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How much should city taxpayers shell out for art?
Nov. 6, 2016
By Sue-Ann Levy

This past Friday, around the time budget chief Gary Crawford was explaining why taxpayers will need to pay 5% more on both their water and garbage tax bills next year, the city issued a news release proudly announcing funding for 13 more arts projects.

It took some toing and froing with a city spokesman on exactly how much these latest Animating Historic Sites projects - artistic, interactive programming that would supposedly attract more visitors to already heavily subsidized city museums - would cost us.

But, by day’s end, I learned the city-funded Toronto Arts Council allocated $203,550 of our tax dollars to this initiative this year.

Friday’s announcement had followed a flurry of unveilings over the previous two weeks of various murals that were, for the most part but not entirely, part of the city’s StreetART Toronto (StART) program.

In 2016, 17 street murals were funded for a total of $375,890 - the money coming from the city’s generous grants pot.

Randy McLean, manager of beautiful streets in the city’s transportation division, told me recently there are two StART programs funded from the tax base - the one that paid for the 17 murals and the Outside the Box program, which shelled out $80,000 this year to hand paint or wrap signal boxes.

He said the various StART programs came out of a graffiti management plan from 2011, which includes “strict enforcement of vandalism” and support for those vandalized, in addition to murals - which he considers a “proactive approach” to reducing the amount of vandalism.

“There is, for the most part, a respect of street art,” he says, noting with “some exceptions” such art tends not be vandalized.

He said the number of complaints about graffiti appear to be going down, as well, since they implemented the program.

In mid-October, we were invited to the unveiling of a Coxwell Laneway Mosaic Mural in Councillor Janet Davis’s ward. That one cost taxpayers $34,000. According to city spokesman Steve Johnston, the rest of the funding to cover the full $57,000 cost came from the Ontario Arts Council and other “site partners,” including the Toronto Parking Authority.

In one week, three underpass mural projects were announced, including a mural celebrating women that contained imagery on 20 pillars outside the Wilson subway station in Councillor Maria Augimeri’s ward. Four such murals were funded this past year, according to information provided by McLean - for a total of $272,000 taken from the city’s public realm reserve fund.

I have no issue with tackling graffiti using a proactive approach, although I would question the cost of the projects.

Besides which, I am regular theatre patron and love all kinds of music from jazz to classical.

But how much should a city - that can’t afford to fix its roads, sewers and sidewalks properly - be investing in starving artists? Does a city that already took garbage and water off the property tax base to artificially deflate our property tax increases have the right to fatten up the coffers for arts and culture?

In other words, what exactly are our priorities - the question that should be continually asked as the city heads into yet another difficult budget cycle.

As I discovered StART is far from the only project, whether it be murals or animating historic sites. The floodgates have indeed opened for starving artists at City Hall since 2013 and our own budget chief, Crawford - himself a professional artist and part-time musician - appears to be the reason.

In 2013, Crawford started the ball rolling to bring the funding per capita for arts programs from around $19 per capita to $25 per capita by next year, using $22.5 million of the billboard tax with another $13 million to come out of the tax base by this year.

The arts groups were positively salivating. They couldn’t wait to get their hands on the (free) money.

So spawned a long list of funding “priorities” contained in a Creative Capital Gains report-including, the StART grants, the Cultural Hotspot initiative and a huge top-up to the Toronto Arts Council, which funds a roster of theatre and music groups and visual artists in Toronto.

The Cultural Hotspot initiative, to which $200,000 was dedicated this year, funded six murals of its own, including one unveiled in Councillor James Pasternak’s ward in mid-October. According to city spokesman Shane Gerard, the Cultural Hotspot - which targeted North York this year - invests in “elevating the cultural capacity of diverse neighbourhoods outside the downtown core.”

And the Toronto Arts Council? Well according to my own calculations, the TAC saw a 56% increase in its grants pot from 2011 to 2014. Their operations budget jumped 33% in three years. Their 2015 annual report has not yet been posted online, but the increase is no doubt even more.

A snapshot of arts and culture funding: