Vancouver Arts Summit: Arts Advocacy

This is my overview of the session Arts Advocacy: Building Bridges to Strengthen our Sector, which took place at the Vancouver Arts Summit in the afternoon of June 26. Again, apologies to anyone I misrepresented.

Amir Ali Alibhai, Moderator This session was moderated by the Alliance's Amir Ali Alibhai, who wanted to come away with new ideas by the end of the session. He started out by posing a question that had been nagging at him lately. Often, he said, at events like the Summit there is a lot of discussion about the "arts community" - but what is this really? Is there an arts community? Do we work together enough, communicate enough, and gather enough to even call ourselves a community?

The panel consisted of Alan Franey from the Vancouver International Film Festival, Vivienne Taylor from Fashion High, Paul Sontz from Tourism Vancouver,  Jean-François Packwood from Conseil culturel et artistique francophone de la C.-B., Janet Leduc from the Heritage Vancouver Society and Elka Yarlowe and Music BC. Everyone introduced themselves and discussed the advocacy challenges for their individual disciplines. Unsurprisingly, issues and challenges were very similar across the disciplines - all the more reason that we should be working more collaboratively. But more on that later.

music-bcAccording to Elka Yarlowe, Music BC is challenged by the perception that they only represent the commercial pop market, where in reality they represent classical composers, jazz artists, and many others. They are looking to be more culturally diverse - something that came up a lot in the sessions. She touted one of their greatest successes as acquiring Vancouver as a host city for the Junos - something that raised the profile of the music industry in the city and called attention to its challenges, such as a lack of venues. She described the music industry as being "in the toilet right now", thanks to a variety of challenges such as online piracy, changing technology, and the economic situation.

In the face of these challenges, Music BC sees their mission as to help their membership and help artists find alternate ways to market and promote and fund themselves. She talked about the tricky funding situation for artists; for example, FACTOR, which is extremely important to the music industry, requires a Canadian distributor, but in the last few years 15 major Canadian distributors have been forced into bankruptcy, so securing Canadian distribution is extremely challenging. She advised lobbying at the provincial and federal level to create a tax credit that would benefit both the music and film/TV industry. She said that one strength of the commercial music industry is that they are good at strong-arming people - a trait that separates them from the nonprofits in the eyes of a lot of people - and finished up by asking why we all haven't at least sat together at Starbucks to discuss aligning our advocacy?Paul Sontz, Tourism Vancouver

Tourism Vancouver was next, and Paul Sontz said that their latest goal is to build Vancouver into a cultural destination similar to Barcelona; and, in fact, they are using that city as a model. He said that the term "diverse cultural offerings" is something that comes up a lot at Tourism Vancouver, and that one of the goals of the Board is to lengthen the stay of tourists so that they might better take advantage of the culture Vancouver has to offer. He said that there are lots of areas where we can do better, and cited Portland as an example of a city with a rich cultural tourism profile.

Paul is proud of Tickets Tonight, which has turned $2-million per year back to the community, and stressed the importance of the arts community to Tourism Vancouver (for example, Arts Club Executive Director Howard Jang is on their Board). He finished by saying that Tourism Vancouver wants to build up the cultural tourism membership base, since it is comparatively small when put beside restaurants and hotels.

Janet Leduc spoke about her experience working for Heritage Vancouver and noted that the title of the session was interesting because they have moved from "in-your-face advocacy" to building bridges as their modus operandi. She noted that Heritage doesn't take money from City, which makes them more free criticize them and their work when necessary. One of the things they do is regularly publish a list on the Top 10 endangered sites, which has become so inured in City Hall that most of the councilors cut it out and use it as a way to prioritize their decision. She said that one of the ways they have been successful is by being in issues involved earlier, instead of reacting to what's already been decided.

Amir noted that this was a challenge to advocacy efforts at the Alliance; we are often reacting to things that have already happened. Heritage also tries to use natural allies whenever possible. For example, they partnered with artists to help preserve the Burrard Street Bridge when it was in danger of being demolished. She stressed the importance of partnering with other organizations. "After all, it's hard enough to work with others, but it's impossible to go at it alone." She finished up with a few nuggets of advice when it comes to advocacy:

  • Find partners with common interests
  • Create a win-win situation, where either outcome is favourable
  • Be patient ("It won't happen overnight!")
  • Don't get discouraged by failures

dresslocalVivienne from Fashion High talked about the precarious condition of the fashion industry, which she said had been decimated by the reduction and elimination of trade tariffs that protect local industries. She said fashion schools are pumping out fashion designers that are forced into becoming manufacturers and retailers, similar to the way emerging theatre artists are forced to become producers and administrators in order to keep working.

