The tail that wags the dog

By David Sharpe

Tourism is the tail that wags the cultural dog in Brantford. The tourism Centre—brainchild of Mayor Chris Friel—cost over three million dollars to build and a million dollars a year to operate these last twelve years. That 15 million dollars would have built a new municipal art gallery and museum. The waste of public funds doesn’t end there. 

The city has spent millions more subsiding the money losing Sanderson Centre. And while I love the Irish Rovers as much as anybody, they are not local performers, so why should taxpayers subsidize their music?

The Sanderson Centre has a chronic deficit, yet sees no problem spending $100,000 dollars on an untendered contract to change the sign in front of the theatre. It’s hard to see how this expenditure will boost the bottom line.  

You would think with its fat public subsidy the Sanderson Centre would accommodate local theatre groups. No, the groups can’t afford the rental fees so they are going cap in hand to city council asking for money for a new 300-seat theatre. 

Of course we’ve seen this movie before. A few years back, a local theatre group received city money and a grant from Johnson’s Wax to convert Cainsville United church into a 300-seat theatre. That project’s failure showed how easily city council’s cultural dollars and grants seem to escape into a black hole.

The public paid millions to renovate the old Capitol Theatre into the Sanderson Centre. It’s a world-class facility that currently is under utilized. Local arts groups should be able to use the facility at a minimal cost. 

The city needs to get out of the theatre business and bring in professional mangers that can turn a profit for the city. The current management and board of directors are simply not up to the task.   

Speaking of black holes and disappearing public funds, we now come to the Brantford Arts Block. The Arts Block chewed through hundreds of thousands dollars in cultural funding and grants before crashing in flames and leaving unpaid bills in its wake. 

While noble in its intentions, the Arts Block failed to execute and lacked credible leadership. In the end, all the players, its board of directors, the city and finally the province failed in its oversight.

The Arts Block big mistake was thinking they could convert the old Union Gas building into an arts centre complete with a small theatre. Union Gas abandoned the site because they could no longer obtain insurance for the property. This should have raised alarm bells. 

Underneath the site is an old gasification plant. The city planning department and heritage committee were both aware of the historical significance of the site and possible environmental contamination.

Why someone from the city didn’t warn Arts Block executive-director Josh Bean or a board member of the property’s unsuitability for public use before they spent thousands on fancy architectural renderings remains a mystery.

The province likewise views the arts and culture sector as some junior partner to the tourism sector. Its Celebrate Ontario program doled out a large grant to the now infamous Hockeyfest concert that was to taken place at Brant Park. That turned out to be a $350,000 dollar write-off for the province. 

Then you have the case of the Station Gallery. Owner Mike Tutt has had monthly shows of local art for the last five years and hundreds of musical performances. Even after he obtained non-profit status for the gallery Tutt was denied a provincial Trillium grant. The province told Tutt his application was turned down because the Station Gallery was duplicating the services offered by the Arts Block. 

The injustice of this is apparent, particularly as the Arts Block was in hiatus for a long period of time as it tried to sort out where it would actually operate. The Arts Block finally landed in West Brant with director Josh Bean predicting the former Brantford Cordage would become Brantford’s “Distillery District,” a reference to the redeveloped Gooderham and Worts property in Toronto.     

Such pipe dreams are easy to conceive when you have wads of government cash, no strings attached. But the illusion couldn’t be sustained forever as the Arts Block failed to execute any real programing or mount any exhibitions to speak of. Yet the government money flowed right up to the end.

It’s really hard to see a way forward for Brantford’s cultural sector after the Arts Block fiasco. One thing is certain. Brantford’s tourism driven cultural policies have been a disaster for the arts.Once the city builds the downtown YMCA, over $100 million dollars will have been spent on recreation facilities. The city doles out a paltry $30,000 dollars in cultural grants annually. The arts simply don’t count.

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