N.L. artists react: ‘Feeling like we are not wanted here’

Artists shocked, concerned over province’s dropping of ‘culture’ from department name


Published on February 23, 2017
Mike Hickey

The provincial government’s new departmental changes have members of the arts community questioning if it understands the things they say make Newfoundland and Labrador liveable and likable.

Along with cutting 287 management jobs to the tune of $20 million to $25 million annually, the provincial government announced Wednesday it would be restructuring a number of departments, including that of Business, Tourism Culture and Rural Development.

That department is now called Tourism, Industry and Innovation; streamlined, government said, to “achieve greater efficiency in fulfilling its mandate.”

Local artists immediately began voicing their concern over the dropping of the word “culture” in the department title, and the potential implications of it.

Beth Follett

“It seems so trivial, rewording a department title as part of bureaucratic streamlining, but it’s the word they removed and what it means to us as a province and people (that’s concerning),” said Mike Hickey, a St. John’s-based filmmaker. “Our culture is a huge part of our identity as Newfoundlanders and Labradorians and it shouldn’t be something that’s assumed or implied because it’s what the department has historically done.”

There’s a lot more to culture than how it affects tourism or business, many artists noted, saying “tourism,” “business” and “innovation” don’t cover the vastness of local culture.

“To drop the word ‘culture’ from the department is to eliminate something essential, something fundamental, and a lot like throwing out the baby and keeping the bathwater,” said Beth Follett, founder of Pedlar Press. For Follett and other local publishers and writers, the changes to the department are another step in what they feel is an attack on their industry. As announced in last spring’s provincial budget, books are now subject to the 15 per cent HST, meaning government makes more money on them than the authors, who generally get a 10 per cent royalty for their work.

Sara Tilley
Copyright The Telegram

Sara Tilley, award-winning author and performer, said she feels government has been showing a lack of understanding about what makes the province a desirable place to live or visit.

“Everywhere I travel, when I tell people I’m from Newfoundland, the first response I get is that the person becomes excited about a writer or a band or a visual artist or a choir, some artistic venture that they know from here,” Tilley said. “Second, they’ve heard it’s beautiful. We literally are a province whose identity is built on our culture and our land. We tout our rich cultural offerings to the world as enviable. And yet, this is one more instance of the government disrespecting and devaluing the actual people who live here, pay taxes and make that culture.”

It’s more funding for the arts that’s needed, Tilley said, not less, as well as more visibility for arts outside of tourism and more reasons for artists to stay here.

Related story
Government slashes 287 management jobs, shuffles departments

Christopher Mitchelmore

“We are really feeling like we are not wanted here, and soon all that will be left is a vast, empty landscape, some ‘innovation’ and perhaps memorials for the culture that used to exist before all the artists disappeared,” she said.

Christopher Mitchelmore, minister of tourism, industry and innovation, told The Telegram government recognizes the cultural sector as a vibrant industry, and says the new changes will result in “greater synergies” among the sectors the department covers, meaning greater opportunities for artists. The province is as committed to culture as ever, he stressed, offering its dedication to Status of the Artist legislation as well as an updated Creative Newfoundland and Labrador document; the plan for development and investment in local culture as examples introduced in 2006.

“Culture is who we are. It’s our identity,” Mitchelmore said, noting $450 million of the province’s gross domestic product is linked to the cultural sector. “Culture is and always will be a significant part of our province.

“We have a lot to celebrate and be proud of in terms of our culture,” he added. “We want to grow (that) industry across Newfoundland and Labrador, and there are various avenues to do that.”

Mitchelmore said his “door is always open” and he’s willing to speak to anyone with concerns over the departmental changes.

 

tbradbury@thetelegram.com

Twitter: @tara_bradbury