Photo from above of a theatre audience watching someone on stage with a screen behind them.
Hot Docs and other arts orgs got big while accumulating corporate sponsors and high-paid executives. Now they're facing serious challenges. Photo: Hot Docs.

The Arts Funding Crisis Is an Opportunity to Prioritize Artists

Arts organizations are facing a funding crisis in Canada. The Canada Council for the Arts, our largest national arts funding agency, recently announced widespread cuts of five to ten per cent, and corporate sponsors are canceling sponsorships with organizations large and small.  

Instead of trying to go back to the pre-pandemic “normal,” we should recognize the ways in which our current arts funding models are detrimental to the people at their centre: artists themselves. 

As the expression goes, “in the midst of every crisis lies an opportunity.” These current upheavals offer arts workers and supporters a possible way forward. We must honestly examine where our money is coming from, what money we’re willing to take, and remind ourselves that, without the artists themselves, arts organizations would cease to exist.

As a former Executive Director of the Images Festival and current Managing Director with the Rendezvous with Madness Festival, I’ve seen firsthand the pressures facing arts organizers in a constantly diminishing funding landscape. While at Images, a public funder implored us to pursue corporate sponsorships solely because festivals can attract those corporate dollars. It was a confusing message from an agency with a mandate to support independent artistic production, presentation and distribution.

Most arts organizations don’t have corporate sponsorship guidelines in place that reflect any shared value system. Money might purportedly “help” artists on the one hand, while funding war machinery on the other. 

Any organization taking Scotiabank funds, for example, is by extension supporting – or at least tacitly accepting – the bank’s $400 million dollar investment in Elbit Systems, which makes it the largest foreign shareholder in Israel’s largest military and arms company.

One common secret in the film festival world is that sponsors, including corporations, embassies and consulates, exert pressure over film selection. This pressure can look like forcing festivals to select certain films from their country in order to secure funding, or it can mean banks demanding the right to refuse films that they deem too risky to their brand. This is the equivalent to exchanging funds for access to programming slots or decisions, also known as bribery and censorship. 

The arts sector isn’t obligated to prioritize corporate sponsorship, and by extension, corporate interests and investments, especially when it comes at the expense of supporting artists. The economics of growth actually work against artists; as festivals grow, they pay artists less and charge more for submission fees, which are a direct cost to artists. 

Rendezvous with Madness and the Images Festival are able to fairly pay every artist whose work is shown, with low or waived submission fees. They do this by being smaller and leaner, without the bloat of executive salaries that occur alongside title sponsorships, corporate obligations, and marketing teams.

What we’ve been seeing this year with Hot Docs, CONTACT Festival and TIFF is that phenomenal organizational growth prioritizes corporate sponsorship at the expense of artistic freedom, and replicates the wage inequities in the private sector. For instance, directors such as the AGO’s Stephan Jost are paid hefty salaries ($406K per year salary plus $390K in consulting fees in 2020-2021,) while the gallery’s mid-level staff are taking Employment Insurance (EI) between contracts, when not working second and third jobs to cover the rent. 

There has been a tendency to hire these highly-paid executives from outside Canada, with little or no connection to the artists, audiences, funding systems, corporate investments and regional cultural ecologies which have sustained the festivals. In their hiring decisions, boards and executives have sometimes tokenized Black, Indigenous and racialized leaders through empty commitments to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) priorities while actually setting up these leaders to fail as they don’t have the proper supports to survive and succeed in white-dominated arts institutions which are often racist and self aggrandizing about their “progressive” organizational culture. 

At the March 26 press conference launching the new No Arms in The Arts coalition calling out arts funder Scotiabank for its investments in Elbit Systems, Giller Prize-shortlisted author Thea Lim implored us to “remind each other that the arts industries are nothing without artists… that this meager platform actually has serious weight if we stand together and recondition ourselves to find meaning in our collective power. Our prizes, our festivals won’t be worth anything without us.”

Given how fickle corporate sponsors can be, the reality is that these large companies are shifting their priorities away from the arts anyway. We saw this with Bell ending their annual $5 million dollar contribution to TIFF, and Scotiabank recently exiting the CONTACT Festival and Nuit Blanche before that. Bell cited a desire “to invest in opportunities that are core to our business,” while Scotiabank wants to shift their funds to sports and issue-based causes. 

Despite the largesse of sponsors at TIFF, their ticket prices continue to skyrocket. In 2023, premium film tickets cost between $39 and $88, while most filmmakers aren’t paid at all, and most artists can’t afford to attend the festival. How is the corporate sponsorship arena actually nurturing artists or audiences at this point?

Now is the time for arts organizations to refocus, resize, and honestly evaluate where our money is coming from, for the sake of artists themselves. We won’t have a thriving arts community by doing the same things that got us into this mess. Would decentering constant growth and corporate sponsorships pave the way for festivals where art and labour took centre stage? If a few highly-paid directors lost their jobs, would artists or audiences shed a tear?