Arts groups upset over short notice for provincial grant suspensions

Edmonton arts organizations are upset over the province’s decision to suspend the project grant funding they rely on with little warning.

Funding diverted to non-profit groups helping with pandemic response

Leela Aheer, Alberta's minister of culture, multiculturalism and status of women, announced the changes to the Community Initiatives Program through a press release.   (Richard Marion/CBC)

Edmonton arts organizations are upset over the province's decision to suspend the project grant funding they rely on with little warning.

About $2 million of funding used for the project portion of the Community Initiatives Program will be diverted so non-profit organizations helping with the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Minister of Culture, Multiculturalism and Status of Women Leela Aheer says front-line organizations need additional money to deal with demands of the pandemic. 

"This is temporary as we fight through COVID-19," Aheer said in an online video Friday. 

"I understand for some organizations that this is disappointing but it's so important right now that we do all that we can do to take care of each other and to save lives." 

The government announced the change on Tuesday through a news release titled "Prioritizing funding for front-line non-profits." But many arts organizations were unaware of the change until Thursday, one day before the deadline for one of the three application intake dates this year. 

The province also changed the eligibility rules for the new June 15 intake date.

Only groups with "a primary mission or mandate to provide direct services and programs that address social issues for vulnerable, disadvantaged and at-risk individuals" will be allowed to apply, leaving out many arts, sports and community organizations.

CBC News asked to interview Aheer about the changes. Instead, Danielle Murray, the minister's press secretary, replied with a written statement.

"We have temporarily reallocated money from the CIP Project-based grant to the CIP Operating grant to help struggling small and medium-sized front-line charities and non-profits maintain their core operations and continue to provide important services to the most vulnerable during the COVID-19 pandemic, this was based upon needs not cost savings," said the statement.

CBC did not receive an answer to a follow-up email with questions for the minister. 

Organizations feel unvalued

Heather Inglis, the artistic producer of Workshop West Playwrights' Theatre in Edmonton, learned about the change in a conference call with other theatre professionals on Thursday. 

"We had been working on the grant on and off since January only to discover that the funding wasn't available," Inglis said in an interview with CBC News. 

John Hudson, artistic director of Edmonton's Shadow Theatre, also learned of the CIP project grant suspension on Thursday. He estimated he spent 20 hours working on his grant application.

"That time is wasted. It could have spent in other areas," he said. 

"It is disappointing and I think even a couple weeks notice would've been well worthwhile."

Hudson was seeking $30,000 to launch a paid mentorship program where women are hired for two years to train as future artistic directors so they can break into positions that are currently dominated by men. 

"Basically we want to help build the artistic leadership in Alberta for the future and make sure that those positions are open and available to young women," he said. 

Shadow Theatre had already secured matching funding from the Edmonton Arts Council, a condition of receiving CIP grants. 

Inglis had also acquired matching funding for her project, which was the Edmonton version of a national initiative called The Shoe Project, where playwrights work with immigrant and refugee women to help to tell their stories to Canadian theatre audiences. 

Both Inglis and Hudson worry that this week's sudden suspension of funding shows how the United Conservative government views the arts and non-profit sector. 

"We know we're not a high priority for this government," Hudson said.  "That's for sure."

"It doesn't feel like our contributions to Alberta are being valued and I think that's incredibly sad," Inglis said. 

The province is bumping the maximum amount for a CIP operating grant from $60,000 to $75,000.

The last intake date was on Jan. 15. While requests for operating funds will be reviewed, it isn't clear what will happen to project funding requests submitted on that date.