Vancouver arts leader fights tears in plea for $6 million in pandemic money

City manager suggests dire financial picture, with cuts anticipated

The head of a Vancouver cultural institution was in tears Tuesday as she stood in an almost empty council chamber and pleaded for city council to approve $6.2 million in grants to keep arts groups from being wiped out from the pandemic.

Heather Redfern, the executive director of the Vancouver East Cultural Centre, was the lone speaker in a chamber that was only occupied by Mayor Kennedy Stewart and a couple of city staff while councillors participated in the meeting via their phones.

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“I wish I could say that our arts organizations will all be fine, but I can’t,” said Redfern, reading from a speech on her phone screen, pausing several times as she choked up at the lectern.

“Unfortunately, the viability of many of these organizations and the ability of our artists to live in our city and have a livelihood are in real jeopardy.”

She said organizations such as the cultural centre, also known as the CULTCH, rely on earned and donated revenues for 80 per cent of their funding. At this time of the year, all grants are long gone and 100 per cent of revenue must come from donations and earned revenue, she said.

But with the closure in mid-March of theatres and venues to adhere to physical distancing measures, facilities and artists have taken a big hit in loss of revenue, as have businesses and other operations across the city.

“In one day, on March 15, we lost 100 per cent of our earned revenues and a significant amount of our fundraising revenues,” Redfern said.

“For the CULTCH, this amounts to about a half a million dollars to the end of May, which is our year end.”

In the end, city council unanimously approved the $6.2 million in grants for 208 arts and cultural organizations, including $150,000 in an operating grant for the CULTCH. The funding also covered projects and financial assistance for organizations.

Other organizations to receive funding included Ballet BC ($100,000), Full Circle: First Nations Performance Society ($90,000), Music on Main Society ($44,000), The Coastal Jazz and Blues Society ($90,000) and The Vancouver Out on Screen Film and Video Society ($50,000).

Major institutions such as The Vancouver Art Gallery Association ($2.1 million), the Vancouver Museum Society ($758,000), the H.R. MacMillan Space Centre Society ($519,400) and the Vancouver Maritime Museum Society ($400,000) also received funding.

Whether that money will sustain organizations and artists this year is a question neither Redfern nor city staff could predict, as the wave of the pandemic continues to roll over the city and province, with more people infected by the virus each day.

As of Tuesday, more than 1,000 people in B.C. had contracted COVID-19.

“We are currently facing 90 per cent unemployment in the arts sector in this city,” said Redfern, acknowledging governments have recently announced various financial aid packages for Canadians.

“For some, the federal wage subsidy will delay and perhaps in the long term help to mitigate that reality. For most artists though, already living in precarious financial circumstances, that subsidy will not be an option.”

During council debate Tuesday, Coun. Colleen Hardwick said she was concerned how the city will continue to maintain its own operations while simultaneously providing funding for arts groups and other organizations that depend on city funding.

City manager Sadhu Johnston, who was also dialed in to the meeting, suggested a dire financial forecast for the city, noting the suspension of parking and the closing of civic theatres will mean big losses in revenues.

“Our revenues have dropped by 90-plus per cent — from parking to civic theatres and many, many other areas across the organization,” Johnston said.

“So we’re going to be looking at hundreds of millions of dollars that we’ll be needing to look to make up in some way or other through cuts and other measures, if this [pandemic] lasts through the end of the year and into next year, potentially.”

He described the $6.2 million in grants as a “critical bridge” for the arts and culture sector, noting organizations and artists were anticipating the funding prior to the COVID-19 outbreak. The amount of money, he added, was “negligible” when considering the overall financial picture for the city.

“We think that while the funding is absolutely critical to non-profits, we’re going to need to make up for it in the work that we do in cost-cutting and other solutions in partnership with other levels of government,” said Johnston, referring to the various financial aid and stimulus programs rolled out by the provincial and federal government.

In approving the grants, Coun. Pete Fry noted the emergence of the Renaissance, one of the greatest epochs for art, architecture and literature in human history, came after the Black Plague.

“These kind of adversary situations give us an opportunity to grow from them, and I think by nurturing the arts we give ourselves the space to create, the space to express ourselves,” he said.

“The institutions we’re supporting today will be valuable in our recovery efforts and really allow Vancouverites to express themselves, and to really help their mental health in surviving this COVID-19 pandemic.”

Coun. Sarah Kirby-Yung noted how it is difficult at the best of times to financially support the city’s arts and culture community.

“These are not the best of times, these are the worst of times — to use a sort of Dickensian analogy,” she said.

"That is why, more than ever, we need to come together and send an unequivocal sign to our [arts and culture] community who are experiencing extreme stress, extreme grief. It’s palpable, we heard it in the comments from Ms. Redfern.”

Coun. Jean Swanson quoted late American author Ursula Le Guin, who was best known for her works of speculative fiction, in her reasons for approving the grants.

“She said, ‘We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in art,’” Swanson said.

“So that’s what I’m hoping for. And after we pass [these grants], then on to getting some housing and some art spaces that these folks can afford.”



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