The Uncertain Future Of Arts And Culture In Saint John

In as little as four months, Saint John will lose its longstanding steward of arts and culture, Bernard Cormier. Cormier, who is in his 31st year as Cultural Affairs Officer (CAO) for the City of Saint John, is set to retire at the end of March 2018. With the City’s growing budgetary woes, it has refused to make any promises about keeping Bernard’s position once he retires. In an effort to convince mayor and council of the role’s importance, the Saint John Community Arts Board made a presentation at last Monday night’s common council meeting on November 27, 2017.

You know that the city’s financial resources are limited,” said Michael Wennberg, former Chair of the Arts Board. “However, you also know that Saint John has to grow. We are here to do everything we can to convince you that arts, culture and heritage are critical elements of any growth plan for the city – elements that can’t simply be terminated or so reduced in funding to be effectively terminated.”

Bernard Cormier, Cultural Affairs Officer

Saint John is known for its many firsts and it was a national leader in being the first city in Atlantic Canada to hire a Cultural Affairs Officer. If the City of Saint John did fail to maintain the position, it would lose its historical distinction of having the longest running Cultural Affairs Office. Shannon Merrifield—member of the Arts Board, Chair of the NB Museum Board and owner of the Buckland Merrifield Gallery—also pleaded on behalf of the Cultural Affairs position to Common Council: “If Saint John were to cut the position it would hold the dubious distinction of being the only city in Canada to do so.”

Before Cormier came to the role in 1987, his predecessor Ella Grossweiner did the job for approximately 6 years. When the City first identified a need for the role, the job looked very different than today.

When I started the job in 1987, there was no Imperial Theatre. There was no Harbour Station. The museum was not located at Market Square. There was no Saint John Theatre Company. There was no Port City Dance Academy,” said Cormier. “I mean the list can go on and on… There was no Fundy Fringe Festival.”

Cormier has worked under 7 different mayors. The Office of Cultural Affairs is responsible for serving as a liaison between the City and its arts, culture and multicultural organizations. According to Cormier, when he started the job he dealt with a mere 8 organizations and today deals with 55. On top of that, he is also responsible for arranging the city’s quarterly City of Saint John Gallery exhibitions at the SJ Arts Centre. He manages the city’s Community Events page, and he advises on ceremony and protocol for high-level dignitaries visiting the city, Freedom of the City ceremonies and the annual Remembrance Day Ceremony. He is also responsible for maintenance of the city’s widely-photographed public art.

The Cultural Affairs Officer, by virtue of the position, is also Secretary and a non-voting member of the Saint John Community Arts Board. The CAO manages applications for the Community Arts Funding Program and the Board awards the small grants, which, in 2017, amounted to $47,900 in financial aid to non-profits for various arts and culture festivals and projects. Cormier and the Arts Board are also responsible for providing day-to-day support, advice and assistance in other funding sources and networking.

The volunteer-run Arts Board that meets monthly heavily depends on its Cultural Affairs Officer, as Cormier is the only person whose job it is to keep the Board’s various projects afloat. While board members contribute significant time to support these projects, the Common Council made it clear when speaking to the board that they would essentially become ineffective if the position of Cultural Affairs Officer were cut when Cormier retires in May.

The Saint John Arts Board pitched a reorganization of the Cultural Affairs Office to Common Council and included three proposals to further aid in the coming transition. Firstly, it proposes the Cultural Affairs Office be moved to Community Development and Planning; the position currently resides in the department of the Common Clerk.

Secondly, it requests the City improve upon its performance of PlanSJ and the City’s arts policy by establishing a two-way commitment and greater collaboration between them and Community Planning, Uptown SJ, Discover SJ, Enterprise SJ, Develop SJ, the growth office and the Heritage Development Board.

Finally, it proposes that the task of running the City of Saint John Art Gallery be given to the Saint John Arts Centre, and the Arts Centre has agreed to do so.

As to whether the position will continue to exist after Cormier retires, Saint John’s mayor Don Darling says that it will come down to a matter of money as the city tackles next year’s budget. The city’s budget has become a hotly contested issue as funding to several services have had several proposed cuts.

First step is to pass next year’s budget. How we approach a specific position will be decided after that,” said Mayor Darling.

The future of arts in Saint John is very bright. We will continue to make investments as we have in the past and looks for ways to enhance the arts and culture scene in our beautiful city. While we must navigate through some fiscal challenges, the value and contribution of the arts, and its importance to our growth plans, is without question.”