Published on Wednesday January 16, 2013 By Martin Knelman Entertainment Columnist
Finally Toronto’s cultural community is set to get a game-changing boost at city hall.
The upshot: a major increase in arts funding, which many artists, cultural organizations and consultants have been seeking for more than a decade, is finally about to become a reality rather than just an unfulfilled promise or an elusive dream.
The city’s executive committee has already overwhelmingly endorsed a motion by Councillor Gary Crawford to release $6 million of billboard loot and use it to increase the 2013 budget for the city’s cultural operation from $47.6 million.
Under Crawford’s plan, another $17 million would be phased in gradually over the next four years until Toronto reaches its oft-stated goal of increasing its per capita spending on the arts from $18.30 to $25.
All this represents a dream come true for a spirited and resourceful group of young artists who have kept up the pressure for years for a billboard tax that could be used to solve woeful underfunding from the cash-strapped city, which had fallen behind other major cities in its investment in the arts.
Crawford told me the other day that he has achieved his goal of making sure this was not a divisive issue. His proposal was endorsed almost unanimously at executive committee. According to Crawford, it’s almost a formality that it will be passed at this week’s marathon meeting of full city council.
Astonishingly, Crawford found a way to gain the support of even Mayor Rob Ford, who as recently as the fall of 2011 wanted to slash arts funding. Here is an endorsement from Ford quoted by Crawford in an email: “This money should be used to help make Toronto an even more attractive place to live — and to invest and create jobs. It should also help engage young people across the city who find art as exciting as many kids find sports.”
We’ll take that as the ultimate benediction from a guy who has poured his heart and soul into coaching high school football players.
Devon Ostrom, 32, a resourceful freelance curator, recalled over coffee this week how the whole movement started small in 2001, when he met Rita Davies, Toronto’s former executive director of culture, at an event called Creative City Youth Consultations.
Davies asked him to come up with some ideas. Ostrom had been struck by a billboard he’d seen to which someone had added an unauthorized (and satirical) enhancement.
It made Ostrom wonder why, unlike most forms of advertising (such as TV ads), the public is not given any treat for putting up with a commercial. Since billboards were a blight, shouldn’t the public get some benefit?
Prodded by Davies, Toronto’s city council voted three times to set a goal of $25 per capita for arts funding. It happened first in 2003 (when Mel Lastman was mayor), again in 2010 (when David Miller was mayor), and finally in mid-2011 (after Ford took over as mayor).
Meanwhile, Ostrom had won the support of many determined and articulate young artists, including a crusading photographer named Che Kothari, 29, who was a brilliant community instigator and strategist.
In 2009, when Miller was mayor, city council passed the billboard bylaw, with the expectation that this new tax would generate $10.4 million.
The plot thickened in a discouraging way in 2010 when the billboard industry launched a court case aimed at killing the tax. The industry won Round 1 of the court battle, but the city appealed that decision, and last year the Ontario Court of Appeal ruled in favour of the city, upholding the tax.
The saga began to seem interminable when the industry asked the Supreme Court of Canada to consider its case. But it came to a sudden end late last year when Canada’s highest court refused to hear the case, thus allowing billboard tax money to flow into the city’s coffers.
That gave Crawford, known as a fiscal conservative but a cultural supporter, a chance to move quickly before this year’s budget was locked in.
Ostrom and Kothari, who have been working together since 2007, were among the organizers of a spirited rally/arts jam in the city hall rotunda on Monday evening. With a breakthrough in sight, the rally turned into more of a victory celebration.