Their main goal is to encourage retailers to stock locally made and designed apparel and they are looking into creating a fashion incubator (similar to those in other major cities such as Montreal, Paris, London, etc.) to assist people on the production side of things. Fashion High has over a hundred members, mostly designers, and is only four years old. It is the only fashion organization in BC. logo_conseil_arts_culture_cb

Conseil culturel et artistique francophone de la C.-B. represents the francophone community by promoting and providing opportunities for francophone artists living and working in British Columbia. According to Jean-Francois, most of their members are multi-sector; ie, most of their artists also work in outreach, social work, etc. He spoke of the challenges faced by his sector, specifically the fact that most francophone festivals are multi-disciplinary which makes them ineligible for many grants (for instance, their social enterprise work makes them ineligible for artist grants).

He cited an issue common to all festivals, namely the long response time for grant applications (applications for some festivals in Vancouver took 16 months to process this year) and said that this contributes to staff turnover because contract workers go elsewhere when their contracts cannot be confirmed. He spoke of the challenges of targeting people who are not already within the French cultural community, and stressed the importance of impact over numbers in funding situations. viff

Alan Franey from VIFF began by saying that identifying common goals, keeping the long view and recognizing limitations are all key to successfully advocacy. He said that VIFF is very fortunate since many bridges already exist within the community due to the diverse nature of their work. They try to use full imagination about every project and its marketing potential, because the more integrated their projects are, the more successful they tend to be. He said that the arts are a natural extension of education. He also talked about the importance of regional and seasonal equity, and said that proving the size of your audience is an extremely useful advocacy tool. He finished up by saying that they have faced lots of challenges over the years, and that one of the biggest challenges faced by them and others is the fact that Vancouver is so far from central Canada. Because of this, it is more important than ever to have politicians onside to carry our messages over the Rockies.

The discussion that followed was wide-ranging and at times passionate. Everywhere agreed on the need for more collaboration, especially where interests intersect. As Alan said, the best partnerships are ones where needs are complementary; ie, you need an audience that I can provide, I need the venue which you can provide.  

There was a lot of talk about the need within the arts to not be reactionary. In Janet's words, don't wait until the building is torn down to start your work. There was much discussion about the importance of finding individuals to act as champions for your cause, and - wherever possible - not to advocate on your own behalf because it can begin to look self-serving. We need to advocate not just for members but for audiences, one participant said, and we need to get better about trumpeting our successes and not just our challenges. Too often, we are crippled by the poverty mentality. We have enormous successes and we need to spread the word about them. There was also a lot of discussion about the need to tell our story. What makes politicians change their mind or get involved is often not the numbers that are cited, but the story that is being told. We need to tell more compelling stories.

Paul Sontz noted that Vancouver is one of the hardest places to market too - for example, he said, 70% of Vancouverites are unaware Tickets Tonight even exists. He spoke about Dine Out Vancouver as having come out of the restaurant industry feeling underserved by Tourism Vancouver and wondered whether a similar initiative for the arts might work (Free Night of Theatre has been explored, he said, to limited success). One of the participants wondered whether it might be better to partner the initiative with Dine Out Vancouver rather than create a new program from scratch.

Elka from Music BC noted that the community often likes to institutionalize ideas before acting on them at a grassroots level. Rather than Tourism BC creating this enormous program, she asked, why don't some theatres see if nearby restaurants would be willing to offer a discount to their patrons?

Everyone spoke about the importance of leveraging on the hard work that has already been done by the sector. Any copy written in support of the arts needs to characterize the community as a hotbed of success, rather than continuing this culture of poverty. It was suggested that, in working with politicians, we are better served by building relationships with senior staff, since they tend to stick around longer, and it was mentioned that often the person who can get the most done is the person without the biggest profile, since they often have more time available. It was noted that publicists are an untapped resource when it comes to advocacy work, and that we need to develop a coherent strategy for looking ahead at what we want rather than being content with what we have. It was also noted that, in order to be successful, the arts community needs to take on some of the advocacy themselves instead of waiting for the Alliance to do it for them. Not because we are unwilling, but because we are a small organization with limited means that can only accomplish so much. But if we all band together, we can accomplish so much more.

Thank you to all the participants and panelists. The ideas put forth in this panel will be very helpful for future advocacy work.

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