Thursday, January 18, 2007

living the arts in ottawa: an open letter

An email I sent around at the end of last week, wondering whatever happened to the transpoetry second round that was launched in February, 2006, got me thinking again about what it actually means to live in the City of Ottawa and be involved with the arts. It seems only strange timing that The Ottawa Citizen has managed to propel the thought, through an article by staff writer Patrick Langston, and another, provoked by my own question. In the original email I asked, has anyone else noticed that the poems have long disappeared? Is anyone else actually bothered by that? The original question spawned some interesting responses, and even prompted a call by Ottawa Citizen reporter Tony Lofaro, who ended up writing a small article on such in the January 17, 2007 edition, hidden in the city section, with the heading "City nips Transpo poets in the bud," and sub-heading "No plans to repeat poetry on the bus campaign." The empty ad space I see on every single bus I get on around the city makes it even more offensive that the poetry has all but disappeared. Other bus systems in Canada, whether Toronto, Calgary, Edmonton or BC Transit can sustain their poetry, and some have for over a decade or more, so why can't we? It was interesting to see what a little email could do, but it highlights yet again a number of problems that those of us who are involved with any kind of artistic consideration in the city are faced with.

We are continually in the midst of an identity crisis: are we capital? Are we local? It's a conflict our media, such as The Ottawa Citizen, has struggled with as well. It's far more likely that an Ottawa writer, for example, unless they are a bigger name, such as Elizabeth Hay, Mark Frutkin or Francis Itani, will be mentioned in the City section or the Arts section of the newspaper than in the Books section. Somehow, since Books Editor Bert Heward left in the mid-1990s, the Books section has pretended to be national, and excluded most of anything that could have been called local. On the other hand, most literary writers in town will probably never even get mentioned in The Ottawa X-Press or The Ottawa Sun, if past experience is any indicator; what other options, exactly, are there? If we do not champion our own, who do we expect to do it for us? If our daily newspaper wants to be The Globe & Mail, then where do we find our Toronto Star to pick up what gets missed in our immediate area? Anyone who read the Citizen article on Saturday, January 13 in the Arts section by Patrick Langston (prompted by yet another City of Ottawa suggestion that we would lose our arts funding) knows the familiar refrain: Ottawa has, per capita, some of the worst city funding for the arts in the country, and every few years the city councilors threaten to cut our funding yet again (and why does the media seem so quick to move when something goes wrong, instead of working to talk about those who are getting it right? A small handful of articles in a matter of days on what isn’t happening, but after two months of lead time, The Ottawa Citizen couldn’t go any further than simply send a photographer for a caption when Jennifer Mulligan and I launched our new Ottawa-based literary press, Chaudiere Books…). It's become so tiresome that it's moved well past being offensive (I still have my "My Ottawa includes Culture" sign in my front window, from the threats in 2004 to cut funding). This isn’t an argument for whether or not the arts should be funded generally, although there are points to be made there too, but why can't a capital city somehow look past it's own stubborn sense of National to know that there are actual living and working people in the city itself that deserve to be treated with respect.

As Langston writes in his piece:
(In 2005, the last year for which comparable figures are available, per capita funding of the arts was $11.89 in Vancouver, $7.03 in Montreal and $4.87 in Edmonton; Ottawa was $3.64.)

Compounding the problem is a growing perception among artists elsewhere that Ottawa is the last place they should relocate to.

Public and official indifference to art, in other words, helps fuel support for a tax freeze which in turn further diminishes art's public profile and the number of artists.

"We talk about taxes like they're an evil thing," says [actress Alix] Sideris, "but that's how we support each other."

Lacklustre municipal support for the arts in Ottawa — which also fares poorly in provincial and Canada Council for the Arts funding — is rooted at least in part in the belief that we are taken care of culturally by large, federal government institutions (think, the NAC).
This is not a problem started by the current City of Ottawa administration, or even the previous one, or the one before that; this has been a problem for years. It's one thing for then-Prime Minister Lester B. "Mike" Pearson to get grief over wanting to create The National Arts Centre (which he finally succeeded in doing, thus bringing theatre in many ways back to Ottawa), but consider, too, that there haven’t really been any other buildings created since to house or help artistic function (the National Gallery of Canada being a notable exception). Closer still, there are those who remember a study conducted by the Regional Municipality of Ottawa-Carleton (a precursor to the current amalgamated city) in the late 1980s that resulted in the realization that the funding was well below sustainable levels and was forcing Ottawa artists to move to other centres (something that any Ottawa artist could have told the city years before, at a much reduced rate). The official result? At the next round of budget considerations, the arts funding was actually reduced.

Remember: this is a city that, in the 1950s, refused funding to the Canadian Repertory Company to help them move to a larger building, forcing the whole company to move, lock, stock and barrel, to Stratford, Ontario, where they started the Stratford Festival. This is the city that has dragged on a proposal a few years back to turn the old Elgin Street Theatre into a space for the Ottawa Chamber Music Festival, currently the largest Chamber Music Festival in the world, and housed in churches around the city. This is a city that keeps trying to cut the ottawa international writers festival, one of the few pieces of infrastructure around for literary writers living in the city. Forget the utter nonsense with the expansion of the O-Train between city and province; nothing will happen as long as we keep voting for candidates who are absolutely resistant to change. The problems they compound are the ones we haven’t given them any reason to fix.

