geared towards celebrating the first anniversary of the Winter Olympic Games. Communities around the province are invited to apply for funding, which is then granted proportionate to the size of the town, and administered directly by the Liberal government; not by the aforementioned BC Council for the Arts, which has traditionally operated at a safe arm’s reach distance from the government itself.

As it stands, even without the Spirit Festivals, the Olympics for many are a sad monument to the Liberal penchant for paying lip service to the cultural sector, while knowingly “eviscerating” it, in the words of Spencer Chandra Hebert, the MLA who discovered that the Spirit Festivals would receive much of the $10 million in new arts spending. When we look back on Koyczan’s thundering performance at the opening ceremony, it seems to have lost its luster, not for being flawed itself, but because it appears nothing more than misleading political blustering used to buy off a struggling arts community. To promise new arts funding on the condition that it is used to celebrate the very event that constantly reminds us of the wholesale gutting of our cultural sector is the worst kind of insult.

Bill Usher of Kicking Horse Culture, referring to Golden’s plan to apply for Spirit Festival funding, even in his support of it, reminds us of the subtle sting of the program: “When the Olympics ended our funding disappeared so this comes at a really nice time, it’s new support.”

Spirit Festivals ensure that the Liberal government becomes a powerful arbiter of what culture is deemed “worthy” in BC, and run a dangerous risk of becoming little more than a campaign platform for the Libs. Especially, since the festivals are set to be rolled out over the next three years, in anticipation of the next provincial election.

But outside of economic and political arguments, the real slap in the face comes from the arrogance of the Spirit Festival scheme. The government has slashed the arts community in half — then spoon-fed back a shadow of its previous funding in such a way that creative control is ripped from the hands of artists themselves. They are now expected to act as mouth pieces championing a legacy of debt, excess, and political misdirection — and we’re expected not to notice.

Originally published in Beyond Robson

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