Editor's Note: This article is a part of Rungh’s Primary Colours Initiative. Rungh was one of the member organizations of two Host Your Own Engagement events as a part of the Culture/Shift engagement process in 2018.
On November 24, 2020, a press brief from the Vancouver City Council (COV) proudly announced $2.05 million in one-time funds to 103 arts and culture non-profit organizations. This move was brought forth as the initiative #MovingVancouverFwd and was described as one in a series of bold steps towards equity and anti-racism in the city under the umbrella of the Culture|Shift: Blanketing the City in Arts & Culture 2020-29 strategic plan, as well as towards mitigating the damaging effects COVID-19 has had on the arts.
But where did this money come from, and what is it actually doing? The city news brief made it seem like the $2.05 million miraculously emerged to ward off the economic damage caused by the pandemic. But these were redirected from within an already approved budget and did not consider some of the most pressing inequities in COV’s arts funding structure.
This article explores the outcomes of the City of Vancouver's dual-COVID-19 arts-focused relief and Culture|Shift plans, roughly a year into each. This work is done with special attention to (1) where arts relief money is coming from and what its objectives are and (2) how Culture|Shift is addressing broader issues of programming diversity in the city.
I spoke about these issues to three arts workers of colour of various positions in Vancouver: Sirish Rao, Co-Founder and Artistic Director of Indian Summer Fest, Brian McBay, Executive Director of artist-run centre 221A, and Valerie Sing Turner, Artistic Producer of theatre company Visceral Visions. Rao, McBay, and Turner represent three of among hundreds of arts and culture organizations cited as stakeholders in the City of Vancouver’s initial report on Culture|Shift. McBay and Rao also served on an 18-month volunteer external advisory committee for the planning and implementation of Culture|Shift.
I focus on the perspective of these POC artists, as it is beyond the scope of a single article to address all groups identified and addressed in the Culture|Shift plan, be they Indigenous communities, disability and access groups, LGBTQ2+ communities, or otherwise.
The Bottom Line of Culture|Shift
As Brian McBay argues, arts funding in Vancouver favours the largest institutions, as these bodies have historically aligned themselves with the Eurocentric values of the colonial outpost and, at present, have the most established administrative structures for securing funding. This is reflected in the city’s budgetary breakdowns of which institutions get how much money.
From 2019 to 2020, the City of Vancouver, in line with Culture|Shift, increased grant funding in the arts by from $7.831 million in 2019 to $8.773 million – including an increase in project funding by 9.12% ($40,160) from the year previous, 31.5% ($364,750) for annual assistance, and 23.05% ($536,500) for operating funding.
Amid the turmoil of the pandemic, the five largest recipients of grant funds from the city – the Vancouver Art Gallery Association, the Museum of Vancouver, the H.R. MacMillan Space Centre Society, the Vancouver Maritime Museum Society, and Science World, respectively – saw little or no change in their annual allotment: , on $3,948,400, which accounted for approximately 45% of the city’s public funding for 2020.
Interestingly, the $2.05 million approved by the Council "in support of COVID-19 recovery and key directives of Culture|Shift" was listed in the official city report as "repurposed grants," meaning that this money had already been approved as part of the city’s $8,406,150 in grant funding. This $8.4 million, moreover, was a reduction in funding from the 2020 funding year of about 4.18% ($366,960).1This is true as of early April of 2021.
Visceral Visions Society was one such organization that received emergency COVID-19 funding. While the City of Vancouver, BC Arts Council, and Canada Arts Council lowered the barrier for receiving funding, Valerie Sing Turner explains how these bodies "rolled out new 'pivot' or 'go-digital' funding programs that involved standard application procedures but also involved coming up with new programming." Many of these grants had deadlines in January or February of 2021, meaning arts organizations would have had to work over the December holidays to close an unprecedently challenging year.
Turner found it troubling that already underfunded organizations that were struggling to meet pre-pandemic programming goals were now being asked to devise pandemic programming on extremely short notice. On those early 2021 grants, Turner adds, "We just didn’t have the bandwidth to plan new programming and prepare yet another application, let alone have the operational capacity to carry additional programming to what we currently have in the works."
Moreover, despite the city celebrating their discovery of available emergency funds, the actual change to their annual arts budget was negligible. As McBay puts plainly, "The amount of [COVID-19 relief] money that came out of the city was minimal."
Culture|Shift and Diversity Policy
If we shift our attention from economics to culture, the situation there is not terribly different. The City of Vancouver is a white-led, neoliberal city built on certain colonial standards of art, artmaking, economic development, and multicultural diversity. Diversity, by Sara Ahmed's interrogation, is the effort of white-led institutions to conceal, distract from, or make more palatable the fact that they are historically and systemically white-led, generally through the incorporation of minoritized and racialized bodies that serve to reproduce whiteness: "adding color to the white face of the organization confirms the whiteness of that face" (2012: 151, original emphasis).
Whether looking at grant funding, annual assistance, or operating funding, there is the additional hurdle that only organizations may receive arts funding from the City of Vancouver. Running an organization means being registered as a non-profit society or charity with an institutional structure, a board of directors, a team for doing financial reporting, and a proven track record of receiving grant funds and putting on successful programming. Individual artists cannot receive city arts funds.
It is worth noting, however, that other major cities in Canada like Toronto and Montreal have independent arts councils and are able to deliver funds to individual artists within the council mandate. In Vancouver, the arts fall under Cultural Services, a branch of Parks, Recreation, and Culture, on the City of Vancouver website. Aside from the Creative Spark Vancouver program that offers grants for emerging artists ages 5 to 18, arts and culture grants from the city are listed as specifically for organizations.
