ArtsNL retains legal counsel in battle with Folk Arts Society over denied funding

The provincial arts council is holding firm on its decision to deny previously approved grants over clerical errors

Other groups who had funding rejected watching lawsuit closely

Hey! Rosetta performs at the 2015 Newfoundland and Labrador Folk Festival, the largest event organized by the Folk Arts Society. (Ted Blades/CBC)

ArtsNL is holding firm on its denial of previously approved grants to several provincial arts and culture organizations because of clerical errors in their submissions.

But the Folk Arts Society says it's still moving forward with a lawsuit against the province and ArtsNL.

The group, which runs the popular Newfoundland and Labrador Folk Festival, lost $44,000 in expected funding for 2018 and 2019 as a result of failing to fill out a yearly online database report. 

Along with the Gros Morne Summer Music Festival, and Riddle Fence magazine, the Folk Arts Society is one of at least three organizations who had funding for the second and third years of their Sustaining Program for Professional Arts Organizations (SPPAO) grant revoked.

"I had hoped to learn that they would reinstate their funding for all three organizations who lost their sustaining funding, but I was just disappointed to learn they they were digging in their heels and that rules are rules," Folk Arts Society President John Drover said on Tuesday.

Folk Arts Society President John Drover says he's disappointed in ArtsNL's decision to double down and retain legal counsel. (CBC)

ArtsNL issued a statement on Monday saying it would not make an exception for organizations who submitted reports with errors.

The organization also noted that it has retained legal representation.

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"Organizations selected to receive funding through the SPPAO and the Annual Operating Program for Professional Arts Organizations (AOPPAO) are held to the highest standard of compliance given both programs are for professional arts organizations, which employ a professional artistic director/executive director, or equivalent," the ArtsNL statement read.

"Making exceptions to these standards would be unfair to applicants who did meet all of either program's professional guidelines and eligibility criteria." 

Riddle Fence, Gros Morne festival also lose funding

On Newfoundland and Labrador's west coast, the Gros Morne Summer Music Festival lost $54,000 in funding due to a clerical error.

In an interview with CBC Radio's On The Go last week, festival artistic director David Maggs said his failure to hit "send" on an email draft summarizing his submission cost his organization dearly.

A group performs at the 2016 edition of the Gros Morne Summer Music Festival. (Tom Cochrane/Gros Morne Summer Music Festival)

Even though Maggs said he sent in a screenshot showing the email in his draft folder after he realized his error, he said ArtsNL still denied the application.

In previous years, he said it was common for ArtsNL to request more information if anything was missing and allow groups to resubmit.

"It seems to be a very different tone set this year than in previous years," he said.

Emily Deming says that Riddle Fence will be watching the Folk Arts Society's lawsuit against ArtsNL closely. (Submitted by Emily Deming)

Meanwhile, Riddle Fence magazine lost $30,000 in previously approved funding for 2018 and 2019 because of a similar clerical error.

Emily Deming and other board members of Riddle Fence wrote an open letter last week criticizing the ArtsNL decision to deny funding.

"The money would have gone right back out to professional artists and I'm disappointed because of that, that the Arts Council chose to dig in and sort of hunker down behind this paperwork bivouac, instead of giving us a call and working things out," said Deming Tuesday.

She said Riddle Fence pays its contributors for every piece of writing accepted by the magazine for publication, and that with this decision there will be less money to go around.

Wreckhouse jazz fest denied grant

The Wreckhouse Jazz and Blues Festival is yet another group that was denied in funding due to an error in their application.

While the organization did not have funding previously approved for 2018, President Bradley Power — who is also on the board of directors for the Folk Arts Society — said Tuesday his festival wasn't even considered for an $10,000 AOPPAO grant because one number in its submitted proposal was wrong.

Like representatives from Riddle Fence, the Folk Arts Society and the Gros Morne Summer Music Festival, Power said he doesn't understand why ArtsNL couldn't have worked with them to fix the error.

"All we're asking is they give staff a little discretion that if there's a minor error, and I'm not talking major errors here, I'm talking one wrong number in a budget that stymies an entire proposal," said Power.

Wreckhouse Jazz and Blues Festival President Bradley Power says he's not happy with ArtsNL's decision to take a hard stance on grant applications this year. (Jonny Hodder/CBC)

He issued a statement on Monday sharply criticizing ArtsNL.

"I believe ArtsNL and its Board of Directors have forgotten their true mandate," wrote Power.

"They confirmed in their recent statement that they have engaged legal counsel, which in my opinion is absolutely unnecessary."

Folk Arts Society suing ArtsNL

Power and Riddle Fence's Deming both said their organizations don't have the financial resources to sue, but are following the Folk Arts Society's legal challenge closely.

Drover, a practicing lawyer, said the only reason his group was able to file a lawsuit against ArtsNL and the province is that one of his associates agreed to take on the case pro bono.

He said it's "foolish" that Arts NL is retaining legal counsel instead of working to resolve differences with the affected organizations directly. 

"It's their choice to do that, obviously, and litigation is an uncertain business that's for sure," he said.

"But I think it's an important discussion that needs to have that, and this lawsuit is going to make sure that discussion happens at least sometime in the future after the court action is settled."

When reached for an interview, a spokesperson for ArtsNL declined further comment.

With files from the St. John's Morning Show and On the Go