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Support for the arts is support for the economy, panel says

By Bob Vrbanac
Kitchener Post staff

In a building recognized for its architecture and one that holds some of the area’s cultural past, the Waterloo Region Museum was a highly symbolic setting for last Thursday’s town hall meeting on the arts hosted by the Kitchener-Waterloo Community Foundation.

“Why art?” asked Rosemary Smith, CEO of the foundation.

“This conversation is a big part of what Vital Signs has been telling us for the more than five years we’ve been conducting this program.”

Vital Signs is an annual report the organization publishes to identify areas where Waterloo Region is doing well in comparison to other communities and areas where it is falling behind.

The hope is that the results spur action from local governments and the community at large to address those deficiencies.

But the one area still struggling is support for the arts and culture sector of the community.

Whether it is the tough economic times or slow adoption, the arts are still lagging behind the development of other key sectors such as education and the high-tech community.

While economic opportunities are key, the quality of life issues that keep and retain the type of workers the area will need to prosper are also high on the list.

That’s why arts promotion is becoming so important, said Smith.

“What happens in the community when I’m not working?” she said.

“Is it vibrant, is it the kind of community that I can go out in that interests me and expands and grows me as a human being and makes me want to stay and be engaged in the community?

“Our challenge as a community to remain the leader that we have been is to have the kind of community that attracts and retains the best and brightest, that will allow us to fuel our creativity and allow us to continue to reinvent ourselves as we have in history.”

So how does the community invest in the arts and provide some stabilized support for the sector, Smith asked.

One of the tools to address arts funding shortfalls has come from the Prosperity Council and an agency it launched, the Creative Enterprise Initiative.

“Our mission is to make Waterloo Region a place to live, work, play and, most importantly, stay,” said Heather Sinclair, chief executive officer of the new body.

“Our strategy to accomplish this is to initiate and sustain outstanding creative enterprise.

“We must support and invest in the creative sector the same way we invest in and support tech, health and academia.

“The easiest analogy to say what Creative Enterprise does is to say what the Accelerator program and Communitech does for tech companies, we do for the creative sector.”

Some of the concrete steps the initiative has taken to promote cultural offerings have been to address the chronic underfunding of the creative sector by getting more support from local municipalities.

“Research indicates a $3- to $5-million shortfall for the region when compared to other cities of our size,” said Sinclair.

“It was determined that this gap would be breached with $1 million from the private sector, $1 million from the province and the feds and $1 million from the region and the municipalities, and that’s annually.”

Sinclair said that amount would simply help sustain the sector, not promote growth.

The municipalities have come on board, increasing funding per capita in the past three years and contributing more than $750,000 on an annual basis.

Sinclair said funding from the province and federal government has lagged because local arts groups haven’t been as successful in getting grants and the CEI will be working with them to become more successful in attracting  investment.

The group has also met with local municipalities to streamline their grants processes and align them with each other so there is less duplication and confusion, and arts groups can concentrate more on the creative process.

The CEI is also launching a web portal in the fall for better exposure of the local arts sector. It’s also opening a new space in the former LCBO store on Erb Street in uptown Waterloo to provide arts studios, jam spaces and offices for local emerging artists.

“It will be an essential source of what’s going on for all locals and visitors,” said Sinclair.

“It’s a key vehicle to match content creators with an audience, and will be driven by the community for the community.”

The town hall meeting also featured a panel discussion moderated by local community advocate and Kitchener Post columnist Mike Farwell and featuring Deborah Currie, director of development for Centre in the Square, Roger Farwell, chair of the Creative Enterprise Initiative, and Rod Regier, executive director of economic development with the City of Kitchener.

Currie told the audience of about 70 people she is a passionate supporter of the local arts sector, a pillar that has to be built on to match the vibrancy of cities like New York, Vancouver and Montreal.

“But if there is one thing that sets us apart from those communities that I’ve mentioned, it’s that I don’t think our community sufficiently perceives the values, benefits and relevance of the arts in successful placemaking,” Currie said.

“This makes building public support for our arts organizations and artists a challenge on many levels.

“I believe it’s time to stop treating the arts as a needy child in a municipal family where other siblings need more attention.

“It’s time to stop talking about cuts to the arts and advocate for increases to allow our creative sector to take big bold chances that will bring our community a new source of recognition and reputation.”

Roger Farwell said support for the arts is a driver of economic development.

“When we invite the world to look in on us we have to make sure there is something to see,” he said.

Regier said Kitchener’s economic development department has come to understand the importance of the arts and culture sector in attracting new business.

“This is a fundamental shift in economic development . . . and (it) has been a learning experience for us,” said Regier.

“But it’s clearly a credible and important approach to economic development demonstrated by many cities around the world, and even in our Waterloo Region.

“We’re in a bare-knuckle fight with great companies and great cities around the world . . . We’re in a stiff battle and we have to deliver the quality of city that will keep our talented young people here.”

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