As Valerie Sing Turner explains, the additional amount of labour and capital required to run an arts organization in Vancouver creates a significant barrier for historically under-resourced and marginalized groups, with the added unintended consequence that artists must sacrifice artistic productivity because they are forced to divert precious time and energy to these administrative responsibilities. These hurdles have disproportionately affected Black, Indigenous, and POC arts workers in Vancouver and throughout Canada for decades, because systemic racism has meant they must, for the most part, create their own work opportunities. In the context of the Euro-American city, this dynamic also manifests as a pervasive conundrum: a minoritized person's lived understanding of their own minority identity will always be different than (and therefore, at odds with) the cultural mainstream's understanding of that identity as a thing they have encountered. When space is made for these minoritized bodies, there is always the risk that they will be tokenized – that their funding or programming is for the sake of a diversity box getting checked.
In Sirish Rao's experience, most white-led bodies operating on Euro-American conceptions of Art, Music, and the Stage – the City of Vancouver included – are not fully cognizant of the plurality of South Asian identities and subjectivities explored in Indian Summer Festival (and connections beyond South Asia). The Canadian funding body – whether municipal, provincial, or federal – typically regards any South Asian identity as sufficient to represent all South Asians.
"Coming from India, I only became brown when I came here," says Rao. Rao worked in publishing and writing in India prior to moving to Vancouver and founding Indian Summer Fest. He was shocked by how dominant and also reductive race is as a framework in North America. In his careers in publishing and festival directing alike, he has encountered what he likens to a "quota system," where an institution or funding body that has already supported one or two South Asian writers or performers – regardless of content – declines more works, feeling that the requisite representation has already been achieved.
On Indian Summer Festival's place in this landscape, Rao adds, "It's just that there are so few of us that if one organization does ‘x' or does ‘y', the weight of representing the entire community is on them. That can be extremely restrictive, and it shouldn't be that way." While ISF was initially founded to be a bridge between Canada and India, it has grown to include artists from across South Asia and North America in ways that complicate the festival's own name. "I often find myself having to clarify that this is an arts festival, not an 'ethnic celebration', an awful descriptor I've encountered more than once."
To be a BIPOC arts organization in the City of Vancouver means having to represent a particular minority identity in the public sphere, whether or not that is the explicit aim of the organization. Such is the nature of diversity in the multicultural city. Regardless, any space made for minoritized and racialized artists is better than no space at all.
What Part of Culture is Shifting?
Diversity policy is often announced but is not always followed through. As Sara Ahmed explains, “the commitment is not given by the document but depends on the work generated around the document” (2012: 118). Without clear steps for implementation that are overseen by an accounting body, a plan can be no more effectual than mere words on a page.
The impact of Culture|Shift on arts funding and diversity policy to date is inconclusive. In terms of pandemic response, my interlocutors note that the City of Vancouver has made funding applications simpler and easier to access.
Crucially, Culture|Shift names the issues. The document plainly says that the way to culture equity is by “Resourcing and prioritizing underrepresented experiences and voices, while avoiding tokenizing or pigeon-holing experiences” (Culture|Shift, p. 30). The document also lists a future goal to “review mechanisms to provide support to individual artists & creators” (79) and mentions that arts workers who participated in the plan's focus panels suggested that as a way to make the city's arts and culture sector more equitable (90).
Sector Equity for Anti-Racism in the Arts (SEARA) raised approximately $300.000 for its #POWERSHARE COVID-19 Relief Fund for BIPOC Artists in BC in late 2020, including a $50,000 donation from the City of Vancouver. SEARA, unlike the city, offers individual funding to artists, so part of the city's arts money technically is serving artists not necessarily affiliated with organizations. It is unclear if this is a one-time donation by the city or if Vancouver is considering introducing an arm's-length contingent of its arts funding.
There are also calls for arts support elsewhere in Canada. As of March 2021, the arts councils of Toronto, Montreal, Winnipeg, Calgary, and Edmonton have all signed a call for the federal government to guarantee a basic income for artists. Vancouver does not have an independent Arts Council and did not sign the call.
The hope, ultimately, is that Culture|Shift does stick to its strategic plan beyond just writing it, from expanding funding and programming to underrepresented and excluded groups, to continuing the conversations the city has opened on how to diversify and decolonize its arts and culture landscape. Though it is too soon to tell what the impact of this policy has been, my interlocutors all agreed that the city, regardless of how glacial the speed of cultural change may be amid the pandemic, is asking the right questions.
Ahmed, Sara (2012). On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. Durham: Duke University Press.
City of Vancouver (2019). Culture|Shift: Blanketing the City in Arts & Culture. Vancouver Culture Plan 2020 – 2029. https://vancouver.ca/files/cov/vancouver-culture-shift.pdf.
City of Vancouver (2020). 2020 Cultural Grants (Operating, Annual Assistance, Projects, Cultural Learning and Sharing). https://council.vancouver.ca/20200331/documents/5.pdf.
City of Vancouver (2020). “Cultural recovery grants provide a boost to arts and culture communities”, 24 November 2020. https://vancouver.ca/news-calendar/cultural-recovery-grants-provide-a-boost-to-arts-and-culture-communities.aspx.
City of Vancouver (2021). 2021 Cultural Grants (Operating, Annual Assistance, Arts Capacity, Indigenous). https://council.vancouver.ca/20210119/documents/r2.pdf.
Hopkins, Claire, Nathalie Maillé, Carol Phillips, Patti Pon, and Sanjay Shahani. “Canada’s largest municipal arts councils ask for a basic income guarantee for artists.” The Globe and Mail, 20 March 2021. https://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/books/article-canadas-largest-municipal-arts-councils-ask-for-a-basic-income/.
SEARA Fund Instagram account, 4 January 2021. https://www.instagram.com/p/CJpH6T0sk71/.