M-O-N-E-Y: Why government investment in culture pays off

The Japandroids, Skrillex and Grimes: a few of the globally renown artists to have graced the Waldorf.

In a recent tirade on CKNW, Bruce Allen opined that most of the Waldorf’s customers were on welfare, and the fuss about the joint was way over the top. Those listening closely could hear the collective thud of his entire artist roster hitting their heads on the table that their management could be so out of touch with his own industry. Perhaps Mr. Allen hasn’t heard of the Japandroids (#9 album of 2012 in Rolling Stone), Skrillex (three Grammys), Katy Perry, Grimes (#1 single of 2012, Pitchfork) and many others, but the crowds who flocked to the Waldorf to get a glimpse of them have.

To say nothing of Scott Cohen’s spectacular architectural restoration, or the sterling art installations by some of the world’s great artists. But like, whatever.

In a single stroke, the controversy surrounding the Waldorf closure brought into sharp relief the dialogue about the proper role and function of government around cultural policy.

As a private venture, the Waldorf itself presents a tougher case. Yet its forced closure, added to the loss of the Playhouse, the Pantages Theatre, Douglas & McIntyre, MusicFest, the Red Gates, Granville 7 Theatres (home of the Vancouver International Film Festival), the Ridge Theatre and others (including the troubled W2) shocked the city. There is now no question but that Vancouver’s cultural sector is in full crisis. More will undoubtedly follow.

Many like Bruce Allen question government support for the arts, which is fair enough. Healthy skepticism and debate is a good thing, if it’s accurate.

But there’s much more to this story.

It’s often wrongly assumed that audiences are small and uninterested. In fact, audiences are often large and enthusiastic, but ticket prices that fully cover the expense of live performance would be prohibitively expensive. Other funding sources are required in order that arts and culture remain accessible and affordable for the public.  

Look at the hugely popular PuSh Festival—which has no end of sold out performances. Without additional funding through major sponsorships, donors, and government grants, Vancouver could never have a PuSh Festival. Or a Children’s Festival, Jazz festival, Film Festival, Bard on the Beach, Ballet BC, or Vancouver Opera. Our beloved city becoming an endless grey vista of franchise coffee-shops and sports bars.

Is that the Vancouver we want? If we aren’t careful, it’s the one we’ll get.

But most of all, there is one very good reason for people like Bruce Allen support public investment in arts and culture: M-O-N-E-Y.

It is a huge financial and strategic error to allow our cultural assets to fail. Because it pays handsomely to support the arts, and other jurisdictions know it very well. 


Did you know?

  1. The Toronto International Film Festival & Bell Lightbox generates over $170 million annually in economic benefits to the Ontario economy, employs 2,300, and generated more than $60 million in tax revenue;

  1. Arts and culture tourism represented 39 per cent of all overnight US travelers to Ontario in 2010, and 63 per cent of all overseas visitors. Ontario’s cultural tourism generated $3.7 billion in GDP, supported 67,000 jobs, and generated $1.7 billion in taxes for all levels of government;

  1. That Austin’s annual SXSW festival injects more than $190 million into its local economy;

  1. The Montreal Jazz Festival generates $20 million in tax revenue to all levels of government;

  1. The Conference Board of Canada estimates public investment of $1.5m in Stratford yields $140 million in economic activity, $75.6 million in total tax revenue for all 3 levels of government and almost 3,000 jobs;

  1. According to Deloitte and Touche, the Toronto cultural economy (both for profit and non-profit) employs 130,000 workers—roughly the same size as the Canadian auto sector and generates some $9 billion annually in GDP.

Because BC doesn’t measure the economic impact of our cultural sector, including its effect on tourism, it’s no wonder that the public is left with the very mistaken conclusion that the arts are a drain on our otherwise productive resources.

Yet look at our own tourism industry. BC tourism generates over $13 billion in GDP. Statistics Canada estimates that in 2007 cultural tourism nation-wide generated roughly 15 per cent of total tourism receipts, while  Ontario estimates that the cultural tourist outspends the average visitor by a near 2-1 margin.

It’s for these reasons that the cultural tourism market is hotly pursued by most provinces outside BC. Our political leadership at the provincial level has missed the boat entirely, while civic officials struggle with the effects of a full-on affordability crisis that strikes at the heart of the creative sector. 

Places like the Waldorf matter to our cultural eco-system—they and other venues are nerve centres that make our city exciting, vibrant, and competitive with other destinations like Toronto, Montreal, or even Austin, Texas. Government and planning departments have a clear financial interest and responsibility to ensure that the sector is able to thrive.

So even if you’re unlikely to ever darken the doorstep of the VAG, and the words experimental theatre make you break out in hives, just think about culture as a key industry and employer.

One that’s on life support.

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