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Is Hamilton funding arts or economic development with new grant money?

An increase of $500,000 for Hamilton arts has arts leaders watching closely how the balance will be struck between funding the arts for their own sake and funding them to foster an economic spinoff.

'It’s clear it’s an economic issue, not just a quality of life issue'

Hamilton Philharmonic executive director Carol Kehoe said investing in arts can lead to both economic impact and 'joy and happiness.' Here, conductor Gregory Vajda practiced with the orchestra for a performance last fall. (John Rieti/CBC)

Even as they cheered a $500,000 boost in city arts funding, Hamilton arts leaders are watching closely how the balance will be struck between funding the arts for their own sake and funding those who can show an economic spinoff. 

​"The economic argument is the one that's more palatable," said Stephanie Vegh, executive director of the Hamilton Arts Council.

"It's a tangible outcome, something you can attach numbers to. But the cultural and the social impacts are equally if not more important. If you're only evaluating the spinoff, you're not necessarily making the best art."

But the economic development argument seemed to sway some otherwise skittish councillors weighing the increase against other city budget concerns.

"It's clear it's an economic issue, not just a quality of life issue," said Coun. Terry Whitehead.

Coun. Jason Farr, conversely, got a bit poetic himself on the other side of the argument, as he praised the arts community for making Hamiltonians "laugh and cry," "think" and "want to dance and sing." 

'Quality of life is hard to measure'

Those factors are by nature tough to outline: How many kids take up flute, how a parade boosts optimism for a neighbourhood's development, or even how a city provides support for artistic risk-taking.

The recent Junos were a prime example of an arts event where tourism, hotel rooms and restaurants saw an economic spinoff.

Loren Lieberman runs Festival of Friends, which received $85,000 from the city last year. He said he hopes the implementation of the new process makes it clearer for applicants what the city wants to see as justification for the investment. 

No one went to art school saying, "I can't wait to generate economic spinoff for my city."- Stephanie Vegh, executive director, Hamilton Arts Council

"There was a whole lot of congratulatory hoopla around the Junos because it was really tangible results as a [return on investment]," Lieberman said. "What we don't actually know is how many children were inspired to pick up an instrument. But how do we do that? Quality of life is very hard to measure."

The bigger organizations in town are used to justifying the city's grants in those economic-impact terms.

But the new arts funding strategy aims to open the doors in future years to more individual artists and younger, less established organizations. It's yet to be seen where the balance will be struck between doling out grants to sure-bet economic boons, and to less-certain, riskier artistic ventures.

"Artists don't do it for the economic spinoff," Vegh said. "No one went to art school saying, 'I can't wait to generate economic spinoff for my city.'"

But the arts community has recognized in recent years that like sports or business, the sector should unify to present a case for government investment in the sector's stability.

The local arts community received the news last week with much excitement: The city funding puts its money where its mouth is on a new strategy adopted last year for streamlining and making more transparent its funding for local theatres, museums, music and arts organizations. 

"I think that it's important for arts organizations to look at the work they do in many different facets," said Carol Kehoe, executive director of the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra, which received $113,000 from the city last year. "We are an economic driver, but we also have the opportunity to contribute" to other, less quantifiable ends. The arts can bring "joy and happiness" to people's lives, she said. 

'Pure, easy-to-measure money'

The new program brings arts funding — which has in previous years been split up among many different pots — under one umbrella of about $2.3 million in the city's new City Enrichment Fund. 

John Hertel, the city's director of finance, administration and revenue generation, said the city's new process allows for a diversity of applicants whose bottom lines look different from each other.

"Some of the larger arts organizations, we expect that to be part of their pitch at the front end and part of their evidence at the back end," he said. We expect an economic stimulation factor to be a significant part."

But in future years as the program brings in smaller, less-established organizations, they'll be asked to narrate some of the "impacts and outcomes" of their endeavour.

"The impact might be that x-number of people watch the parade, we know that it has a value to the community … as opposed to pure, easy-to-measure money," Hertel said.

'If you're only evaluating the spinoff, you're not necessarily making the best art'

On top of the city's $500,000 boost, the Hamilton Community Foundation kicked in another $300,000 last week in hopes of increasing the arts community's stability in Hamilton.

"The sector matters," said CEO Terry Cooke. "It is a force to be reckoned with."

That funding, which the foundation will distribute on its own criteria but in collaboration with the city, might help ease some of the tension between weighing economic return against possible community, cultural, spiritual outcomes.

Some of those economic numbers may be compelling, he said, but "that's not, at the end of the day, why we fund arts."

kelly.bennett@cbc.ca | @kellyrbennett

With files from Samantha Craggs

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