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Arts funding promised by all mayoral candidates – except one. Hundreds of artists and arts patrons attend mayoral forum at AGO

Tuesday 28 September 2010 No Comment

By Mike Adler, InsideToronto

There was one question everyone came to ask – the one about money.

And yes, the leading candidates to be Toronto’s mayor – save one – seemed to promise the arts community will get a lot more.

That one candidate, for those familiar with the city’s mayoral race, was no surprise.

“I would love to be able to promise it, but we’re $3 billion in debt,” Rob Ford told 400 artists, art patrons and arts workers at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

The Etobicoke councillor voted this year to support a raise in annual city support for arts and culture from $18 per Torontonian to $25 by 2013.

That surprised his opponents, but in front of the city’s most prominent cultural organizations and supporters Wednesday, Ford reminded them not everyone supports funding the arts.

“Everybody wants a piece of the pie, and unfortunately, you can’t always depend on the taxpayer,” he said, and was booed when he suggested “you can fundraise a ton of money” by hosting dinners for private sector sponsors.

Others speaking at the packed gallery event – from which many were turned away to an overflow venue nearby – stood behind the $25 per capita pledge.

Rocco Rossi went further, pledging $25 in the first year and $33 per capita, which Montreal gives its arts community, by 2013.

Such funding cannot only help draw tourists but “will return as an investment many, many times,” said Rossi, who proposes to pay two-thirds of the increase through the city’s new billboard tax and another $6 million through “efficiencies.”

Candidates suggested they would try to spread the city support to areas beyond Toronto’s downtown, particularly priority neighbourhoods in the suburbs.

George Smitherman, who released a Creative City cultural plan Wednesday, said it includes an annual Mayor’s Toronto Ball for the Arts that could in part be used to support touring by Toronto-based arts companies.

As mayor, Smitherman said, he’d keep city councillors focussed on their jobs at home “and send the artists as the ambassadors.”

Joe Pantalone, however, pressed the former MPP to say whether he would cut arts and cultural staff at city hall to achieve budget cuts he has promised through attrition. Most city departments are protected from losses in staff, but culture is not, Pantalone said.

“I don’t pretend it will be easy,” Smitherman responded.

Ford, who must also cut staff to meet his financial targets, tried gamely to let the audience know he has nothing against the arts and would try to give them support. As a student, he took drama classes, he said, inviting people to imagine “a 300-pound football player in leotards and tights.”

A fifth candidate on stage, James Di Fiore, said he had no illusions of becoming mayor.

Di Fiore, a hip hop artist, journalist and event promoter, said his mission is to get young people engaged in the political process – only 18 per cent of city voters 18 to 35 bothered to cast a ballot in 2006 – and said the arts are a “lightning rod” that can get them to vote.

He too approved funding $25 per person, suggesting benefits of a raise should be obvious. “Politicians have trouble looking at the arts as a business, and as something that actually makes money.”

The Parkdale resident was chosen in an online poll by ArtsVote, a debate sponsor promising to mobilize behind civic candidates supporting the arts.

Outside, Kevin Clarke, another mayoral candidate, had arguably been making art, writing his name in chalk along the sidewalk and shouting his message, at one point from atop a parking ticket dispenser across the street.

Himy Syed, also running for mayor, said he wants to boost city support to $33, but he disagreed private partnerships or sponsorships should be sought for every event.

“The original Nuit Blanche in Paris does not have the name of a bank in front of it,” Syed said.

“I want arts programs to be able to choose to be either unbranded or co-branded.”

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