Wranglers vs. Wagner

Does it make sense to support the arts? An economist’s view on cultural funding.

By Todd Hirsch

Gleaming office towers and fading grain elevators. Business titans and the working poor. The Oilers and the Flames. Blue skies and red necks. The things that give Alberta its unique reputation are not always flattering, nor are they always deserved. But whether they are based on fact or fiction, these images still define the province in an era when the eyes of the country—and the world—are increasingly looking toward Wild Rose Country.

One image less likely to define Alberta’s reputation is that of a thriving arts and culture scene. It seems more Wranglers than Wagner, more hockey than Handel. for a variety of reasons, Alberta’s two main cities do not yet rank among similar-sized cities such as Barcelona, Austin or San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, when it comes to cultural status. Even other Canadian cities like Winnipeg and Ottawa seem to have more oomph to their arts and culture institutions. “Our level of cultural literacy is low,” says Terry Rock, president and CEO of Calgary Arts Development. “We have a whole generation of people who are not overly comfortable with creative expression.”

This is not for lack of popular support. A Leger Marketing survey done for the Calgary Herald in February 2007 found that 55 per cent of Calgarians believe the provincial government should invest more money in the performing arts. More revealing is that this attitude increases to 78 per cent among people born and raised in Calgary. It is not just new arrivals who value the arts.

The appetite in Edmonton is even more apparent, judging by the enthusiasm with which Edmontonians embrace theatre, music and dance. Just try getting a ticket at the Fringe Festival with less than half a day’s planning. And the city’s art scene is about to get a big boost in 2009. The Art Gallery of Alberta  is undergoing a massive transformation. After an intense worldwide competition, Randall Stout Architects was selected to design the new gallery. The provincial government—then under Ralph Klein—made a contribution of $15-million.

As stunning as the new gallery will be, with its graceful aluminum swirls evoking the beauty of the northern lights, it has had vocal critics. The gallery has been called a waste of money; its design has been likened to a heap of potato peelings. But why should a major art gallery and its visionary architecture cause controversy? The only controversy should concern why it has taken the province so long to do it.

According to Hill Strategies, a research organization that tracks spending on the arts in Canada, Albertans are at the  top of the heap in terms of personal expenditures on arts and culture. In 2005, Albertans spent an average of $46 per person on “live performing arts”—the highest in the country, and well above the national average of $38. Albertans also lead the country in the category of “admission to museums and heritage,” with per capita spending of $24, compared to the national average of $17. Despite this interest on the part of individuals, the provincial government ranks among the very lowest in Canada in per capita arts spending. According to  the most recent provincial budget documents, the province is projecting expenditures of $65.9-million on “culture” programs in 2007/08—about 0.2 per cent of the total $33.1-billion in planned spending. This is down from $70-million in 2006/07, but up from $51.5-million in 2005/06.

Throughout history, art has flowed naturally from wealth. Florence in the 1500s, Amsterdam in the 1700s, Paris in the 1800s and New York in the 1900s are examples of cities where the arts flourished under a robust economy. And wealth is certainly something that defines Alberta in the 21st century so far.

“There is this incredible, intuitive sense of need in the province,” says Lance Carlson, president and CEO of the Alberta College of Art & Design. “It’s not just about one thing or a single issue, but there is a need for a crystallized vision of… something.”

Carlson came to Alberta from Los Angeles in 2004, and  has since become one of the province’s leading champions  for the arts and the contributions it can make to the business community. If an art college president can regularly sell out a speech to the Calgary Chamber of Commerce, it is clear his message is resonating.

There is good reason to be optimistic that Alberta is starting to “get it” when it comes to the arts. On paper, all the pieces seem to be there: the Royal Alberta Museum, the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, Calgary’s Glenbow Museum, the Epcor Centre for the Performing Arts, the Citadel Theatre, the Fringe Festival, the Calgary Folkfest, the Cantos Music Foundation, the Alberta College of Art & Design, dozens of theatre companies, a strong contingent of small art galleries—and on the list goes. “There has been a real growth in quality and objectives [of the arts and culture scene] in Calgary,” says Rock. “We are gaining a higher level of national recognition. We are doing things here that are leading the country.” Perhaps because of the presence of a larger university and a broader history in the arts, the scene in Edmonton is even more encouraging.

Nonetheless, the sum of Alberta’s  arts amenities has not yet vaulted the province into a leading cultural destination— whether for tourists or new residents. The potential is there. The stakes are enormous.

It is easy to make an economic case for investing in many of the building blocks that make a city or a province great. Most people understand that superb hospitals and schools, efficient transit and plenty of green space are necessary for a well-functioning economy. But relatively few economists have made a compelling economic case for a vibrant arts and culture scene.  For too long, arts and culture has been considered pleasant, but generally unnecessary or even wasteful to the economy. In terms of economic value, it has been grievously underestimated.

“I think that the arts have positioned themselves inadvertently as a sector in need, versus a sector with something valuable to offer,” says Carlson. “The art world has made it hard for people to access what we do. We do that by rarified language that no one can understand. The cultural community is isolated to a large extent from the population. If you are the president of an oil company or a bank or a law firm, why should you embrace the arts?”

Calculating the economic value of a vibrant arts and culture community is about more than calculating the taxes paid by artists employed in the province (a very weak rationale that has been used in the past to justify the arts as an economic driver). The significant economic contribution of the arts is the way it creates the type of province—and the type of workers—that could generate new ideas, new innovations, and new wealth in Alberta for years to come.

For Alberta to become the destination for the world’s top minds in health care, business and alternative energy research, the province needs to lure the top scientists, researchers and business leaders. A vibrant arts scene is crucial to attracting the world’s best and brightest minds. The great natural surroundings and western heritage will doubtless lure some. But when you’re competing with cities like San Francisco, Melbourne, London and Berlin, good fly fishing and NHL hockey will only go so far.

