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Rearranging the Deck Chairs on the Bluenose

By Andrew David Terris
ARTS NOVA Cultural Research and Consulting

Today is the third anniversary of the election of Nova Scotia’s first NDP government … a good time to step back and take a hard look at what’s been accomplished in the area of arts and culture.

One of the new government’s very first actions was to name Percy Paris as Minister of Tourism, Culture and Heritage and also as Minister of Economic and Rural Development, a move that did not inspire confidence. Not only did he lack any substantial knowledge of the culture sector and its issues, but his attention was seriously divided between two demanding portfolios. The tendency in such cases is to defer to the bureaucrats. At one point he made this perfectly clear when justifying a controversial decision in Economic Development. He credited the bureaucrats with the decision and backed them up by stating that “They’re the experts”. Much the same thing happened at DTCH.

Percy’s tenure at DTCH was marked by a sector consultation of questionable necessity since the overriding issues in the sector were well known: low levels of provincial investment, absence of arm’s-length funding, low priority for arts education in the schools, etc. In fact, these issues were addressed in the NDP’s culture platform for the 2009 election. Here’s what their platform document said:

The NDP will work to:
·        Establish an independent Nova Scotia Arts Council for peer-reviewed arts grants – to show confidence in the creativity of Nova Scotia’s vital arts and culture community
·        Gradually increase provincial cultural spending to better match the per capita average of all provinces
·        Ensure museum funding matches the per capita average of other provinces
·        Support comprehensive arts programs in schools, recognizing the important role that arts, heritage and culture play in education and work
·        Investigate effective tax credits in areas of growth potential such as book publishing and new media on the basis of initiatives led by those industries
·        Keep a competitive film tax credit
·        Implement the recommendations of the Heritage Strategy as developed by Voluntary Planning.

In January 2011, the Culture and Heritage Divisions were moved into the brand new Department of Communities, Culture and Heritage, in effect a dedicated department of culture, and David Wilson was named as minister. Even though Dave was no better informed on sector issues than Percy, he was at least more approachable and not seriously distracted with a second portfolio.

One month later, the new minister tabled the report of the sector consultation and announced his government’s five point plan for the support of arts and culture. Here’s what the government press release said:

The plan includes:
·        status of the artist legislation to emphasize the importance of arts and culture to the province
·        establishing Arts Nova Scotia, an independent arm’s-length body to oversee and make decisions about funding support for artists
·        forming the Creative Nova Scotia Leadership Council from the present Nova Scotia Arts and Culture Partnership Council to advise government on arts and culture policy and lead the development of a provincial cultural strategy
·        developing a communications strategy for arts and culture, including a new interactive website for ongoing discussion that will allow artists to showcase and market their work
·        creating an interdepartmental committee to coordinate government efforts to support arts and culture development

In December 2011, ten months after the plan was tabled, the government kept two of its promises by introducing two pieces of legislation, the Creative Nova Scotia Leadership Council Act and the Arts Nova Scotia Act. The first merely formalizes the status of the former Arts and Culture Partnership Council as an advisor to government on matters of general cultural policy and strategy. The second was supposed to resurrect the independent arm’s-length arts council that was demolished by Rodney MacDonald in 2002. However, the legislation made it clear that the employees of Arts Nova Scotia would be civil servants, so instead of the truly independent arm’s-length arts council that was promised, we got an elbow’s-length civil service arts council. The bureaucratic imperative is alive and well at DCCH.

There is a ray of hope for Arts Nova Scotia, and that would be its first board of directors, a highly qualified group that will no doubt make the best of a compromised situation.  Nova Scotia needs an innovative arts council for the 21st century, not a mild rejigging of old models, and being tied to a slow moving, controlling bureaucracy that has often served as an impediment to progress will not serve it well.

Another promise was met when An Act to Respect the Status of the Artist was introduced in the House of Assembly in March 2012. In and of itself, the act does nothing to actually improve the condition of artists in Nova Scotia. Rather it provides a framework for possible future benefits in areas such as investment, infrastructure, taxation, social benefits, training and professional development, health and safety, and collective bargaining rights. The legislation contains loopholes that could neutralize it, so its effectiveness will depend entirely on the good will of current and future governments.

Meanwhile, in the background, the new department has been going through a major internal reorganization. The most significant change for the culture sector is the merger of the previously separate Culture and Heritage Divisions into a new entity called Culture and Heritage Development. To my knowledge, the reasons for this reorganization have never been publicly stated, nor has there been any explanation of how this merger will better serve the sector.

So what does all this mean?

Yes, these developments are mostly positive, except for one small fact … none of them deliver any tangible benefits to the province’s creators. So far it’s all about process – consultations and committees and reorganizing and renaming – and the changes are all administrative and bureaucratic (pretty much what you’d expect when a government bureaucracy is running the show). There is great promise in what has been accomplished, but so far the direct benefits have been minimal (the single exception is the increase to the film and animation tax credits, over the strong objections of a cabal in the Department of Finance that wanted to eliminate them). 

What we do have is a foundation for real change that won’t be realized unless we have a government that has a serious priority for arts and culture. Do we have such a government? The best way to find out is to look at the provincial budget. When governments are serious, they invest.

Despite its promise to “increase provincial cultural spending to better match the per capita average of all provinces”, this government has done nothing to lift Nova Scotia out of the basement of provincial cultural expenditures. Of the ten provinces, Nova Scotia consistently ranks around eighth in its per capita expenditures on culture.  While government expenses go up every year ($9.0 billion in 2010, $9.3 billion in 2011, and $9.6 billion in 2012), the culture budget doesn’t budge.

So here’s the challenge. It’s time for Nova Scotia to go beyond rearranging the deck chairs on the Bluenose and start making serious investments in arts, culture, and the creative economy.

What are the odds? Well, as of last month, we have a new Minister of Communities, Culture and Heritage, Leonard Preyra. Unlike his predecessors, Leonard, a former academic, has gone out of his way to inform himself about this province’s culture sector, and he’s a regular at all manner of cultural events. The test will be whether he can actually deliver the goods, the increased budgets and other tangible benefits that should flow to the sector as the result of the positive changes that preceded him.

Eye Level Gallery once had a button that read: ARTISTS ARE WATCHING. Let’s hope this government is listening.

-The opinions expressed above do not necessarily reflect those of Arts East.

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