The business argument against any lack or lessened arts funding just doesn’t wash, especially when, in the mid-1990s, Ottawa high tech companies were telling Carleton University not to cut its language programs. High tech firms (considered the pride of Ottawa business acumen in the 1990s) had to tell Carleton University (using the streamlining business/tech degree as their argument) that they didn’t want to hire automatons that came out of their programs, but graduates who could actually think inventively, and for themselves. The argument doesn’t wash when every study going keeps telling us that every dollar put into the arts comes back ten-fold, and goes directly back into the community, including bookstores, restaurants, hydro bills, art supply stores, galleries, phone bills, rent, theatre, etcetera.

It becomes less a business argument than a quality of life argument; you can have the finest high-tech firms or government jobs on the planet in the City of Ottawa, but if there is no reason for someone to actually want to spend their time living in Ottawa, then it becomes far harder to bring in new blood. Money is rarely only consideration when moving to a new town. Are there any stores? What are the schools like? Can we get an affordable house? Is there anything in the city to actually do? As Langston writes in his article:
[…] an Ottawa Tourism and Convention Authority study in 2003 revealed that the overall economic impact of Ottawa festivals that year was $94 million. The municipality's funding that same year was $438,000.

It helps make Ottawa a well-rounded, intellectually healthy place that people want to visit, move to and retire in.
Remember: when then-mayor Bob Chiarelli introduced his 20/20 program (which actually went nowhere) to help the private and public sectors fund the arts, he said that now the arts will begin in Ottawa. How dare you, sir; we have been here for at least one hundred and fifty years, and will continue to be here, long after the memory of your administration has faded. Bob Chiarelli, who said he wanted to turn Ottawa into a world-class city, not smart enough or aware enough to know that we already were, and had been for some time. The difference was that we had managed to get there not only on our own, but despite the shortsightedness of decades of diminishing funding. Do not insult us further by telling us we do not exist.

But what are we? Do we not put money into anything local because someone in some other part of the country will see it as Ottawa putting money into itself again? I've heard western and eastern Canadian members of the League of Canadian Poets complain whenever the Toronto head office does anything a little bit more for Ontario members, not realizing that we live in perhaps the only province without a provincial writers guild. Does that mean that anyone in Ontario outside of Toronto deserves less than someone living in, say, Saskatoon, Winnipeg or Montreal?

Again, if we will not champion our own, who will? Ottawa media seemed to revel in slamming Alanis until she moved away, and then they couldn’t say enough good about her. It's almost as though someone has to leave town before any of their success is ever taken seriously. Is Ottawa merely a 1960s Canadian problem on a smaller scale? I originally started the online Ottawa poetry pdf journal ottawater as something I thought would be merely the first in a series of responses and celebrations, whether official or otherwise, during 2005, the year that the City of Ottawa turned 150 years old. After nine months of soliciting, editing and other preparations, I launched the first issue in January, 2005, only to discover, over the weeks and months, that there was no official celebration or series of celebrations. Anything that I did see or hear about seemed last minute, and even cobbled together. What happened? Remember too, this was the same year the National Arts Centre celebrated a month of Alberta Scene at the NAC, National Library and Archives and other locations. Organized to celebrate Alberta's 100th anniversary, the Alberta Scene highlighted Alberta musicians, writers, actors, films and every other sort of artistic expression the province has produced. Turning one hundred the same year, both Alberta and Saskatchewan put out new books telling their histories; where was the book celebrating ours? Certainly, a city is not a province. Certainly, living in the capital city, Alberta Scene was certainly a highlight as an audience member, and the events were well documented and promoted in Ottawa media, but where was the Ottawa scene? If our own city mayor and councilors don’t see their functions in leadership, in part, as being cheerleaders, then why do we even bother? This is more than Canadian modesty; this is outright dismissal.

There are those of us, for whatever reason, that have chosen to either move to or remain in the City of Ottawa as workers in the arts, and simply for that reason, we refuse to be told, through sheer bloody-minded indifference from the city heads and media outlets, that our services are not required. There is nothing wrong with not accepting poor treatment simply for doing what it is we do, especially when we know how well we do it. Despite what they might tell you, we are an extremely strong city culturally (even considering the numbers that have left for other shores), filled with writers, poets, musicians, dancers, filmmakers, visual artists, actors, cartoonists and a whole slew of others who help make this city a living, breathing, thinking, reacting and vibrant entity. To build or keep a world class city it has to be maintained, and somehow, falling between the cracks of national vs. local, we get the worst consideration of all. Is this how any city, capital or not, is supposed to act? Is this the image we wish to project out into the world?

[note: while I was posting this, I got an email from John W. MacDonald telling me that The Ottawa Citizen printed an editorial in today's paper agreeing with me that the transpoetry should continue. Not too damn bad, I must say...a good start?]


Dwight Williams said...

I'd certainly call it a good start. How best to build on it, I wonder?

As to the reactions to investment in the arts in general in Ottawa, that resentment of such has always been in the rest of the country outside of Ontario so long as there's been a "rest of Canada outside of Ontario". I saw it growing up in the prairie provinces, and I suspect that it isn't going to go away anytime soon.

Unknown said...

a good piece, i must say. honestly, i have really only been here for about a year and a half and even though i've gotten my first few "real" publications since moving here, (thx, bywords!), i just don't really see a lot of encouragement for new and established artists in this city. i mean, it's not even about the money, so much as it is about having someone going "ARTS! FUCK YEAH!" or something. fuck. i don't know. it's early.