None dare call it welfare

I’m not the culture type. At all. I haven’t attended a concert in five years. I go to bookstores often – to read The Economist. The last art exhibit I attended was the Norman Rockwell show at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, because Rockwell is the only artist I’ve ever appreciated. And whenever someone says they love Winnipeg for its culture scene, I have an uncontrollable urge to strap them to a chair and force them, Kubrick-style, to look at images of cities with better infrastructure, policing, and governance until they beg for mercy.

Sorry. Tangent. My point is, I don’t like paying for things I will never have any reason to use. I’ll pay for other people’s healthcare, even though Canada’s delivery system is a farce, but that’s another column. But pay for them to make art? Forget it.

Winnipeg spends six dollars per person on public art, and the Winnipeg Arts Council wants that amount doubled. If you have an extra 12 bucks on hand and wish to spend it to benefit an artist, go on with your bad voluntarily subsidizing self. But if you want us all to give an extra 12 bucks to benefit artists through our taxes, please bear in mind the condition of our streets and community centres, the low availability of affordable housing, and the rather sorry state of our transportation system, such as it is. If we’re going to spend that money at all, we might as well spend it on something with long-term, tangible benefit.

It’s true that organizations that can afford to put on a “rich gala,” to quote Prime Minister Stephen Harper, are the exception, not the rule, of arts funding beneficiaries. But that’s not the main problem with it. The main problem as I see it is the idea that an entire industry and the people working in it require a constant stream of taxpayer money to survive. When an oil company gets that kind of treatment, the same people who demand more government arts funding turn around and, rightfully, call this corporate welfare.

However little total money is spent by governments on the arts, when it comes time for them to look for cutbacks, it’s among the lowest of low-hanging fruit. How many times have you read about a beloved theatre or gallery that has had to shut its doors due to funding cut-offs? Wouldn’t their employees’ jobs be safer if they planned their businesses around the expectation of no public funding at all?

Then there’s the argument for funding for the sake of individual artists: people who wish to make their art into a career, but run up against supply costs and have to work a day job. I can somewhat sympathize. I love my day job, but I would also love to be able to write full-time. Should complete strangers give me a few thousand bucks in grant money so I can? Not if they don’t want to. It’s none of their business, especially if permanent jobs for them won’t be a by-product of that grant.

Need extra cash for your art project? Fundraising websites such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo are your new best friends. Take them out for a drink some time.

But, far and away, the best argument I’ve ever heard for arts funding is that it’s good for people’s spirits. No, I’m not kidding, someone said that to my face. You know what’s good for my spirit? Getting into another debate about Canadian government reform with my buddy Steve’s friends on Facebook. Sitting with my friends and verbally beating the entrails out of the Star Wars prequels. Baking a coffee cake. Not the arts. Don’t talk to me about spirits.

So, to recap: we can spend our money more wisely. Funding for arts groups creates risky dependency. Funding for individual artists is a gamble on gains for anyone but them. The “spirit” argument is just bullshit.

And if anyone wants to persuade me otherwise, I’ll happily give you 12 bucks to go away.

28 Comments on "None dare call it welfare"

  1. Laura Sanderson | September 25, 2012 at 1:42 pm |

    My father has worked as a mechanic for farm equipment his entire life. He doesn’t go to the ballet, he doesn’t go to the opera. He doesn’t hang art in his home, and he doesn’t go to museums. He likes to sing, but really doesn’t have any connection to musical artists out there currently.

    This man, who I would say has a much narrower scope on life around him than you do, still believes in arts funding. He says, that a society is remembered for it’s culture. And when you think back through history, that is what you remember.

    I’m sorry if you don’t personally find any of what’s being produced fulfilling, but all this article is doing is entrenching people in their ideals, and making yourself look uneducated and ill-informed. And while you would like to be a writer full time, there’s probably a reason you’re not. And it probably stems from the lack of objectivity, on such a fundamental level.

    • I’m going to have to disagree with your father on that one. People may remember the cultural contributions to societies, but their less showy contributions – scientific, technological, medical, natural, political – make the world go round.

      The reason I’m not a full-time writer is because I’m 22 years old and a full-time producer. Nice try, though.

