What kind of community support is needed for new facilities?

by Jini Stolk

In response to my recent post on TO’s mid-size theatres sitch a number of people have asked what kind of support I’d like to see the arts community giving to Toronto’s new theatre renovation projects.

It doesn’t have to be financial, but money never hurts and you don’t have to be rich to help. If we each chose three projects and committed to giving $200?, $500?, $750? a year for three years, spread over time, we’d make a difference. If we persuaded one or two of our friends and relations to do the same (maybe those earning a bit more than we make in the arts), we’d start having an impact. I’d actually like to see everyone who enjoys the arts, and feels blessed to live in a city so filled with arts activities, support one or more of these campaigns.

The projects I’ve been writing about are all grass-roots and community-centred, quite unlike the large institutions renovations of a few years ago, which were seeded by federal and provincial stimulus funds followed by very large private capital campaigns. This new group (the next phase of Toronto’s Cultural Renaissance) is working on their own timelines and, in the absence of significant, reliable funding for cultural facilities from the City and Province, are creating their own unique mix of funding from the Canadian Cultural Spaces Fund, special provincial programs, the Ontario Trillium Foundation, developer levies, heritage programs, energy saving incentives, partnerships with developers or landlords, private sector funding campaigns, and more. We’re hoping that access to Infrastructure Ontario loans will soon become part of this mix.

Why do we need to rally around these projects? Because they need us to succeed, and because they are all contributing to making Toronto the kind of city we want to live in.

According to a must-read study by the wonderful Clara Miller in The Nonprofit Quarterly, there are dangers inherent in owning real estate. “Even in the best of circumstances, acquiring a facility that doesn’t push an organization’s fixed costs to an uncomfortable level is devilishly difficult” she says and we all know she’s right. In the States, about a third of organizations that acquire facilities wind up with a building that cradles the program and works financially; another third completes the building but is left wounded, with program quality and financial health impaired for years; for another third, financial imbalance and too much debt requires reorganization or results in closing.

I don’t want a casino in downtown Toronto, but I want us to beat these odds.

First and foremost, we need to cherish and honour the human resources – the work, planning, learning, sweat and worry – being poured into creating buildings where the art we want to see and be part of can flourish. That means nixing the negative gossip, and focusing on providing all kinds of support and encouragement. I don’t know the details, but articles like this one in the New York Times about the director of El Museo Barrio leaving her position, amid turmoil and dissension in the aftermath of a major renovation, makes my blood run cold. And I see that PACT just issued an equally alarming statement about their building debt ‘s impact on Manitoba Theatre for Young People.

I think we can and should do better than that. What do you think?

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