Nfld. & Labrador

Arts and culture funding the focus of letter-writing campaign

"I'll be honest: we're terrified. Like everybody else," says Robert Chafe.

'I'll be honest: we're terrified. Like everybody else,' says Robert Chafe

Courtney Brown and Robert Chafe are leading a letter-writing campaign to increase funding for ArtsNL, and want to encourage anyone who has been influenced by the province's arts and culture industry to do the same. (Paula Gale/CBC)

Without government funding, arts and culture programs wouldn't be able to survive, and with a bleak economic outlook for Newfoundland and Labrador, two arts leaders are advocating for their industry.

Playwright Robert Chafe and Mindless Theatrics director Courtney Brown have launched a letter-writing campaign to increase funding for ArtsNL.

"It's the only pot of funding, really, that exists in this province … that goes directly to working artists to start the product that will actually fill the theatres, fill the CDs, fill the film halls, that kind of thing," Chafe said.

"The cultural programming in this province wouldn't exist without it."

In the grand scheme of things, it's an incredibly small pot of money we're asking for.- Robert Chafe

Chafe and Brown came up with the idea after sitting in on a public consultation with other arts community members and ArtsNL, where Chafe said they were told there were more companies than before vying for a small pot of money.

"But there's no more money. So all of us are looking at substantial cuts to that pot of money, which means laying off people, which means reducing programming," he told CBC's St. John's Morning Show.

"Even if you don't care about the arts, you're looking at companies like Rising Tide or TNL [Theatre Newfoundland and Labrador] that, purely from the theatre side of things … are the economic backbone for their areas. And once that process starts, it's really scary."

'An incredible investment'

The arts and culture industry is misunderstood, Chafe said, and 99.9 per cent of the time, critics are people who "don't know how the industry works."

His company, Artistic Fraud of Newfoundland, gets $30,000 in a yearly grant, which amounts to about 10 per cent of the company's funding.

That funding, he said, enables him to bring arts to the community, bring in profit, and enables him to stay in his home province.

Chafe wrote Between Breaths, which tells the story of Jon Lien, a Memorial University professor known for pioneering techniques to help rescue whales entangled in fishing nets. (Mark Cumby/CBC)

"That means, you give my company $30,000, and my company brings in $400,000, $500,000 a year elsewhere. It's an incredible investment," he said.

But Chafe said with the establishment of TNL, theatre groups are sharing more information than ever — and everyone's starting to realize they're already in a financial crunch.

"I'll be honest: we're terrified. Like everybody else," Chafe said.

And without funding from government, the arts programming will disappear, Brown added.

"It's already happening, and I think that it will continue to happen. I think the people will continue to leave the province," she said.

'We're at a bottom line'

Pair a loss of funding with inflation over the last few years, Brown said, and securing funding is vital.

"I think it's critical. We're at a bottom line. This is the lowest we've ever been, in terms of trying to make it work and the past seven years," Brown said.

"Arts organizations that are the backbone of this community all around the island — are not gonna be able to do what they normally do. And that would be a really sad, sad thing to see."

The letter-writing campaign is an attempt to show Tourism Minister Christopher Mitchelmore, Finance Minister Tom Osborne and Premier Dwight Ball how vital arts and culture is to the province, as well as increase funding for ArtsNL.

"In the grand scheme of things, it's an incredibly small pot of money we're asking for. We're asking for government to consider an increase from $2 million to $5 million over the next three years," Chafe said.

"And we realize those numbers sound huge, but they're actually tiny, and government knows it's a tiny amount of money."

NDP MHA questions tourism minister

NDP MHA Gerry Rogers raised the request in question period Wednesday, asking Mitchelmore if he'd agree to the increase. The minister responded by noting provincial government support for the arts isn't limited to the ArtsNL grant, but includes funding for programs as well as facilities like arts and culture centres.

Rogers noted Chafe's plays Oil and Water and Between Breaths started with small Arts NL grants.

"Fifty-thousand people have seen Oil and Water so far, and it has generated $1 million, of which half was spent on jobs. Both productions are now travelling the country," she said.

"These are very small grants that had huge investment benefits, and the minister knows that. We're not talking about arts and culture [centres] funding, we're talking about seed funding for research and creation."

Funding more than Arts NL grants: Mitchelmore

Mitchelmore again noted provincial spending in other areas.

"We've invested a million dollars to expand the Theatre Newfoundland and Labrador in Cow Head," said Mitchelmore.

"We've also been supporting publishers through the publishers' assistance grant, but we also want literary exports to happen, and that's why we're supporting the Frankfurt Book Fair. We're doing so much more to help support our artists than funding to Arts NL."

NDP MHA Gerry Rogers asked Tourism Minister Christopher Mitchelmore to increase Arts NL funding. (CBC)

Rogers accused Mitchelmore of not listening to artists.

"Many are on the verge of leaving the arts sector or the province because of this inadequate funding for the artistic creation phase, and he knows what I'm talking about," she said.

"If he supports Canopy Growth and Biome [Grow], two wealthy, publicly traded companies growing recreational marijuana, by letting them keep $92 million of taxpayers' money, why won't he increase the funding to the Arts NL grants, so artists can grow a sustainable cultural industry that creates jobs locally?"

Mitchelmore said the provincial government gets more return on investment in the cannabis industry.

"There is no up-front grant. There is no money being dispersed," he said. "But we certainly see the value in our arts community and have proven that through the investments that we continue to make."

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