Losing grip on cultural leadership

Red Deer was among the first cities to be designated a Cultural Capital of Canada in 2003 by Canadian Heritage.

Red Deer was among the first cities to be designated a Cultural Capital of Canada in 2003 by Canadian Heritage.

The city failed to earn the designation in 2009 and, if recent events are any indication, it will be some time before it earns that designation again.

Two announcements are raising serious questions about the city’s ongoing commitment to the arts and culture.

On Monday, city council approved a draft resolution to change the city’s Public Art Policy, reducing to one per cent from 1.2 per cent the amount of capital construction costs exceeding $250,000 going toward public art.

City staff proposed the reduction after determining one per cent was the norm in other North American cities including New York City, Kelowna and Lethbridge.

Councillor Lorna Watkinson-Zimmer stands alone on council in her opposition to the draft resolution. Rather than see the city reduce its commitment, she would like it to strengthen its public arts program, raising the amount to 1.5 per cent.

“We want to be progressive in arts and culture,” said Watkinson-Zimmer.

Meanwhile, Red Deer residents are mourning the demise of popular arts programs that helped integrated persons with developmental disabilities with the wider community.

The artsparks acting, writing and singing programs at the Red Deer Public Library lost all of their funding when the province, which has made habit of late of balancing the books at the expense of the most vulnerable and those who can least afford it, cut $100,000 from the Persons with Developmental Disabilities Board. Funding for the artsparks programs at the Red Deer Museum was also slashed.

The community is scrambling to fill the gap left by the highly rated program, with securing other sources of funding the first priority.

To be progressive in arts and culture at the tail end of a recession — and in an municipal election year, no less — takes foresight and leadership.

All too often, arts and culture funding is the first to go when governments are looking to cut costs.

In British Columbia, for example, the Liberal government’s post-election budget reduced its arts-and-culture investment to about $3.7 million in 2010-11 from about $47.8 million in 2008-09.

In doing so, it ignored the results of its own 2006 study, which suggested that for every dollar invested in the arts, the government recovers $1.36 in tax revenue.

Councillor Gail Parks, who requested the review of the city’s Public Art Policy, believes Red Deer residents would question any decision to raise the amount spent on public art to 1.5 per cent during times of fiscal restraint.

Instead, Red Deer residents must ask themselves in the weeks and months ahead whether it’s wise to weaken the city’s Public Art Policy — and by extension, the investment in Red Deer’s arts community — at a time when federal and provincial support for artists and arts programming is drying up.

Red Deer’s claims to the title of Cultural Capital of Canada will depend on the answer.

Cameron Kennedy is an Advocate editor.