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How arts cuts hurt the Yukon

The Dawson City Music Festival may feature fewer Outside performers in 2009 than in previous years because of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s…

The Dawson City Music Festival may feature fewer Outside performers in 2009 than in previous years because of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s arts funding cuts.

The festival has, in past years, attracted artists from as far away as New Zealand and Mongolia, as well as many musicians from Quebec and the Maritime provinces.

The expense of bringing these artists to the festival was, in part, paid for with federal programs that have been cut under the Harper government, says Amy-Lynn Karchut, the festival’s newly hired co-ordinator,

It’s too early to know to what extent the arts cuts will affect the festival, says Karchut. Various funding applicants are not due until December, and the festival, which runs July 17 to 19, is still 10 months away.

But the arts cuts are “a worry,” she says.

The Harper government has cut $45 million to arts and culture funding since coming to power. These cuts are now an election issue. Opposition parties say the cuts are driven by conservative ideology.

Harper dismisses this criticism and says the cuts only affect a small clique of artistic elites.

So, other than the Dawson festival, how do art cuts affect the Yukon?

It means fewer big-name art shows in Whitehorse, less money for small museums around the territory, and fewer opportunities for new musicians and other artists who seek a leg-up, say arts representatives.

The Yukon Arts Centre’s public art gallery is no longer able to put on big-name exhibits from southern Canada, says its chief executive officer Al Cushing.

The centre depended on a federal program that transported art in climate-controlled trucks to different destinations in Canada, including Whitehorse.

That program ended this summer. Private operators currently offer no such service to the Yukon, says Cushing.

And big-name art shows won’t send their exhibits to locations without such transportation, he says.

“That was a real wallop to us,” Cushing says.

So, Yukoners will no longer see shows such as the Forty Part Motet, a sound installation brought to Whitehorse in 2005, which Cushing describes as “a very important part of contemporary art.”

Yukon’s museums have also seen money cut that had helped them restore and maintain artifacts in their collections, says Patricia Cunning, executive director of the MacBride Museum of Yukon History.

Such work may not be flashy, but it is essential, because without their collections, museums have nothing, she says.

“When the federal government is cutting the only program dedicated to community museums … it’s really a worry for the future of the organization,” says Cunning.

The fund, which is tapped into by 2,200 small museums across Canada, was cut to $7.5 million from $9 million, she says.

The money helped the MacBride museum build a computer database that lets visitors search the collection by subject, she says.

One in three visitors to Whitehorse stop at the museum, she says.

Museums have also been hurt by the loss of the travel fund that helped bring artwork north. The same program also allowed Yukon museums to put their exhibits on tour in Southern Canada, says Cunning.

The impact of arts cuts to Yukon artists themselves is less direct.

Loud protests have followed the cancellation of two programs, PromArt and Trades Routes, this summer. The programs helped bring international arts representatives to Canada, and send Canadians overseas.

There appear to be few examples of Yukoners using these programs.

But the cancellation of these funds have indirect consequences for Yukon artists, says Mark Smith, executive director of Yukon Music.

The cuts mean Yukon artists have fewer opportunities to meet international music representatives at arts gatherings, he says.

Such opportunities are essential for artists trying to break into a foreign market, he says.

“Those contacts are gone,” says Smith.

Matthew Lien, a Yukon musician with a big following in Taiwan, has toured Asia for a decade.

He’s done so without federal grants.

But, given that CD sales are in decline, he is surprised the federal government would cut aid to artists, he wrote in an e-mail.

“The Canadian music industry needs exactly this support to survive,” he says.

The prime minister’s response to criticism is that, in fact, arts funding has gone up.

And it has, in certain areas.

Among the agencies that receive more money is the Canada Council for the Arts, which remains an important source of money for Yukon artists, says Smith.

But he worries what future cuts may be introduced if Conservatives are re-elected.

Harper’s claim that arts and culture money has increased also relies on a loose definition of the arts, says Mario Villeneuve, vice-president of Canadian Artists’ Representation.

After a “shell game” of swapping money about, much of the new money distributed by Heritage Canada has gone towards sports events, such as the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, or towards funding French language programs, he says.

“Is it fair to pit artists against athletes?” he asks.

It could be worse. The Yukon remains “the best place in Canada” to be an artist, says Villeneuve. He credits the territorial government for doling out generous amounts of money to the arts.

But if Harper is re-elected, the cutting of arts money will continue, and Canada will be “the village idiot of the arts scene,” he says.