  2. If you’re going to argue this based purely on numbers, a recent article published in The Walrus magazine makes a great point about arts funding (

    “One of the main arguments in favour of public support for the arts is also used by the technology industry: return on investment. “Art is a multibillion-dollar industry that has lots of spillover effects in other industries,” says Sara Diamond, the flamboyant president of the Ontario College of Art and Design University in Toronto. “Data suggests that artists amortize their value by one to seventeen.” Thus, a thriving art world is said to produce a host of economic benefits: it employs museum directors, curators, gallery owners, installers, and publicists; it attracts people to cities, where they not only visit galleries and museums but also patronize bars and restaurants; and it motivates young people to attend schools like OCAD University, which employ professors, administrators, and maintenance staff. The art economy, like all economies, radiates outward, dispersing benefits along the way.”

    TL;DR: Arts funding supports more than just individual artists, and with a 1:17 return on investment, Winnipeg would definitely benefit.

    • This article also points out that plenty of celebrated artists have survived without any government funding, which certainly calls into question the guarantee of spillover benefits. In any event, this still doesn’t answer the question of why the arts deserve a steady supply of funding any more than any other industry in Canada, especially when you consider the impermanence of the jobs created within. If you can provide a completely objective, emotion-free answer to that, we’ll call it even.

  3. What makes a society great is not that it has a strong economic bottom line. Who do people remember to this day from the times of ancient Greece, the artists or the merchants? Why do we still look to the Renaissance as the Age Enlightenment, because of their arts and culture or because of sound fiscal policies?

    You say that it is things like science and technology make the world go round, but surely you must recognize that science and technology and the arts are not cut from entirely different cloths. The creativity and inventiveness of artists have helped inspire scientific advances since as far back as history goes. You don’t even need to look further than your own chosen field as a writer to see how heavily authors of science fiction have contributed to science by imagining technologies that are now a reality for us.

    Art is a reflection of the society in which it is produced, and if you look throughout history you will find that the civilizations who have made the strongest contributions to humanity’s advancement were very invested in art and culture. If you feel that the best way to judge a society is by something like its infrastructure, well, maybe you’re just not very enlightened.

    • We look to the ancient Greeks for inspiration because they provided us with democracy, law, astronomy, mathematics, architecture and, yes, commerce, along with the arts. By focusing on the art to the extent that you do, you’re diminishing the true size of their civilization, much more than I am. If that makes me unenlightened, so be it. In any event, to defend modern arts funding on these grounds is akin to defending the constant flow of taxpayer money into the CMHR because we want people from all over the world to flock to it. A nice idea, but the ends don’t justify the means.

      • I focus on the art not because it was the most important part of their civilization, but because a strong investment in art and culture is symptomatic of any healthy society. Art may do absolutely nothing for you, and that’s fine, but it has always been a source for pleasure and inspiration for many people, lots of them non-artists. If baking a cake is what is good for your spirits, great, we live in a society so I am more than happy to subsidize a cooking class for you if you’d like even though I will gain absolutely nothing from it myself. That’s the attitude social creatures need to have.

        I don’t really understand where you CMHR comment though. You don’t want people to flock from all over the world, or you just don’t think they wiill? Either way, I think that level of fiscal conservativism is boring and a little myopic. In the long run, standing still and not taking chances on investing in new (and yes, maybe even risky) ventures will stagnate your economy and be even worse for the bottom line.

        • But government has no business imposing a charitable attitude on its citizens. If you genuinely want to help me bake a cake, I’ll gladly accept your help; cooking is a great bonding activity. If some unseen force is making you help me bake a cake, I’m not going to be all that glad about it. (For the record, you really don’t need a cooking class for cake; those recipes are very straightforward.)

          On the CMHR: If people do flock to the museum, that’s great, but making a bet like that with other people’s money is much riskier than making a bet with your own. But that’s pretty standard for any major construction project in Winnipeg.

          On investing in new ventures: Sometimes it works (Internet) and sometimes it doesn’t (electric cars). I generally think it’s best for the government to stay out of picking winners and losers. Fiscal conservatism might be boring, but letting spending go unchecked is interesting for all the wrong reasons.

          • Wait, what?! Since when do electric cars “not work”?

          • Dave: Chevy shut down production on the Volt due to low sales. Tesla is about to do the same. It’s a good idea that happened to come at a very bad time. Subsidies can’t make up for that.

  4. I’m not the media type. I find it biased, subjective, and clumsy. Give me back my 8 dollars, or whatever I pay.

    • That dude, if I had it my way, you wouldn’t have to pay anything to UMSU unless you wanted to.

