In defense of public funding

Hello Internet, it’s Monday, September 13th, two days before grant applications to both the Newfoundland and Labrador Arts Council and the Canada Council for the Arts are due.

I am up to my ears.

We in the arts community joke about grants all the time (I’ve already joked about them on this blog, actually), but the fact is that very few Canadian artistic endeavors would exist without public funding.  And here’s why:

A very smart woman I know once said that arts funding is incorrectly perceived as subsidizing artists. In fact, arts funding subsidizes audiences.

For example, here’s an idea of a budget for a small-scale, low-budget original theatrical production (I’m going to use theatre because I’m most familiar with it, but this goes for all art forms):


Playwright: $3000 flat

Designer: $1500 flat (as a side-note, this budget also assumes that the designer will build the costumes, props, set, lighting scheme themselves)

Director, at $800/week for 3 weeks’ rehearsal: $2400

Stage Manager, at $600/week for 3 weeks’ rehearsal and 1 week’s performance: $2400

Actors (let’s say 4 of them), at $400/week (minimum wage, well below industry standard) for rehearsal & performance: $6400

Performance venue rental: $1000

Materials for wardrobe, properties & set (low-budget, remember): $200

Printing: $100

Marketing (posters, press releases, interviews, newspaper advertising, etc): $1000

Workshops for development of the new play:

(this is a one-day workshop)

Actors’ fees: $400

Stage Manager’s fees: $100

Director’s fees: $100

Designer’s fees: $100

Dramaturge’s fee: $200

Venue: $50

So this theoretical low-budget original theatrical production comes to $18,950.

If the production has 6 performances (pretty normal for a 1-week run), and 50 people come to each performance, then there is a total audience count of 300.

And if the theatre company is trying to make back their investment solely on box office sales, each of those audience members would have paid ($18950/300=) $63.17 for their ticket.

When was the last time you went to a low-budget original theatrical production and dropped $60 at the door?  I bet you’ve never done that.  In fact, I bet that the people who would do that are few and far between.

As a result, theatre companies (and every other artistic organization) are on a constant search for other sources of funding.  They need outside funding so that they can drop the price tag for the audience to roughly 1/3 (1/4… 1/5…) of what it would be otherwise.

There’s always private sponsorship: most established artistic organizations get a great deal of funding through private sponsors, but the public funding agencies are like a gateway.  Once you’re able to go to a private company and say “We’d like you to sponsor our show, funded in part by the Canada Council for the Arts,” the sell gets easier.  If the Canada Council is behind it, the show is less likely to flop and the benefit that a company would get from sponsorship (usually exposure) is more likely to be worthwhile.

What happens when work doesn’t get funding?  Unfortunately, the fees are often what suffers.  And frankly, artists shouldn’t feel even the slightest bit guilty about wanting to be paid for their time.  In no other industry in Canada would anyone be expected to work for less than minimum wage.

In simple terms, because everyone deserves to be paid for their work, making art is expensive… so expensive that it becomes almost impossible to make that money back in sales.  Public funding makes it more likely that arts work will a) happen in the first place, and b) pay everybody.

And doesn’t that sound like something we should keep doing?