ArtsNB Stripped Of Funding, Autonomy, Dignity

This week the Provincial Government of New Brunswick issued their Groundhog Day budget for 2016, and with it a prediction of at least two more years of winter for the New Brunswick Arts Board.

The announcement came late Tuesday in a press release by the Department of Tourism, Heritage and Culture, that $400k would be cut from the ArtsNB budget that had previously been allocated towards administrative costs and salaries, and the formerly arm’s-length agency would be absorbed by the provincial bureaucracy.

“This decision will not reduce the amount in grants received by New Brunswick artists and arts organizations,” said Tourism, Heritage and Culture Minister Bill Fraser. “This will result in a more focused, streamlined approach to ensure that the maximum amount of funding reaches the artists in a cost-effective way while ensuring that the arm’s-length, peer assessment model remains intact.”

ArtsNB is, in fact, mandated as an arts funding agency, directing the awarding and administration of grant money to professional artists within the province, but only in the same way an iPhone is used to make phone calls. It’s the tip of the iceberg. ArtsNB has been responsible for career development programs, scholarships, residencies, Aboriginal arts outreach programs, and advocacy for arts funding.

Beginning in April 2016, $200k, roughly half, of ArtsNB’s staffing budget will be cut, followed by a cut of an additional $200k in 2017, stripping the organization of programming and experienced staff as the government looks to pare down to a streamlined grant administrating process.

“Over two years all of the budget that pays these employees is being removed,” says Matthew Pearn, board member for ArtsNB. “Effectively, they are being ‘fired’ by the government pulling away the administrative budget for ArtsNB. These people coordinated the juries that selected which artists were funded (on merit). They ran outreach programs to aboriginal communities to help with applications. We have no clear commitment from GNB that we can preserve anything. We have no idea how many ‘staff’ they might give us. Running classes to teach artists business skills, doing outreach to aboriginal communities, pressuring government to increase funding – all that comes off the table with this change.”

Last year ArtsNB lobbied the provincial government to provide additional funds for artists and saw a $400k increase, and it has been suggested that it’s because of those teeth that the government is having the organization neutered and brought inside. Pearn also says the Department of Tourism, Heritage and Culture have hampered further efforts over the last eighteen months by ignoring submissions to fill the 3-4 board positions that have remained vacant, and instructed the organization not to hire a new Executive Director when the current one steps down in June.

“Basically it looks like the Department is adding to bureaucracy by pulling these jobs inside government. I can’t fathom how that fits with a plan to eliminate 1300 civil servants over the next five years.”

ArtsNB getting ingested into the government to save money is handing over the keys to the well-being of the arts. The sincerity and grand promises with which they are assuring the public that the amount of money given out will not change is perhaps a presumptuous nod which may lead to disappointment. It’s also an issue of setting us back twenty-five years, when the arts fought hard for autonomy from government control and the ability to self-regulate.

While no one was expecting champagne and caviar with this year’s budget, cutting out an arm’s-length arts advocacy group, the equivalent of which exists in literally every other province, has come as an insult. Without a degree of autonomy, whatever staff remains aren’t likely to rock the boat by lobbying the very people that sign their paycheques. And while groups like ArtsLink and l’AAAPNB are expected to advise the government on how to proceed as they pick ArtsNB’s bones, we’re not likely to see much funding for any art that wouldn’t appear in a tourism brochure.

Pearn argues that ArtsNB is still able to operate more cost effectively than a unionized government staff, so if this isn’t saving New Brunswickers money, you have to ask – is this being done for other more political reasons?

For more information contact Tourism, History, and Culture Minister Bill Fraser.