Thursday, September 25, 2008

an open letter to Stephen Harper

I find it quite terrifying that, throughout an election campaign, Canadian artists have been described by our own Prime Minister as "subsidized whiners," a statement that is unbelievably rude, dismissive and completely insulting, as well as being factually incorrect. Despite the fact that he presumes arts funding to be a "fringe issue," I'm unclear what Mr. Harper is working to accomplish with such statements, on the heels of further upon further cuts, other than to galvanize a segment of the Canadian population who simply don’t have enough information to realize that this is simply wrong. What made him think we wouldn’t work to contradict?

The Conservatives, historically, have worked (to my understanding) under the idea of "fiscal responsibility," and, historically as well, every single arts study has confirmed that every dollar given to the arts comes back ten-fold. This, to me, seems a discrepancy. Ottawa as a capital city has ignored such studies for years in their arts funding, and now it seems that the Conservatives, nationally, have reminded us that they also ignore such studies. A billion dollars was spent in Ottawa by tourists in 2004; how many of those tourists were coming to see Nortel, I wonder? How many of them, perhaps, instead went to a show at the National Arts Centre, saw Canadian art at the National Gallery, the Ottawa Art Gallery or perhaps went to one of the local Ottawa theatres and/or artist-run centres, purchased a cd by a Canadian artist, or went into one of the city's fine bookstores to purchase a book by a Canadian writer? Must we look, again, at the example of Flint, Michigan, a dying factory town completely revitalized through the arts? Is Mr. Harper just a bad economist, not comprehending the idea of cultural investment?

Why does Mr. Harper presume, automatically, that "ordinary Canadians" aren’t interested in the arts? What makes him so sure of the fact that the arts, whether music, theatre, writing, visual art, music, spoken word or any number of other cultural creations, are the concern of such a small segment of the population that he doesn’t have to take any of these concerns seriously? Even my mother goes to the National Arts Centre to see Canadian plays.

The government keeps telling us, Canadian artists, that we have to treat what we do like a business, as though we are being irresponsible somehow and therefore frittering away our time and our resources. Instead, the government continues, instead, to treat Canadian artists as though we are receiving some kind of arts welfare that we waste on irrelevancies, despite all evidence of the amount of cultural workers often struggling to create our art and take it out into the world, and participate in the communities around us at large. Have there been any studies to see, for example, just how much money is generated by the ottawa international writers festival, including hotel stays, bookstore sales, meals in restaurants, cab fares, bus fares, airfare and train tickets, etcetera, by both festival participants and members of the audience, not even to mention those who work directly for the festival itself or the sponsor bookstore, Nicholas Hoare Books. And that is but the tip of the iceberg. A good economy is one in which money moves throughout a broader system. Mr. Harper, we can see where our money goes. Why can't you?

Every dollar given to the arts through funding comes back into the economy tenfold. This is an important statement. Even the British Tories, from whom you once took your name, understand that arts funding is an essential service, Mr. Harper. Unless you are employing a tactic of deliberately lying to a population for the sake of playing on their own fears and mis-information, then perhaps you don’t properly understand fiscal responsibility. Short term gain means nothing more than working to get re-elected, and only creates further problems down the road. Boiled down, Mr. Harper reads either as a bad economist, or presumes his base isn’t smart enough to know the difference.

Or he was counting on us to respond. And he is using us to obscure something other.

Stephen Harper's email:


Dwight Williams said...

Amen, Rob. Amen.

Unknown said...

Bravo Rob. I know several young artists who live on the poverty line, doing their art at night, working as house painters, labourers, and grocery packers so that they can survive.

Another point that Mr Harper seems to be ignorant of is that fact that we live next door to the largest English language country in the world. No other nation in the world has to contend with this economic issue insofar as culture is concerned. We have to subsidize our cultural industries to maintain our own culture.

Sammysunshine said...

Absolutely! Extremely well written and certainly makes one think...I am sharing this with everyone I know...

michael hotrum said...

Rob - great article, great argument - this deserves wider distribution -send it to the Toronto Star and Globe and Mail

Gallery of Abstract Art said...

Hey I just posted about Stephen, baby-blues, Harper. I think it would be great to point out to the man what the rest of the world already knows... the arts are the engine. Creativity, a new view are what keep a civilization from tanking.... or financing tanks and imploding. Up Periscope Stephen... oh that's right your thinking hasn't any depth.