New multipurpose arts centre, here we come?

Is the city truly willing to build a multipurpose arts centre in the city? …This year? …Or the year after? …Or the year after? The proof is in the pudding, says Andrew Harvey.

If you are involved in the arts in St. John’s, you already know about the desperate need for more artist work space. While the booming economy is great for many, it has led to a difficult situation for those who produce things other than fossil fuels.

At the May 5 meeting of St. John’s city council, they took a step towards helping out artists who are struggling to find a place to work. Council voted to approve $33,333 to cost-share with the provincial and federal governments a needs assessment, business plan, and concept design for a multipurpose arts centre. The next step would be to find funding from government or the private sector to fund the construction.

The vote to approve the money was a contentious one. Deputy-Mayor Duff and councillors O’Leary, Hickman, Collins and Galgay voted for the motion and councillors Hann, Colbert and Tilley voted against it. While they all professed their support for the arts, those voting against the motion argued that this was unbudgeted money, and it should be deferred to next year’s budget for consideration.

Councillor-At-Large Tom Hann voted against the motion, stating that it would be fairer to deal with it as a part of the budgetary process:

“Let’s see where it will fall in the list of all the other priorities we have,” he said. “Then we can determine, well… maybe we can do it, start something on it next year, or the year after, or the year after.”

Fellow Councillor-At-Large Sheilagh O’Leary would prefer not to wait for next year, or the year after, or the year after. O’Leary said “the time is now.” She highlighted the importance of funding this initiative, recognizing that it is simply a step towards getting anything built. O’Leary said we shouldn’t wait until next year’s budget, and that “there are potential spaces that could be economically retrofitted right here and now that will slip through our fingers. We have to be very, very expedient on this.”

O’Leary also points to a broader philosophical debate which lies under the surface at city hall. This debate centres around what exactly the city should be funding. Some councillors believe the city’s role should be to support core infrastructure only, and leave others to funding social and cultural programs.

2012 is an assessment year for property owners in St. John’s. With property values continuing to skyrocket, we are sure to see this philosophical debate come to a head. If the 2012 budget will be a pudding, that’s where the proof will be. As Tom Hann says, we will need to see where funding for the arts stacks up against the other priorities of the city. Let’s hope that the arts are indeed a priority, and we see more progress towards a long overdue multipurpose arts centre.


  1. Vanessa Mary · December 17, 2009

    There’s a perfectly good building across from the excellent Anna Templeton Centre for Art,Craft, and Design that could house a multi-purpose arts centre. St.John’s needs this! How can call ourselves a haven for the arts when there’s such little resources available to our artists?

  2. Cotter · December 17, 2009

    What’s stopping artists from funding this themselves? Why does this have to be funded by our tax dollars?

  3. Frank · December 17, 2009

    The same reason some non-artistic ventures are supported financially by government – it’s an investment that has societal benefits.

  4. Cotter · December 17, 2009

    I don’t deny that it has societal benefits but it’s not an investment — not a financial one anyhow. If it was a financial investment then it would turn a profit at some point. This is just another handout of taxpayer dollars. It is, after all, our money and not the “government’s.”

    I’m not saying it’s any worse than the other handouts but it is a new unbudgeted expense.

  5. Frank · December 17, 2009

    How is this being “funded by our tax dollars” NOT a financial investment?

  6. Cotter · December 17, 2009

    If it’s a financial investment then it will make a profit at some point and some of those profits will go back to the investors (like buying stock in a company).

    Is that what you’re claiming this will be? So taxpayers would invest a certain amount and eventually this would be self-sufficient and the taxpayers would get back the money they invested plus a portion of the profits?

    If this is a money-making venture then I’m sure lots of private investors would be interested in getting-in on this.

  7. Greg · December 17, 2009

    Since when did the arts not generate wealth? Not every artist turns a profit, but neither does every entrepreneur. Have you spent any time with professional artists? The financial vs. cultural benefit is, at least in this case, a false dichotomy.

  8. Anonymous · December 17, 2009

    Entrepreneurs get loans and take risks. Artists are just looking for handouts. There’s a big difference. At the very least they could be looking for investments from the private sector, but it’s so much easier to sit back and wait for the government cheques to roll in. Skilled people shouldn’t be asking for welfare.

  9. Cotter · December 17, 2009

    I’m not debating that there are cultural benefits.

    Of course not every artist or entrepreneur turns a profit and of course some professional artists do quite well. Some investments work out financially and some don’t. There’s no doubt of that. But if there’s no plan to make this self-sufficient then it’s not an investment — it’s just a taxpayer subsidy. Let’s at least be honest about what we’re actually talking about here.

    So this is all about another taxpayer subsidy (an unbudgeted municipal one at that). This means another hand in my pocket.

  10. NEWFIE HULK · December 17, 2009


  11. Andrew Harvey · December 17, 2009

    Part of what this funding is for is a business plan. In this I assume that it will look at the financial viability of such a centre. It is my understanding that the centre will be self-sustaining when it is completed.

    Keep in mind, as others have pointed out, every industry receives funding for exactly such a project, to develop an industry. (The arts in NL is something like a $400 million/yr industry)

    While the funding for this, or any other industry development project will not be directly repaid, I am sure the business plan will show the economic benefit to such an endeavour, in increased economic activity, and thus taxes, which benefit all of the areas of government which are funding partners.

  12. Cotter · December 17, 2009

    Funding for a business plan? That’s laughable. If this is viable and self-sustaining then why does it need government handouts in the 1st place? Are they not able to secure private investors?

    If any other industry receives similar funding then shame on them too.

  13. Niki · December 17, 2009

    Kevin Spacey gave a spectacular lecture on Arts and Public Policy As part of Arts Advocacy Day 2011 in Washington at the Kennedy Center. You can easily find it online.

    He also appeared on Hardball with Chris Matthews sharing some brilliant insight about arts and education.

    I realize that this discussion was brought about due to major arts funding cuts in the U.S. However Mr. Spacey articulates perfectly how vital it is for us to realize the importance of arts in culture no matter where we live.
    Definitely worth watching.
    (sorry, you’ll have to cut and paste this one)

  14. Frank · December 17, 2009

    “This means another hand in my pocket.” To put it politely, it’s not all about you and your pocket.

    Arts organizations are almost never financially self-sufficient in the way I’m guessing you mean : money goes in, more money comes out. There are, as you note, cultural benefits.

  15. Harris Centre · December 17, 2009

    There are strong links between arts and culture and regional/economic development, in this province, nationally, and around the world.

    In fact, it’s the theme of an international conference that the Harris Centre is hosting this fall in St. John’s.

    You can find out more at

  16. Chris · December 17, 2009

    The Andrew it should be up to the Provincial Government to Fund this NOT THE CITY!

  17. Chris · December 17, 2009

    Then Andrew it should be up to the Provincial Government to Fund this NOT THE CITY!

  18. Chris · December 17, 2009

    Actually Frank YES IT IS. I have no problem with city council subsidizing the Arts community. BUT what I do have a problem with is the fact that this is for a “BUSINESS PROPOSAL”, plain and simple.