On the outs with the in-crowd

Michael Johansen
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The voice on the radio sounded disturbingly like mine. It also sounded really pissed off.

The voice was responding to questions from an interviewer on Canada's public broadcaster. It was complaining about a severe imbalance in the way assistance is provided to the province's artists and writers by the Newfoundland and Labrador Arts Council (NLAC).

The voice said that although the NLAC has made some efforts in recent years to improve the level of aid it gives to Labrador artists, writers and arts organizations, they are, for the most part, failing miserably.

The voice admitted it was "expressing personal disappointment," since token grants do little except make the recipient feel like a token.

Out of the $811,816 the NLAC awarded so far this year to individuals and organizations ($285,805 to the former, $500,000 to the latter and $26,011 through the Visiting Artists Program), only $2,500 went to Labrador.

The voice, which was warned beforehand that by speaking out it would likely destroy any chance it had to earn assistance from the NLAC, got a little personal when the interviewer asked if, in the voice's opinion, some kind of greedy, self-serving "cabal" (to paraphrase him) was behind the situation.

"It's like there's no point in applying unless you move to St. John's and get in with the in-crowd," the voice answered.

"There are people (in St. John's) who get grants time after time after time. If I were making more than $10,000 a year from the NLAC I'd be sitting pretty. There are people that do (receive that much, that often), but no one in Labrador."

Of course, that voice on the radio really did belong to me, but that doesn't make its arguments any less valid - to my mind, at least.

The NLAC recognized the imbalance years ago. To solve it, the council hired someone to fill an office in Happy Valley-Goose Bay and it increased travel grants to Labrador artists from $500 to $750, which means now someone can almost fly all the way to St. John's, but not back.

What would really help the many writers and artists who are trying to eke out livings in Newfoundland's northern colony (and also for those who live on the island, but off the Avalon Peninsula and who, like many Labradorians, see no point in applying) would be for them to get a fair share of the regular operating grants - a fund that's clearly controlled by the provincial capital's arts community, primarily for that community's benefit.

As it's proven time and again, usually by politicians, if strict conflict-of-interest guidelines are not enforced, significant amounts of public money will almost always get improperly disbursed for less-than-public reasons.

Support in Labrador and St. John's
The voice on the radio (me, that is) received supportive comments about the tirade from others in Labrador, but it didn't expect similar responses from St. John's - ones that confirmed its suspicions.

Those people identified themselves as being members of the out-crowd and they requested anonymity for fear they might otherwise sour their own slim chances at getting NLAC grants. However, since they could observe the in-crowd from close at hand, the St. John'sers were able to offer several ways to make things fair.

Nobody, they said, should be allowed to receive assistance more than one time in a row (project grants are awarded twice a year) and nobody should be allowed to regularly rotate between getting grants and serving on the selection jury - both of which happen too often.

There was talk that the jury should be made blind, meaning applications should carry no names so jury members might be prevented from recognizing their friends. The best suggestion towards that goal was that the NLAC should team up with its Nova Scotian counterpart and then the two councils could impartially assess each others' applications.

One St. John's artist also felt the imbalance could be redressed if a certain percentage of funding was dedicated for artists and writers resident in Labrador. Speaking as one of the latter, this voice thinks that's a dandy idea, but it won't be holding its breath.

Labradorians know a pipe dream when they see one.

Michael Johansen is a writer living in Labrador.

Organizations: Newfoundland and Labrador Arts Council

Geographic location: Newfoundland, St. John's, Canada Happy Valley Goose Bay Nova Scotian

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