Winnipeg Arts Council faces the music from city hall after 'misleading' public over $500K funding cut

The Winnipeg Arts Council faces a $500,000 funding cut in the city’s preliminary budget, and faced some harsh criticism from city councillors over the way the group communicated the cut.

WAC apologizes for not being clear but says shortfall threatens programs, 1 staffer

The Winnipeg Arts Council says cuts to its public art program funding will mean community-based project, like this one with Kildonan East Girls Club picture above, may have to be put on hold. (Submitted by the Winnipeg Arts Council)

The Winnipeg Arts Council faced some harsh criticism from city councilors Wednesday over the way the group reacted to a $500,000 funding cut in the city's preliminary budget.

Each year since 2004 WAC received the money in an annual allocation for the public art program within the capital budget, but earlier this month when the preliminary budget was revealed, that line was missing.

WAC posted about the cut on its website, which led city councillors' inboxes to be flooded with complaints.

"I noticed and was disappointed to see some of the communications coming out of the Winnipeg Arts Council," said Mayor Brian Bowman at an executive policy committee delegation meeting Wednesday morning.

"It is simply not factually accurate to put out communications that say the city has cut 100 per cent of the allocation for public art in the 2019 budget. That is simply not accurate, it should be corrected, and I would ask that you do so in your communications," he told WAC's executive director, Carol Phillips, after a stern exchange.

Mayor Brian Bowman expressed his concerns that WAC had mischaracterized the city's contributions to arts funding in the 2019 budget. (CBC)

Earlier this week, WAC posted a letter on its website in an attempt to rally support from the public.

"The city has cut 100 per cent of the annual allocation to the Winnipeg Arts Council for public art in the 2019 capital budget," the letter stated.

The letter said several community art programs may need to be cut, as well as one staff member who oversees the programs.

"The eradication of public art funding in 2019 not only impedes the start of new projects, but also the ongoing management of projects in progress. There is no operating funding provided to the public art program," the letter said.

Winnipeg Arts Council executive director Carol Phillips faced criticism from some city councillors for misrepresenting the city's commitment to public arts funding. (Holly Caruk/CBC)

Some councillors, and the mayor, fired back at that notion Wednesday morning at EPC, saying the message doesn't give the full picture.

"This budget allocates $4.645 million to WAC, which maintains 2018 levels in a very difficult budget year, and we are facing criticism from some for not cutting," said Bowman.

That money includes $2.5 million for two major projects — the Southwest Rapid Transitway and the Waverley underpass.

The mayor also pointed out an additional transfer of $266,000 for museum funding and a $1-million payment on its commitment to the Inuit Art Centre, currently under construction.

"Not everybody in Winnipeg thinks that Winnipeg city hall should be funding any public art, or believes that we should be funding the Winnipeg Arts Council at all," warned Bowman.

Public 'misled'

Coun. John Orlikow took issue with the language in the letter, saying it's caused a great deal of misunderstanding among his constituents.

"I see form letters that I would say mislead the public — because I've been calling them back — words like 'eradication of public arts funding in 2019' … 'the proposed '100 per cent cut to public art funding in the 2019 capital budget,'" he said.

"People that I'm talking to believe the city is going to be investing nothing in public art."

City councillors John Orlikow, left, and Sherri Rollins, right, both received numerous calls and emails from the public about the cut to public art funding, which Orlikow said was a result of people being misled. (CBC)

WAC's executive director, Carol Phillips, apologized for the misunderstanding, but says the fact still remains that the money is no longer in the budget and that will have an impact on what the arts council can offer.

"There is money being applied to public art, nobody is debating that," said Phillips.

"It's this single line [in the budget] that really puts public art into community hands."

Programs may be cut

WAC is a not-for-profit agency that is mandated by the city to distribute public arts funds. It currently receives $4.5 million annually, along with the $500,000 designated for the public art program, which offers smaller scale programming within the community.

The city provides all of the arts council's core funding, but it also receives grants from both the public and private sector, Phillips said. That money, though, is usually tied to a specific project and is contingent on having stable funding in place for things like administration costs.

Phillips said the bulk of the funding WAC receives from the city is designated for larger projects. The year-over-year funding paid for smaller-scale community programs that work with youth, seniors, newcomers and Indigenous groups.

"Public art transforms the city, and participating in public art programs for anybody that wants to is really important," she said.

"When $500,000 goes, it's not an easy task to find it again, so we're concerned."

WAC also offers public education on the arts, such as bus and walking tours, which Phillips said may also disappear without the funding.

Leeway in budget

Coun. Sherri Rollins, who is the city's representative for WAC, said the $500,000 was eliminated from this year's budget because the city was already making other substantial investments in the arts. She said WAC has leeway for the other funding to be used to cover administration costs.

"In terms of their overall budget, that has a lot of flexibility for admin, and that's what you heard councillors saying," said Rollins.

Despite that line in the budget being held this year, Rollins said there are plans to restore it in 2020 and build it into WAC's year-over-year funding.

The WAC offers many community-based art programs that work with youth, seniors and newcomers. (Submitted by Winnipeg Arts Council)

"The preliminary budget is adding more for arts and the needle is still going in the right direction when it comes to art funding and supporting the public art policy," she said.

Phillips apologized for not being more clear in the message to the public about other funding being dedicated to the arts, but said she wanted the community to know what is at risk.

"I am sorry that the city felt that this was coming on too strong, and we genuinely want to work with [the city]," she said.

"We're very concerned about our partnership, but it remains that $500,000 is not there."

The statement on WAC website was updated to reflect the other contributions that the city is making to the arts, but Phillips said there is still a shortfall for their programs.

Phillips hopes the city will work with WAC to come up with a solution to get the arts council through to 2020 without having to disrupt programs.

Councillors will vote on the budget next week.

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