Arts groups left with 'grounded paranoia' over possible funding cuts after grant changes

Arts organizations are suddenly being left in the lurch as the Alberta Foundation for the Arts changes the way it doles out money due to uncertainty around the Alberta government's expected fall budget.

Alberta Foundation for the Arts changes grant funding from yearly to quarterly before UCP fall budget

Mark Hopkins, co-artistic director at Swallow-a-Bicycle Theatre, says cuts to arts funding would have a profound effect on his company. (CBC)

As the Alberta government mulls its financial situation prior to an anticipated fall budget, at least one provincial body is taking pre-emptive steps to ensure it can deal with potential cuts. 

Left in the lurch: arts organizations. 

Until recently, the Alberta Foundation for the Arts doled out operating grants on a yearly basis. It's money that is meant to be reliable and to allow the day-to-day functions of running a gallery or theatre to move forward.

In June, the foundation notified arts groups those payments would come in quarterly chunks, instead of one lump sum, because there was uncertainty around the upcoming budget from Premier Jason Kenney and his recently elected United Conservative Party government.

"What worries me is what happens if the government decides to massively cut the Alberta Foundation for the Arts and we've only received half of our operating grants," said Mark Hopkins, co-artistic director of Swallow-a-Bicycle Theatre in Calgary. 

"You know, I hope that they would never pull back the grant amount, but it induces a level of perhaps grounded paranoia to wonder: Is part of the reason that these payments are being staggered because they might be clawed back at some point?"

Poverty in the sector

Hopkins said the loss of that money, which he uses to help pay staff, would have a profound impact on his small organization and beyond. 

"What this just means is that if I don't get this grant, I'm going to have to continue to work unpaid volunteer hours in a sector that, you know, artists face poverty," he said. 

"Statistically, we're among the career sectors that are at the highest risk of poverty and we rely on operating funds to be able to pay the people that are creating vibrant culture in the province. So it creates a lot of precarity and adds sort of emotional, psychological, fiscal stress on already stressed groups."

He said it's not "paranoia" to believe that a conservative government would go after arts funding in an effort to find budget savings. 

"There's great precedent for that," said Hopkins.

AFA response

The Alberta Foundation for the Arts declined an interview but sent an emailed statement on the changes. 

"The AFA receives its annual allocation of funding from the Government of Alberta as part of the budget process," reads the statement from board chair Liam Oddie. 

"As the announcement of Budget 2019 is delayed this year due to the provincial election, the AFA is currently operating on interim supply pending confirmation of this year's budget."

Oddie said if any arts organization is concerned about its "continued operation or cash flow," the board will review each situation on a case-by-case basis.

Grants account for the majority of the foundation's expenditures, with $27.3 million of its budgeted $32 million going to all forms of grants. 

Professional performing arts organizations are the largest single recipients of those grants, garnering just over $8.5 million in yearly funds. 

Minister of culture

Like the foundation, Alberta's minister of culture declined an interview and sent an emailed statement. 

"Our government is committed to supporting artists and the arts. We provide funding to the Alberta Foundations for the Arts, an arm's-length organization with a mandate to support the arts in our province," reads the statement attributed to Leela Aheer. 

"We applaud them for their sound fiscal management during this interim period while we work to release the provincial budget in the fall. We will discuss budget decisions about funding for programs at that time."

When asked about concerns over the impact the changes could have on arts organizations with budgets already in place, the minister's office said: "At this time, we don't have further information to provide."


Alberta Opposition Leader Rachel Notley said what's happening with the AFA is "troubling" but is happening across the province.

"It's a version of what we saw with CBE [Calgary Board of Education], and obviously what we would say is that these guys could find the money to dole out a $4.5-billion corporate tax cut several years down the road, why can't they at least do the homework to give certainty for the next 12 months to organizations across a multitude of sectors that need that," she said. 

She said if the plan is to introduce a chill that forces organizations to trim before the budget is even announced, it's misguided.

"This game, if they are doing it to create that, they're doing it in a very blunt, obtuse way that is creating a lot of problems," said Notley.

Funding in Calgary

The change in AFA funding comes months after Calgary's municipal funder, Calgary Arts Development, saw its budget nearly double, from $6.4 million to $11.4 million. 

That increase was an attempt to bring arts funding levels more in line with other jurisdictions.

"From Calgary Arts Development's perspective, we're thrilled at the success that we saw with city council last year in terms of the increase in our budget," said Patti Pon, that organization's president and CEO, when asked what impact cuts would have. 

"It was predicated on the assumption that nobody else was going to get cut at any other order of government. So, you know, the new dollars we had were really about catching up in a status quo environment. So, for sure, my concern is that if a portion of our commitment to the sector through our grant investments becomes substitution, that's a setback."

'Bedrock to a business model'

Pon said operating grants are critical for arts organizations. 

"Operating grants are a kind of bedrock to a business model because it's to fund those things that aren't attractive to a sponsor, or a donor, or another kind of form of philanthropy," she said. 

Hopkins said his company just received its first round of operational grants this year, after years of trying to prove the company's worth to the foundation. 

He said it's already difficult to be an artist in Alberta. 

"So if anything happens with that money, it's not like I'm going to shut the door tomorrow. But man, it's gonna be harder and harder to get up in the morning and say, 'I really want to make theatre in this province,' if we see support clawed back or reduced beyond the paltry level it's already at," he said. 


Drew Anderson

Former CBC digital journalist

Drew Anderson was a digital journalist with CBC Calgary from 2015 to 2021 and is a third-generation Calgarian.


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