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Who should fund the arts?

I emceed an event on June 5 that got me thinking about the ever-prickly question of funding for the arts.

The event was the announcement of local recipients of grants from the Du Maurier Arts Council. I ended up emceeing because, well, someone had to do it, and they usually look for a local actor or performer of some stripe to do the honours. Apparently I was recommended. (Besides, it paid.)

But I confess to certain moral qualms. Personally, nothing would make me happier than to see the habit of smoking vanish completely, along with all the tobacco companies that cater to it. Smoking is dangerous, nasty, unhealthy and antisocial. The mere sight of someone lighting up a cigarette causes me to downgrade my initial estimate of their IQ by a dozen points or so.

So what was I doing emceeing an event at which a tobacco company was handing out money? Because I’m also someone who works in the arts, and I know how desperately underfunded the arts are in this country.

Some people think that’s just the way it ought to be, and from time to time over the years, I’ve rather agreed with them. “Why should tax money be spent on the arts when it could be spent on something “practical,” like roads or health care?” goes the argument–or, if you’re a real died-in-the-wool libertarian type, not spent (and therefore not collected as taxes) at all? And, as it happens, in my own writing career, I’ve never yet applied for a government grant, something I’m rather proud of.

On the other hand, I’ve also served on the boards of directors of more than one arts organization, and I know how important government support is to their operation.

The argument in favour of a decent level of funding for the arts from the government is that it is the arts that ultimately define the way a country looks at itself. What do we remember of the Renaissance? Not the politics, but the art. Ancient Rome is defined for us today as much by its architecture as its emperors. Elizabethan England will always be the age of Shakespeare, not the age of, say, the Member of Parliament for Southampton during that time. We even think of the 20th century in terms of the music and dance and literature of the various decades. Politics, and most government works, are ephemeral. Art lasts, and sends a message down through time about the society that produced it.

Over the last few years, as governments (rightly, in my view) eradicated their deficits, arts organizations took large hits in their funding. This has made it necessary for them to seek out funding from private sources–and one of the most reliable sources of that funding has been the tobacco industry.

Now the government is regulating that support out of existence, as part of a laudable effort to further reduce the incidence of smoking in this country. But the question is, where will the funding come from to support the arts organizations that have been relying on the tobacco company sponsorships? Will the government realize that while preventing the glamorization and advertising of tobacco is a worthy goal, ensuring a healthy arts sector is even more worthy?

Don’t hold your breath.

But this year, at least, the money is still coming from Du Maurier. Recipients include:

The Regina Symphony Orchestra. The oldest continuously performing Symphony Orchestra in Canada, the Regina Symphony performs approximately 100 concerts per season in a number of venues. The project awarded a Du Maurier Arts Council grant this year is the Symphony’s concert performance of “A Trip down the Rhine,” part of its Masterworks Series, to be performed at the Saskatchewan Centre of the Arts on January 26, 2002. The performance will feature music by Schumann and Beethoven, two composers whose work has been much requested by Symphony subscribers.

The Ness Creek Cultural and Recreational Society. This society stages the annual Ness Creek Music Festival, now in its 11th year. The Festival’s mandate is to create an event that supports music, arts, community and ecology in the boreal forest. The 2001 edition of the Festival, for which the du Maurier Arts Council was awarded, runs from July 19 to 22 and will focus on the music and dance of distinct cultures. It will include a First Nations musician, a flamenco guitarist, an Eastern European folk music group and a musician and instrument maker from Cameroon.

Opera Saskatchewan. The only professional opera company in the province, Opera Saskatchewan was formed in 1990 and, over the years, has presented world-class opera for the people of Saskatchewan under the direction Artistic Director Dr. Irving Guttman. Opera Saskatchewan’s current project is the production of Puccini’s Tosca at the Saskatchewan Centre of the Arts, February 21 and 23, 2002. Tosca has never before been produced in Saskatchewan.

The Saskatchewan Jazz Festival. This is the province’s largest music festival and the only one exclusively related to jazz. It involves more than 800 Saskatchewan, Canadian and international artists. This year’s 15th edition of the annual event is being held from June 22 to July 1 and includes the Du Maurier Late Nite Series at The Bassment, a special series that features cutting-edge performances by some of Canada’s and the world’s most innovative jazz artists.

Those are the kinds of artistic events Du Maurier is currently sponsoring…but who will sponsor them in the future?

And by the way, despite the fact the press event was sponsored by Du Maurier and was held in a room at Casino Regina was smoking was allowed–and ash trays were provided–I didn’t see anyone smoking.

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