Toronto theatre fest gets funding pulled

0 Posted by - June 29, 2011 - Blog, Performance, Policy

Toronto’s indie theatre festival SummerWorks has recently reported that core funding from Heritage Canada has been pulled at the last minute. Given the ire the festival drew from the government over last year’s play about terrorism in Canada, those of us working in the arts are feeling a sudden chill in the collective national room. Has funding been cut based on politics and ideology stemming from a top-down castigation from Harper’s majority Conservative “terror-fighting” government? Or is SummerWorks one of many past and future arts institutions in Canada that is being forced to “tighten the belt” as the country’s books are balanced somewhere between new fighter jets and closing literary programs? (as Federal Finance Minister Flaherty has said: Annual funding, don’t count on it.)

Michael Rubenfeld, Artistic Producer of SummerWorks is understandably tight-lipped on these matters below, but one thing is for sure. Whether SummerWorks had $47,000 in federal money pulled out from under them for reasons of censorship or neoliberal economics, the outcome is the same: another robust arts institution in this country—in this case “the largest juried festival in Canada featuring predominantly New Canadian plays”—must lean into the oars of an embattled, creaking ship known as the publicly funded arts, and stave off another sinking.

While Canada’s 65 new and very non-public F-35 fighter jets cost over $100 million each, a tiny fraction of that amount has been yanked away from SummerWorks. Violence versus art? – Sounds like a conversation about terrorism to us…

Art Threat: SummerWorks has been criticized in the past by Stephen Harper’s Tories, over a play about terrorism called Homegrown (by Catherine Frid). Can you tell us what the fracas was over, exactly? And what was the outcome of that whole affair?

Michael Rubenfeld: The Toronto Sun printed a front page story claiming the work glorified terrorism. They had not see the play. The outcome was that the PMO chose to issue a statement and the Prime Minister was quoted on the issue saying they do not support anything that glorifies terrorism.

Heritage Canada has unceremoniously and surprisingly pulled annual funding of almost $50,000 for SummerWorks. While this has happened very recently, it is not a stretch to surmise that it is part of the long-tail action of a government nervous and parochial about certain controversial issues – domestic terrorism and the so-called Global War on Terror falling in that category. Do you think the past problems with Homegrown are fuelling the current actions by the government to cut SummerWorks funding? If not, what do you think is the problem?

It is my sincere hope that this wouldn’t be the case. The letter we received stated that our “proposal was reviewed in accordance with the Government’s ongoing objective to fund projects designed to identify and deliver measurable, tangible results which contribute to Program objectives; provide the best possible value for money and meet the needs of Canadians. It is within this context that … your application has not been approved.”

The Tories cite “value for money” as a problematic around the government funding for SummerWorks. How do you feel that an arts event and/or organization can even go about quantifying the experience of audiences at such festivals? This seems to us, at Art Threat, to be the aggressive application of neoliberalism by the Canadian government – art must conform to established rules and norms of our free market economy. If it doesn’t fit, make way for a commercial-friendly model that will. Do you feel this is a fair assessment of current Conservative Party policy and attitudes toward the arts in Canada?

I think a fair quantification would be looking at how important the festival or organization is towards cultivating a Canadian culture, and the kinds of opportunities are being presented for Canadian citizens. SummerWorks is one of the most diverse festivals in the country, that gives a strong, inclusive voice to artists from across the country.

As a Nation, we are a community that is working together to continue to cultivate a strong national identity through our cultural voice. Arts organizations and their patrons from around the country rely on festivals like SummerWorks to cultivate our artists and the early stages of their work and careers. Many of the most influential theatre and TV and film artists and cultural leaders in our country have careers because of their ability to turn to a festival like SummerWorks to help them cultivate their craft.

We have been funded for the past five years while under a conservative government. We program over 40 separate productions a year, with an incredibly diverse series of shows. We’ve been grateful for the strong support and relationship we’ve had with Canadian Heritage and the conservative governments’ past recognition of the value of our festival, and it is my hope that we will be able to continue our relationship with them in the future.

Earlier this summer a few of us had it in mind to do a mini-festival on terrorism (not exactly an original idea, but nonetheless not one that has been over-done). The festival would feature media critical of the GWOT and the attack on civil liberties in Canada. Talking to a friend in Ottawa close the columns of power we were basically told “With a Harper majority? Be prepared to lost ALL your funding for ALL your other projects.” We thought this was nonsense – such organized, widespread censorship was not only impossible in the over-bureaucratic Canadian government, it didn’t make sense in terms of wasting time on “the little guys” and our comparably innocuous public projects.

With the recent pulling of SummerWorks’s Heritage budget by the Harper government, I am wondering if this is not the stuff of conspiracy, but actual soft policy in action. What do the organizers at SummerWorks think?

SummerWorks has been very consistent in the kind of work it has programmed in its years while under a Conservative government. We have always had edgy, challenging work that has asked important, provocative questions of the world we live in. Canadian Heritage and our Conservative government has been a long-standing supporter of the festival, and I would hate to think that any sort of soft policy would be in place now with a majority government.

When Harper won his majority, the Canadian arts community released a collective shudder that shook the foundation built from decades of government arts support (however grand or small in scale). Talk quickly spread of the NFB being reduced to rubble, the Canada Council for the Arts diminished to a think tank, scraps for the literary arts disappeared and more.

Basically, judging Harper and the Tories by past actions—PR piano-playing notwithstanding—has arts makers and supporters very nervous as to the ensuing gutting and slashing that many say is sure to come with a Conservative majority government. Do you think the Heritage fiscal rug-pulling is part of this arts-slashing phase and that SummerWorks is the most recent victim?

I certainly hope not.

Lastly, on perhaps a more positive note, what are some of the more politically-minded theatrical acts our readers can look for at SummerWorks this year?

We believe all art should have some form of political and socio-political perspective – as it is through these perspectives that we are able to ask questions of the world we live in and recognize that there is a beautiful and complicated humanity that is at the core of all existence. Its in this context that we program all our work.

SummerWorks, “Toronto’s Indie theatre and arts festival,” runs from August 4-14. You can find out more about the festival at their somewhat clunky site. Photo at top: promotional still for Dancing to a Whiteboy Song by mumbi tindyebwa otu and playing at this year’s fest.

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