Wednesday, November 19, 2008

An Open Letter to Ottawa Mayor, Larry O’Brien

re: projected Ottawa arts funding cuts (again)

I am disturbed by what is currently happening with the lack of vision and poor decision making in City Hall, including the irresponsible decisions of removing individual artist and festival funding, not even to mention losing the portrait gallery, and possibly even the Queen’s swans that live in the Rideau River.

I do not know why the City of Ottawa insists on repeatedly destabilizing the arts and cultural sectors of its own city. We already have the worst per-capita city arts funding in the country, on top of the fact that the Canada Council for the Arts admitted two years ago that they deliberately give less ground-level funding to Ottawa artists so it won’t look bad out west. Ontario funding, despite all attempts otherwise, is still difficult to receive if you live outside Toronto. Why are we being mandated out of existence on three levels?

In Ottawa, is there something wrong with having pride in one’s city? Is this why the previous mayor almost completely ignored our 150th anniversary, even as the National Arts Centre celebrated a month of “Alberta Scene”?

Yes, we are a city predominantly made up of suburbs, voting in city government who already feel no need to contradict stereotypes of arts “handouts,” instead of explain the amounts of money that arts and culture regularly and repeatedly return. For the imagined savings of a few dollars, the city as a whole is losing so much more. Do I need to remind you of every single statistic that says one dollar into the arts is ten back? Do I need to talk about the amount of spending that happens in the city around, say, participants, staff and audience alike through events such as the Ottawa International Writers Festival or Bluesfest, including cabs, restaurants, hotels and retail? Do I need to bring up the example of Flint, Michigan, a dead and dying car manufacturing town that was completely rejuvenated through the establishing of a larger arts culture in once-empty factories? The survival and growth of Flint out of something that had been completely devastated was overwhelming, and should be providing all cities with a glowing example.

What you and your city councillors are currently doing is what Ottawa has historically, sadly, always done, and that is to refuse to see what the arts brings to the city, essential both financially and for an increased quality of life. Through City of Ottawa small-mindedness, we lost a theatre company in the 1950s that moved to Stratford and founded the Stratford Festival. Would you like to know what kind of money from tourists, for example, the City of Stratford is bringing in because of this? I haven’t the space to list all the artists that I personally know over the past twenty years who have been forced to move out of the city for greener pastures. Why are you insisting on seeing Ottawa as a worker-drone bureaucracy, with not a single thing on the minds of the populace but the following day of work, with the occasional burst of hockey madness? How does a city of nearly a million people get so blanketed by stereotype?

For decades, Ottawa has been able to claim a population that includes numerous world-class arts organizations, musicians, visual artists, publishers, theatre companies, festivals, writers, filmmakers, dancers and hosts of others, all of whom contribute to the city at large on many levels. We repeatedly show not only the country but the world what we are made of, and revel in the city we are proud to be part of. Despite how you treat us, we are not purely made of government and high tech, but of something larger, deeper and far more complex.

We are artists, arts enthusiasts and taxpayers all, and find it exhausting, tedious and demeaning to have to repeatedly spell out our value. We are proud to be part of this community, and are getting rather tired of our elected officials repeating old standards that tell us we are less than second class citizens, no more than lazy welfare mongrels, and that we are not wanted. We are an essential service, like OC Transpo, and through investment, bring in a higher and more regular return on each dollar spent than industries such as car manufacturers, sports teams, high tech and the housing industry.

If you continue with this current budget, you are going to devastate an essential service and an industry that would otherwise be regularly be putting money back into the same system, and you are going to force people to leave. Shutting down services is not the answer, and will only perpetuate the downward spiral of a city that doesn’t even seem able to afford to fix its own streets, or realize that a reduced transit system means fewer people getting to work on time. Do you want more money in your coffers? Give it to us, and you will get even more back.

This is more than an example of a city being run over by the province shoving services at us, or a city amalgamation that, for some reason, you still haven’t managed to figure out, nearly a decade later.

We are a world capital, with the fourth largest population in one of the wealthiest and largest countries on the planet. Isn’t it about time we started acting like it?

It is repeated thoughtlessness that make me seriously consider moving to Toronto.

rob mclennan
writer/editor/publisher/arts organizer
publisher, Chaudiere Books
publisher, above/ground press
founder, the small press action network – ottawa (span-o)
founder, The Factory Reading Series
writer-in-residence, The University of Alberta, 2007-8

related notes: living the arts in ottawa: an open letter, an open letter to Stephen Harper

1 comment:

Penny McCann said...

Yay Rob!!!! Great letter, my friend.

Mayor Larry has his own blog to which this could be posted -