Feels like a long winter

Right now I smell like old books.

My hands scented with tired words and broken ideas.

Right now I smell like paragraphs and one too many adjectives.

-Tyler Knott Gregson


Manitobans, unfortunately, know all too well the sinking feeling of waking up to a spring snowstorm. It’s not unusual but it’s disheartening; one more storm after a long winter. One wonders if you can deal with being cold for much longer. But the promise of summer keeps us going.

Some of us in the arts sector feel like we have been living a Manitoba April for several decades. Arts and culture funding from government sources has been stagnant and, with rising costs of operations, this is in effect a cut. The culture of doing more with less is par for the course, it seems. Some have been aptly motivated to utilize resources to increase earned revenue, as it is understood that public revenues are on the decline. Nonetheless, every effort is made to ensure that Winnipeg and Manitoba are known, recognized and admired locally, regionally and internationally for significant artistic output. Many of us are providing focused attention on the fact that we must as a society engage in a process of reconciliation with Indigenous people, allowing the arts to be a transformative and empowering social tool.  Similarly, as our community is making space for refugees who might not share French or English as a mother tongue, we are utilizing the arts as a way of engaging with these new Manitobans. We are getting better at tracking our economic contributions; representing a provincial GDP of more than $1.7 billion, with recent increases making culture one of Manitoba’s fastest growing sector.

Momentum was on our side. But on April 11th, the cultural sector experienced a significant snowstorm, with a provincial budget that proposes at least $1.3M of hard cuts to the sector. We are still not sure of the impact of these cuts to agencies and partners including the Manitoba Arts Council, Manitoba Film and Music, and Manitoba Centennial Centre Corporation, but it will be felt across organizations and artistic practices. This should feel significant – yet, $1M is the equivalent of repaving one short kilometer of provincial highway.

The Manitoba Government’s proposed budget sent a chill through the sector, as many arts organizations work within bare bones operating budgets and have found creative ways for the last several decades to find savings where we could, without affecting the artistic integrity of the cultural experiences we offer. Just to give you an idea of how little ‘fat’ there is, the average Manitoba artist makes a yearly salary of $26k, compared to the average Manitoban who earns $42k.

Arts organizations, artists and art aficionados need to do a better job at getting our message out! Where other sectors have well funded, well supported lobby organizations such as the Manitoba Heavy Construction Association that consistently pleads the case for more infrastructure dollars to be spent on roads, or the Canadian Tax Payers Association that consistently gets the message out that  taxes are bad; the Arts sector does not have such a lobbying capacity and funded platform. In fact, most arts organizations are charitable organizations, meaning we are severely limited in our lobbying activities. Yet, we are not low on messages that we could share. Especially since the arts is all about giving voice to ideas and realities! We know there are fundamental social benefits to investing in the arts; academic research has been documenting this for so long it seems to be instinctive in most Manitobans. Furthermore, the economic benefits of investing the arts are increasingly evident. So maybe the question should be, are Manitobans willing to forgo 1 km of repaved highway to reinstate the million dollar cut in a key component to the fundamental fabric of a society; the arts?

The government of Manitoba has entered into an exercise that will result in an arts and culture strategy. I believe that awaiting the results of this province-wide discussion will give an assessment of where we are and where we want to go. Part of that conversation will be the who and how of funding the arts. But, we need some stability in the current year, so that we may have that serious conversation. And I do mean the collective we – that means you too!

The proposed funding cut is the financial equivalent of taking a kilometer of highway away, or maybe a kilometer of highway airstrip, making it too short of a runway for many of the artistic capacity of Manitoba to be allowed to take off. Essentially, I’m suggesting that we get that kilometer back so that Manitoba can endeavor to activate the social profit capacity of the arts.


photo credit: Duncan Ferguson