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Stuck in the middle of the arts funding food-chain 

If Halifax wants a sophisticated cultural ecosystem, the private sector needs to invest in mid-size arts organizations.

click to enlarge Maggie Stewart is the co-founder, with husband Shahin Sayadi, and executive director of Onelight Theatre and the Prismatic Arts Festival. She has also been a practicing lawyer for nine years and is currently the owner of Maggie Stewart Mundial Law. Maggie and Shahin have two children and currently split their time between Halifax and Los Angeles. - SHAUN SIMPSON
  • Maggie Stewart is the co-founder, with husband Shahin Sayadi, and executive director of Onelight Theatre and the Prismatic Arts Festival. She has also been a practicing lawyer for nine years and is currently the owner of Maggie Stewart Mundial Law. Maggie and Shahin have two children and currently split their time between Halifax and Los Angeles.
  • Shaun Simpson


Fall 2017 marks 20 years since I moved to Halifax and 15 years from when Shahin Sayadi and I founded the Onelight Theatre company. In those years, I have had the pleasure of being engaged with arts and culture in this city and I know that we have talented, visionary, hard-working and engaging artists in all fields. We also have a serious problem with nourishing and sustaining artists and arts organizations—particularly at a crucial mid-career, mid-size stage.

Halifax has a lot going for it for a young, emerging artist: There are respected post-secondary training opportunities that provide young artists with a solid foundation and have inspired colleagues from different arts backgrounds who want to explore, experiment and create. There are affordable, if poorly-equipped, venues that facilitate their work. These young artists put on shows, events, festivals and contribute to the vibrant local arts sector.

Halifax has a handful of solid and established top-tier arts organizations that are well-resourced by public and private funding, that reach and draw audiences in large numbers and provide a mainstream cultural foundation for the community. These arts organizations are valued and valuable to the community. However, if Halifax truly wants to be the city that has a sophisticated cultural ecosystem, the private sector needs to invest in and support the other levels of the professional arts: mid-size, mid-career artists and organizations.

Many of our most successful and most productive artists live on the edge of poverty in Halifax. Grant funding (if the artist is fortunate enough to receive ongoing support from multiple sources) is usually only enough to support programming and a salary for one person. Inevitably, the salary is split between several people. Artists in Halifax (like elsewhere) are experts at stretching a dollar. But eventually, they have to decide whether they can really continue to live and work as artists in Halifax. Many decide they cannot. Something has to give.

Halifax has the potential for a thriving cultural ecosystem; what it lacks are healthy mid-size, mid-career artists and organizations. There are two primary reasons for this: First, the absence of appropriate, accessible mid-size performing arts venues; and second, the lack of private-sector financial support for mid-size arts organizations.

The venue issue has been plaguing Halifax for many years. Existing downtown venues are dominated by major institutions and are largely inaccessible for rehearsals and performances by mid-size organizations. Alternative venues are available, but are not properly equipped for professional artistic work and, frankly, make it difficult to attract mainstream audiences. Lack of proper performance spaces hobbles the development of professional work and hampers the ability to build audiences (and ticket sales revenues).

Artists, through different initiatives, have been working for years to develop new performance spaces. The efforts ebb and flow, mostly because the artists at the forefront are the same over-worked and underpaid artists struggling to keep their organizations alive and their bills paid. There has been little engagement, initiative or support from the private sector, despite the obvious benefits to the wider community.

Which brings me to the larger issue: absence of private sector support for mid-level, mid-career arts and culture in Halifax. In a healthy cultural community, private support would be available for all levels of arts—not just the big players. The private sector, particularly those companies that want to attract and retain talent in Halifax, must engage with artists and find ways to support cultural initiatives at all levels. It is not realistic or fair to leave the development of the entire cultural sector to the artists themselves. They are not resourced for this work and they are not the only beneficiaries of the successes.

If we want Halifax to be the cultural centre that it has the potential to be, if we want Haligonian artists and organizations to thrive, the entire community must engage in supporting arts and culture at all levels. Buy tickets to performances, make private donations, develop corporate sponsorships. Be creative about your support, but actively help in nourishing a sector that makes the quality of life in Halifax demonstrably better.

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Voice of the City is a platform for any and all Halifax individuals to share their diverse opinions and writings. The Coast does not necessarily endorse the views of those published. Our editors reserve the right to alter submissions for clarity, length, content and style. Want to appear in this section? Submissions can be sent to voice@thecoast.ca.

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