Monday, January 16, 2006

Also in today's Star

This opinion piece comes from Kevin Garland, Executive Director of the National Ballet of Canada:

For all the vociferous debates, the carefully orchestrated photo ops and the grand announcements of new policy initiatives by all of the parties in the current election campaign, there has been a curious silence on one seminal issue: No one has mentioned, even in passing, the vital importance of the arts and culture in the fabric of Canadian life.

It seems none of the political parties has the inclination to tackle the subject.

One might conclude that Canada has no cultural life, or worse, that Canadians don't care about the continued existence of the arts in our society.

Too often our public officials treat the matter of culture as either a dispensable entertainment commodity or a soft, worthy-in-principle idea that lacks the relevance or "traction" of more serious issues.

Yet the cultural sector contributes $39 billion annually to our gross domestic product, and is bigger than agriculture, forestry, mining, and the oil and gas sectors combined.

Numerous studies, both here and abroad, have demonstrated the significant role culture plays in the social and economic well-being of any society. That is, or should be by now, simply an established fact.

Social critics such as Richard Florida have stressed how essential a vibrant cultural context is to attracting creative and innovative individuals from all walks of life and spheres of interest.

A flourishing, dynamic cultural atmosphere is not only its own reward, something to be valued in and of itself, it also acts as a magnet for talent and ingenuity of all kinds.

In any society worthy of the name, ballet, opera, music, art, literature, film and theatre are self-justifying, life-enhancing activities.

But at a time when, increasingly, urban regions like Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, and Calgary are competing to attract the best and brightest from abroad and seeking to retain their own indigenous talent, culture has an added social and economic impact — one that cannot be ignored.

Similarly, the arts have a crucial role to play in the arena of public diplomacy. There has never been a more effective and striking way of building bridges and forging connections between nations (even disparate ones) than by an exchange of cultural ideas, experiences and works.

We lament that Canada's presence on the international stage has been steadily diminishing.

By bringing to international attention the visions and perspectives of our artists, we could more fully participate in the contemporary global dialogue, while sharing our own unique diverse stories and values with the wider world.

This sort of engagement with the world is increasingly important in a contemporary context, not just for the arts, but for our country as a whole. To retreat from it as we have done means insularity and a narrowing of cultural, economic and political possibilities that no government should want to see take place.

It has to be said that there have been positive steps toward recognizing this growing importance of the arts in our society. The decision last year by the government to renew the budget for its "Tomorrow Starts Today" program was a heartening and far-sighted step toward providing stable and predictable levels of funding for arts groups across the country.

As well, the recent decision to increase funding for the Canada Council for the Arts by $5 per Canadian is a genuinely welcome sign. The arts community as a whole, from coast to coast, will be expecting to see these decisions reflected in the 2006 federal budget.

Here in Ontario, the federal and provincial infrastructure programs have led to such developments as the construction of The Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts and the expansions of the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Royal Ontario Museum, The National Ballet School, The Royal Conservatory of Music and The Gardiner Museum.

These are all wonderful projects that will contribute enormously to the cultural vitality of the city of Toronto.

But the process can't stop with the bricks and mortar.

We also need to fill these superb facilities with the finest programs and performances that can be imagined. And that takes a commitment to operating funding.

Our artists and the institutions that provide them with "stage" have made an extraordinary transformational commitment.

Governments must understand that investing in the arts is investing in nothing less than the public good and the forging of a dynamic cultural identity that is the foundation on which every successful nation is built.

I call upon each leader in the current election to state clearly their respective party's position on the funding of the arts in Canada and to give this vital issue the prominence in the present political debate it truly deserves.

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