Councillor Josh Matlow

Only smarter arts funding can return the glory days to Toronto’s theatres

December 8 2012


National Post

Chris Selley


These are not the glory days of live theatre venues in Toronto. David Mirvish plans to knock down the Princess of Wales. The busloads of American tourists that came for Les Misérables are a distant memory. And the city itself has a significant stake in this problem. It owns the cavernous Sony Centre (former home of the National Ballet and Canadian Opera Company), the Toronto Centre for the Arts in North York (former home of now-defunct Dancap Productions) and the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts (which projects declining usage through 2015).


“My theatre will never be self-sustaining,” Jim Roe, general manager of the St. Lawrence Centre, told Councillor Doug Ford at Tuesday’s budget committee meeting. Pim Schotanus, general manager of the Toronto Centre, echoed the sentiment.


But, they argue, breaking even isn’t the point. “We’re not supposed to be self-sufficient. We’re Toronto’s civic theatre,” Mr. Roe told the National Post in an interview. “We’re a gem in our municipal landscape.”



Unfortunately, these gems are producing some alarming numbers: The 2013 budget recommends a 16% subsidy hike for the St. Lawrence, 36% for the Sony and 97% for the Toronto Centre. And at budget committee, Mr. Ford aired his usual insinuations of “top-heavy” management and bloated salaries.



“I support arts and culture 100% but everything has to be within reason,” Mr. Ford said after the meeting. “It’s very, very concerning to me when they’re running operations of 70, 50 people and the top guy is making $300,000.”


Mr. Roe and Mr. Schotanus say they earn much less than $300,000, but more than $100,000. (Dan Brambilla, CEO of the Sony Centre, did not return calls.) Those aren’t corporate fat cat numbers, but they don’t scream “grass-roots culture” either.


As big as the subsidy hikes look percentage-wise, the amounts in question are really quite modest: $1.3-million for the Sony Centre, $1.4-million for the St. Lawrence Centre and $1.6-million for the Toronto Centre. On the other hand, these are gaps that could easily be bridged by Toronto’s corporate and philanthropic sectors. Or, in the case of the Sony Centre, by patrons. The proposed $1.3-million subsidy represents just 9% of the theatre’s projected 2012 revenues, and just $3 per seat for every day it is projected to operate in 2013.


We’re not exactly buying $1.3-million in high culture. Upcoming events include insipid cartoon rabbits Max and Ruby “in the Nutcracker Suite,” an ordeal that will set you back upwards of $43; The Queen Extravaganza ($63 and up); and evenings with Nelly Furtado ($74 and up) and Paul Anka ($97 and up). Perfectly worthwhile events, certainly. But why would the city subsidize one venue to compete at a loss against the others to host corporate entertainment?


“The city’s investment achieves greater leverage when the city provides support that would otherwise go wanting,” a task force reported to the economic development committee in 2011. The aforementioned productions do not meet that test, and the $1.3-million, not to mention proceeds from selling the building – which city council will consider in the new year – would be far better spent elsewhere.


The St. Lawrence and Toronto Centres are a different case: Their subsidies represent 78% and 46% of their projected 2012 revenues, respectively, and they host much smaller-ticket events. Even the Ford brothers aren’t against arts investments, and Toronto lags behind comparable cities on a per-capita basis. Last month councillors Josh Matlow and Kristyn Wong-Tam called for raising the figure from $18 to $25. But it’s not the overall number that matters most. If Toronto is to invest in culture, it needs to ensure the money goes to people who (a) need it and (b) can best leverage it to provide financial and less tangible benefits.


The city does not want for private-sector donations. They amount to “five and a half times that of municipal support, and almost equals public-sector investment from all three levels of government

[combined],” the economic development committee task force reported. If the city plans to increase arts funding, it should encourage the private sector to follow suit two-or threefold – including, perhaps, at the St. Lawrence and Toronto Centres. Private-sector funding would offer the venues more freedom and more stability than cash-strapped City Hall – and fewer grillings from the likes of Doug Ford.


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