      • To bring to light my hypocricy – I actually have no problem giving my money to things like The Manitoban. It can’t survive without funding and it is a useful learning atmosphere for aspiring writers and journalists, even if most of its articles are pretentious and boring. I merely wrote what I wrote to imply the ridiculousness of Miss Chapman’s article. Every single thing we enjoy in life (indluding the Economist) is given a helping hand along the way. The idea that our money should be regulated to reflect our own interests is among the most unrealistic and naive things I have ever read. Miss Chapman is free to indulge in her interests, but I hope she is aware that some of my own money probably helped facilitate said interests, and I have no problem with that, even if they are things that would bore me to tears, like reading about economics. If our money is not spread to represent diverse interests, we’d all just be a bunch of robots engaged in the same “Brave New World.” Perhaps she has been indoctrinated into the whole “we built it” mantra going on down south, which is fundamentally a recpite for egoism and selfishness. And indeed, the selfishness and greed inherent in such perspectives makes my blood boil. We all have to walk before we can run, and her unwillingness to help her fellow man simply because she isn’t a prolific concert goer is like saying that – of what to choose from – Sudan isn’t worthy of our help simply because she doesn’t like desert heat.

        • This is going to be the last time I make this distinction, because it’s getting quite tiresome: Not wanting your tax dollars to be taken from you and diverted to something you don’t care about DOES NOT make you unwilling to help your fellow man. It makes you unwilling to have the government do the job for you. You can donate to charity and advocate for fiscal conservatism in government at the exact same time. But seeing as you’ve admitted to an abiding belief in redistribution for the sake of “diverse interests,” it looks like we’re never going to understand each other.

          • Fair enough, but what I was really alluding to is the lack of realism in your proposition. But if we’re going to get into it, YES it DOES make you unwilling to help your fellow man, because it implies an aversion to equality, that certain causes are more worthy than others. The arts may be a superficial example, but equality has to be a properly dispersed absolute, otherwise we would have imbalance and competition on issues of equal import: aids vs. poverty, woman’s rights vs. gay rights, defense vs. environmentalism. I’m not saying I trust the government to make the appropriate dispersals, but I will at least grant them that they do not base it on whichever issue people happen to “care” the most about. If that were the case, all funding in the U.S. would go to pro-football. And while I agree that dividing things within a charitable context is a nice idea, it’s about as realistic as income equality. That is, not very. I admire how you have fought hard in this debate, but the fact that it has gotten so much attention only speaks to the passion that people have for the arts. It IS important. It provides soul in a world where our politics can sometimes suck our souls dry. Art provides the counterbalance to politics, which, ironically, has been referred to as “the art of passable corruption.” Thus, I must insist that art stands just as important as defense, or healthcare, or any of the other things you think should be government regulated. Healthcare and defense might allow us to live, but art gives us something to live FOR (some of us, anyway).

          • “. . . because it implies an aversion to equality, that certain causes are more worthy than others.”

            Certain causes ARE more worthy than others, and governments have a responsibility to identify them properly. The alternative is to blow every available cent on every available cause, regardless of how deserving of public money they really are. And I spent an entire chunk of my piece telling you not to bother with the “soul” talk, because there are plenty of us whose souls aren’t affected in the least by art. So that point is moot.

  5. So fundamentally you’re asking for a world in which the taxpayer gets to pick and choose where their tax dollars go? Count me in, I’m all for it. I think you’ll be surprised how much arts, culture and even healthcare would get as opposed to corporate tax breaks, the military or the tar sands.

    • I’m asking for a world in which we get to pick and choose which non-essential services get our tax dollars. Military and health care wouldn’t count as “non-essential,” although both could use some serious funding reform.

  6. I’m not the culture type. At all. I haven’t attended a concert in five years. This should have been both the beginning and end of your piece.

    Because you’ve obviously made up your very closed mind on this issue, I won’t begin to cite the numerous advantages (both social, cultural, emotional and even economical) that arts funding brings to a society as a whole. Nor the fact that in Winnipeg, arts funding helps many at-risk kids get off the street into a safe, nurturing environment to explore other avenues of creativity.

    But if you truly believe that “…government has no business imposing a charitable attitude on its citizens.” then I’m sure you also support ending the tax cuts for religious organizations. Because, if we’re taking a dollars & cents approach to fiscal responsibility, religious organizations take far more from the government teat than Arts funding and seemingly give even less back to society.

    • Yes, I’d be fine with rolling back tax exemptions for religious organizations. If we’re talking exclusively about arts programs that help at-risk youth, I’d be willing to make an exception.

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