Open letter to Minister James Moore: Please restore Canadian Heritage funding to PiA

Dear Minister Moore ;

The Pride in Art Society has just received word that Canadian Heritage is withdrawing funding for the 2013 Queer Arts Festival (QAF), 3 months before QAF is scheduled to open. This is a devastating and startling blow to the festival, as Canadian Heritage has funded QAF through the Building Communities through Arts and Heritage program every year since 2010.

Canadian Heritage grants to QAF have grown steadily by about 10% annually; by 2012 the nearly $44,000 grant constituted almost half of our government funding, and 17% of our total budget. When asked the reasons for the cut, Canadian Heritage representatives declined to give any details. When further pressed to explain how we could improve for next year, representatives insisted there were no specific areas of concern. We find ourselves baffled, because by every other indication, QAF is stronger than ever.

Since incorporating as a not-for-profit in 2006, the QAF has grown 20-fold in size, and in that time has presented over 600 artists, produced more than 100 events, and incited the creation of dozens of new works in every artistic genre and attracted broad audiences including families of all kinds. QAF is BC’s only multi-disciplinary arts festival dedicated to celebrating queer art and artists, showcasing the unique creative expressions of the queer communities — people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, two-spirited and intersex.

We are the only festival of our kind in Canada to feature curated visual arts alongside the performing arts and workshops for youth and adults. Pride in Art’s report to Heritage for the 2012 festival showed significant increases in attendance, number of artists presented, government grants and support from the community. These increases are striking given the difficult economic climate, in which many respected arts organizations are showing declining numbers. Our 2013 Heritage application included testimonials from youth explaining that their participation in QAF workshops had given them the confidence to stand up to bullies, and from straight audience members saying QAF’s programming had given them “a stunningly powerful opportunity to connect with the anguish faced by the LGBT community in our own society and in those with much more restrictive laws and norms.”

The Vancouver Province praised QAF’s 2012 programming as “some of the most adventurous of any local festival.” QAF’s 2013 programming has generated unprecedented excitement, garnering grants from the Vancouver Foundation, the Hamber Foundation, the Martha Lou Henley Charitable Foundation, the Telus Community Board, and the Business for the Arts ArtsVest program. These are all highly competitive programs, all enthusiastically supporting QAF’s mandate and programming.

During a period when BC arts organizations have been struggling with declining grant revenue, Pride in Art’s government funding has been doubling annually, showing strong support for our mandate by the Canada Council, the BC Arts Council, BC Gaming and the City of Vancouver. Our 2013 grant assessment from the City read:

“The Assessment Committee considered the programming to be of high artistic merit, demonstrated by a strong curatorial vision in its presentation and through its recent efforts in commissioning new work. They noted a capable and committed staff and board team that was well-organized with good planning practices in place. The committee also recognized strong community support through its numerous volunteers and partnerships, as well as having strong community impact through its accessibility and outreach to queer youth.”

QAF has received similarly admiring support letters from many organizations and individuals which we would be happy to share with you, including Vancouver Opera, the Powell Street Festival, Roundhouse Community Centre, Rodney Sharman, Vancouver Symphony composer emeritus, UBC Professors David Metzer and Rena Sharon, and Leslie Dala, Vancouver Bach Choir Music Director, Associate Conductor of Vancouver Opera.

Our growth and development would not have been possible without the funding support of government organizations like Canadian Heritage. Thus, it was with shock and disappointment that Pride in Art received the news that Canadian Heritage was completely withdrawing its support for this year’s festival, with no clear rationale offered. The decision was made without warning, without any direct consultation at all between Canadian Heritage and Pride in Art staff. It comes at a time when the organization is well advanced in the planning process for this Summer’s festival, and ill-positioned to replace on short notice the funding that Canadian Heritage has traditionally provided. At a time when festival staff need to be focusing on production and publicity, primary efforts will have to be diverted to emergency fundraising, crippling the successful delivery of the festival. A 17% budget cut cannot be absorbed without making drastic choices, and will mean harsh cuts to staff and programming resulting in a corresponding loss of jobs to Canadian workers.

The Queer Arts Festival has a measurable and significant impact on the well-being of the LGBTI communities. By celebrating and showcasing the achievements of historic and contemporary LGBTI artists, we increase pride and self-esteem within the community, respect and understanding in the broader society. By providing a professional venue where LGBTI artists need not self-censor, we foster artistic excellence, because artists create their best work when they can express their whole selves freely — as one of our artists said, “QAF is the only place where I can be completely myself as an artist.” By providing arts training through workshops and arts admin opportunities through volunteer positions, we enhance job skills and self-empowerment for participants. The visibility and recognition created by QAF’s programming can literally save lives: it gives LGBTI youth positive role models, concrete evidence that they are not alone, and a much needed avenue for self-expression. As one of the pieces created in the youth visual arts workshop proclaims in red block letters: “ART SAVED ME.”

QAF also serves a crucial educational role for Canadian society in general, as we saw when a group of teenage boys wandered into the visual arts exhibition after their basketball game. They stood laughing and joking in front of Mary Taylor’s installation piece, “Homophobia Kills,” a hard-hitting work documenting dozens of homophobic murders. When PiA past-president (and high-school teacher) Jeffery Gibson engaged them in discussion about the piece, they grew thoughtful and quiet. A half hour later, they returned bringing several other friends, with whom they shared Gibson’s description of the work and its importance. Before our eyes, these youth had transformed from bullies to advocates: concrete evidence that Pride in Art’s work builds empathy.

PIA staff has sought, but to date has failed to obtain, a meeting with your office to seek a clear explanation of the rationale for this decision. After much thought and careful consideration, we are writing this open letter to you, Minister Moore, in order to ask, on behalf of the audiences and artists that we serve, why Canadian Heritage’s support of PIA has been withdrawn? What Canadian Heritage funding criteria has PiA been meeting for the past 3 years that it no longer meets?

We ask that you meet with us at your earliest possible convenience to discuss the Ministry’s rationale for withdrawing the funding that Canadian Heritage has provided, and that Pride in Art has relied upon for years, as well as the potential damage that this withdrawn funding threatens to inflict upon an organization that the Canadian public demonstrably supports. We also respectfully ask that you reconsider the decision and reinstate Heritage’s financial support for the Queer Arts Festival, so that we can continue to present relevant, transformative and groundbreaking art to Canadian audiences.

Sincerely,

SD Holman
Artistic Director, Pride in Art Society