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More than 20 years ago, before Robert Chafe was a renowned Newfoundland playwright, he was 21 years old and writing his first play.
He did it with a $500 grant from the provincial arts council.
“I’m here as a working artist in this province because of ArtsNL. I wouldn’t be otherwise. I would have given it up long ago,” he said.
In that way, Chafe calls ArtsNL a “gateway” for artists.
And he’s worried access to that gateway is shrinking because of a need for funding.
He said this province ranks third last in per capita funding for arts councils across the country. Along with Mindless Theatrics director Courtney Brown, Chafe is hoping to change that. The pair initiated a letter-writing campaign this week, asking people to write to the provincial government with a goal to increase funding for ArtsNL.
“Our ask with this initiative is to raise the budget – it’s currently hovering around $2 million – to $5 million over the next three years, which would essentially put us in the middle of the pack. So, we’re asking government to bring us up to average.”
Chafe said other jurisdictions across the country are putting more money into the arts and thereby increasing the level of competition. He worries the effect that will have on the arts community in this province if funding levels aren’t increased.
“Companies will start to die, artists will start to leave the profession. We’re seeing it already.”
ArtsNL is currently touring the province to hear from the arts community.
Executive director Reg Winsor said one of the biggest comments he’s hearing is that funding for grants programs needs to be increased.
“Our budget right now is, in reality, nowhere where it needs to be to be able to deal with all of the applications that we receive.”
Winsor said the arts community in the province has grown more professional in the past few years and with that growth the quality of grant applications has improved.
“It’s a situation now where when applications are being submitted to us, there’s probably 90 to 95 per cent that we would love to be able to fund, it’s just that we don’t have enough funding to do it,” he said.
Winsor said ArtsNL is allocated $1.936 million in provincial funding, plus an additional $200,000 from the Department of Education for arts and education programs in schools. Out of that over $2.1 million, the council awards $1.6 million in grants. The remaining funds go towards operating and administrative expenses.
He said the last time ArtsNL saw an increase in provincial funding was in 2011-12. It was an increase of $150,000, all of which went to increasing grants.
Since then, ArtsNL funds were cut by 1.5 per cent – an amount the council took out of its administrative budget in order to maintain the level of grant funds.
The current $200,000 from the Department of Education is also $100,000 less than it once was, which meant the council had to cut the visiting artist program to schools.
“We keep indicating that we do need a funding increase, but right now (government) is indicating to us there is no new money, but I look on it like this is an election year, and there’s a role for us as a council to keep talking to our minister, keep talking to our senior officials to indicate that these are the demands that are on our programs,” said Winsor.
While Chafe said the province does fund the arts in many other ways outside of ArtsNL, such as allocating funds for infrastructure, the ArtsNL funding goes directly to the primary creation of arts and culture.
“You can have a building, and you can have a staff to staff that building to put culture in, but if you don’t have culture being created to put in it, it’s kind of pointless, right? So, ArtsNL is the primary place where the work that fills those stages, the CDs, the films – they all start with ArtsNL.”
Brown said her theatre company receives funding from ArtsNL.
“I’m barely scraping by. I cannot do it for less – it’s critical.”
By maintaining current funding levels with increased inflation every year, Brown said it essentially leaves artists with less money to do their work.
Chafe and Brown said the amount they’re asking government to increase funding is small compared to the return.
“To increase that budget to $5 million, the next decade in every corner of the province you would see the results, and it makes me tear up because we all know – working in this sector – what that money can do,” said Chafe.
“People know the potential of art and artists to speak to this place and to ignite prosperity and to bring hope. So, I think the challenge sometimes is to connect the line more solidly between someone like Alan Doyle or Allan Hawco or Donna Butt back to ArtsNL and ArtsNL’s funding of the petri dish that allows people like that to grow – allows initiatives like Rising Tide to grow and become. If that petri dish isn’t fertile, it just won’t grow.”
Chafe said if there are young people coming up behind him with dreams of becoming a playwright or a musician, they need a “door to walk through.”
“And if that door’s becoming tighter and tighter to open – as it is, as it has been – then we’re giving up on something really important, and we’ve got to watch it – because it’s happening.”