Economically, this puts serious constraints on how employers in Alberta are able to attract and retain world-class talent. Until now, the province’s population has surged due largely to migration from other regions in Canada. Now more than ever, though, Alberta needs top talent from around the world. And in order for that to happen, it needs to become one of the most desirable places in the world in which to live.

Drew Railton is a managing partner for western Canada with The Caldwell Partners. He works with Alberta companies in executive search and recruitment and knows first-hand how important it is for a city to offer sophisticated arts and culture. “It’s simply vital in the decision-making process,” he says. “If [the potential candidate] is interested in the job, then it’s a matter of getting a feel for the community. But they have to dig a little deeper to find, ‘Gee, they actually have a pretty good arts scene here.’

“It works the other way too,” he adds, noting that good talent from within the province is always at risk of being lured away to larger centres. “A good arts scene helps retain the home-grown talent.”

Terry Rock wants to create a vibrant arts community, and his motivation is not simply to provide jobs for artists. It is about shaping a great city—and a great province. “Go back to [the Winter Olympics in] 1988. You saw Calgary and Alberta come together—we had pride in that. But we have had a 50 per cent increase in population since then. A lot of the current population did not experience that event. When you actually move here, it takes a while to get comfortable in the cultural scene in the community. We need to give people an experience of [Alberta], one that goes beyond the traditional stereotypes. In discussions with other groups, such as Calgary Economic Development, there is a growing recognition that this is something we need to pay attention to.”

As Lance Carlson puts it, “Alberta is at this point right now of making really important decisions that will set the course for a long time to come. The worst thing that Alberta could do right now is settle for ‘good enough.’”

Aside from attracting and retaining talented workers, there is another reason—perhaps more compelling in the long run—why Alberta needs to invest in the arts: fostering those aspects within our workforce that will increasingly be in demand—creativity, imagination, intuition and big-picture thinking.

Daniel Pink is a bestselling author based in Washington, DC. His message on the future of work in North America has economists, educators and human resource managers sitting up and paying attention. In a speech at the Alberta College of Art & Design “Smart night” dinner held in Calgary this past March, Pink argued that North America is entering what he calls the “conceptual age.” Today, many “left brain” tasks associated with jobs such as accounting, law and engineering— all very desirable and prestigious occupations over the last 50 years—can be handled much more quickly and efficiently by computers. This means that the “right-brain” processes—those that are creative, relational, conceptual and narrative—are in greater demand.

For Alberta’s economy to thrive, it needs to focus on something that Pink emphasized throughout his speech: design. “Design is about solving problems,” he said. “It is about changing the world for the better.” He used examples of simple innovative design changes, such as an easier-to-open bottle of prescription medication, that were made not by engineers, but by artists. He also explained how some leading medical schools—those traditional bastions of left-brain emphasis— are now requiring their students to visit art galleries.

For Alberta’s economy to continually expand and prosper, its citizens must be among the best problem solvers and big-picture visionaries in the world. Workers in every sector of the economy—oil patch, transportation, services, hi-tech, manufacturing—will have to use their right-brain functions more than ever before. “It’s really about design, and the application of design thinking and design reasoning to human systems,” says Lance Carlson. “There are lessons to be learned from the work artists do and applying it to how you create real value in your business. Straight business-school thinking is really… more about extending the product line than re- inventing it.”

This is where a vibrant arts and culture scene has an important role to play. Creativity, imagination and problem solving are not only inputs into the production of art, they are outcomes in the consumption of art as well. Stimulating the right hemisphere of your brain can open up thought processes and imaginative solutions to complement—not compete with—the logical left hemisphere. “What is the biggest thing business and government are talking about right now?” says Carlson. “Innovation. What artists do when they work is exactly the kind of process that any creative lawyer, doctor, engineer, writer—you name it—it’s exactly the same design process they go through to be innovative.”

The private sector has realized that enhanced productivity doesn’t happen by chaining workers to their desks or force- feeding them more Excel courses. It happens when workers are free of stress, live balanced lives, and come to work each day ready to find solutions and think up ideas.

Even if one accepts the “art is vital” argument, a looming question remains: who should pay for it? Even if per capita personal consumption of the arts is highest in Alberta, it takes more than ticket sales to keep the arts in the black.

A frequently heard argument against the use of tax dollars for arts and culture is “if I don’t use it and I don’t value it, I don’t think I should have to pay for it through my tax dollars.” Many Albertans never use the Queen Elizabeth II Highway, but that is not listed as an objection for government’s maintenance of it. Roads, schools, parks and other tax-funded facilities are called “public goods” because their economic value goes beyond the benefit received by the individual user. All of society benefits from their existence. Arts and culture amenities need to be valued in the same way. “people don’t stay in a city because it’s got a lot of freeways and highways, even though you need them,” says Carlson. “people adapt to cities and like them because it’s purposeful to be there. They find meaning there.”

The business case for fostering a vibrant arts community shouldn’t rest on how many people it employs, nor should it depend on the fact that artists pay taxes. From a strictly economic point of view, those are largely irrelevant. Artists would still pay taxes—probably more taxes at that—if they became accountants or geologists or grocery clerks. The economic justification for the arts is simple: it helps create the type of attractive city that both Edmonton and Calgary have the potential to become. A vibrant, vital arts scene helps sell the cities and the province to would-be Albertans from all corners of the globe. And exposure to a wide variety of arts will foster innovative and creative employees—the kind of workers our economy needs.

Todd Hirsch is the Calgary-based senior economist with ATB Financial, the province’s largest financial institution.


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