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On verge of Ignite the Arts, Penticton Art Gallery wounded by City grant cuts

Later today, the Ignite the Arts Festival kicks off.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia/Gord Goble</who>

Hosted by the Penticton Art Gallery and founded by curator Paul Crawford and wife Julie Fowler, who spent 16 years running the Arts Wells Festival in Wells, BC, Ignite is one of the biggest things to happen to this town outside of summer since…well…ever.

Ten days of music, art, theatre, Indigenous culture, celebration and much more spread across multiple venues throughout town during a time of year woefully short of options. It could easily become a key fixture of the off-season Penticton scene.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia/Gord Goble</who>

If they make it through the teething pains of the first few years, that is. And last week, something happened that made the future of the Festival -- and other popular Gallery initiatives -- a bit less certain.

Just as Crawford and Fowler and team were entering their final days of Ignite prep, they got the news. The City was rather severely chopping its two Gallery grants.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia/Gord Goble</who>

The first grant, for the Ignite festival, would be pared back from $25,000 cash and $7,500 in-kind benefits (in this case, venue usage) in 2022 to $12,500 cash and $7,500 in-kind benefits for 2023. That's a halving of the cash input.

The second, for the annual Gallery operating budget, would drop even further, from $125,000 cash in 2022 to just $55,000 this year. That's a 56% cut.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia/Gord Goble</who> Paul Crawford talks to PentictonNow earlier this week

The news hit Crawford, who likely works as hard an anyone in Penticton to create community-building events and enhance the town's appeal, like a mallet.

"We were hammered on our Ignite grant," he said. "It's half of what we got in 2022, and I asked for $30,000 this year because I knew (post-COVID) festival recovery money wasn't coming and other funding wasn't coming back. They gave us the in-kind amount, but in reality we're only using $1,800 of the $7,500 we asked for (at Cleland Theatre)."

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia/Gord Goble</who>

The smackdown to the annual operating grant was even tougher to stomach.

"Operations funding is the hardest funding for a public organization to get," he said, noting the Gallery's $800,000 annual budget. "All the other funding is usually project-specific. But operations allow us to keep the doors open."

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia/Gord Goble</who>

According to Crawford, the Gallery received an operating grant of $125,000 in 2020, $100,000 in 2021 and $125,000 again in 2022. This year, they'd requested $130,000 and figured they had a good shot.

But the $55,000 they ultimately landed was the smallest of Crawford's entire 17-year run as curator.

Worse still, he added, the Gallery knew nothing about the upcoming chops until Day 2 of the City's 2023 Budget Deliberations on March 15. Crawford contends the news could have been relayed earlier.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia/Gord Goble</who>

"I'm disheartened the way it was done," he said. "I'm one quarter through my fiscal year and I've already spent that money. I thought if it happened, it might be a $25,000 cut that would bring us back to $100,000. I could handle that. But this is less than we were getting 17 years ago.

"We could have had some warning. They could have given us a year so we could prepare otherwise."

Apart from the City's operating grant, typically far and away the most impactful annual funding allotment it receives, the Gallery -- which still charges nothing for standard admission and will offer all sorts of freebies during events like Ignite -- gets annual funding from a provincial Community Gaming Grant (currently to the tune of $55,000) and a $40,000 BC Arts Council grant.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia/Gord Goble</who>

"All the other grants we receive are project specific," said Crawford. "They're not sustainable grants because they change and must be applied for every year."

Everything else it needs is obtained via fundraisers like the Loving Mugs Chili Cook-Off and events like Ignite the Arts.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia/Gord Goble</who>

"We already do fundraisers every two months at the Gallery," said Crawford. "We can’t do any more. And we don’t have rich, deep-pocketed people here who are willing to put $50,000 into the Gallery. We have to fight tooth and nail just to hang on to what we have."

We asked how bad the cut might hurt the Gallery going forward and Crawford was quick to answer.

"I've had to cancel my summer show for starters," he said. "I'd hoped to do a show with contemporary art from artists currently living and residing within Iran. It's a ten to $15,000 show.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia/Gord Goble</who>

"Gone will be the days of taking risks on bringing big, expensive shows in like Bob Ross."

The Gallery, in a prepared statement late Thursday, also warned of potential cuts to programming like kids camps, after-school youth classes, art classes for seniors, exhibitions of all types and more.

Crawford also pointed to for-profit City partnerships with organizations such as Ironman Canada (based in New York, receiving $430,000) and Okanagan Granfondo (based in Kelowna, receiving $100,000), wondering if more of that money should stay local, in non-profits.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia/Gord Goble</who>

"Sports are fine," he said. "They're great for nation building. But tell me, who won the gold medal in the shotput in 1968 in Mexico?"

For its part, the City, in a statement PentictonNow received from Mayor Julius Bloomfield Tuesday afternoon, said it remains a "strong supporter of the arts" and noted the other perks it provides the Penticton Art Gallery.

"The City of Penticton has always been a strong supporter of the arts in our community for the diversity, energy and creativity they bring," said Bloomfield. "Various arts groups receive support through the grants program to ensure a thriving scene exists.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia/Gord Goble</who>

"The Penticton Art Gallery is provided space at a nominal cost, is exempt from local property taxes and this year received a grant of $55,000 towards operating costs and another $20,000 to support the Ignite the Arts."

According to Senior Communications Advisor Shane Mills, "It is not uncommon for groups to receive less than requested. Staff bases recommendations on financial need of the groups and according to the annual report for 2021, the Gallery had a net profit of more than $100,000."

Crawford believes better communication would have helped clear up City misconceptions -- like the one where they believe the Gallery had a hundred grand profit kicking around at the end of 2021.

"We had a positive bank balance at the end of 2021, but that was deferred revenue from one year to the next," he said. "At the end of 2021, we received a bunch of grants that enabled us to do the first Ignite the Arts Festival (in spring of 2022). So a lot of those grants came to us, but the money was already spent.

"Then there's our Community Gaming Grant, which comes to us every August but runs from the last half of one calendar year through the first half of the next.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia/Gord Goble</who>

"There are lots of reasons why we looked like we had excess cash but it’s certainly not a truthful representation. So if the City saw an issue, all they had to do was call up and ask us to clarify."

But Crawford didn’t stop at his own organization. He went city-wide.

"The (Penticton & District Community) Arts Council got hit too," he said. "This isn’t just about the Gallery. It's about the whole cultural ecosystem.

"The City talks about community safety, community well-being, all these things. But the one thing that actually creates social fabric and community cohesion, arts and culture, are the things they gut every time."

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia/Gord Goble</who>

Arts Council administrator Bethany Handfield said her organization fully supports the Art Gallery stance and added that she too is "frustrated" by the granting process.

"Since 2019 and regardless of the pandemic, we have expanded our programming and partnerships by leaps and bounds," she said.

"We wrote in the letter with our grant request that we've had a 321% increase in request for service from the community. We're partnering with just about every single other community service group in town or working with them in some way across all kinds of community events.

"We're raised out profile and we feel like we've done all the things we need to do to be a full-bodied service community arts organization. But we asked for $20,000 this year and got $12,312. The needle has not moved for years, and with inflation we're actually getting less."

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia/Gord Goble</who>

Now today, on the cusp of the second-ever Ignite the Arts Festival, Paul Crawford hopes some of the invitations he says he's sent to city staff and councilors are put to use. He claims few, if any, were in 2022.

"We'd love to see some City people at the Festival and our events," he said.

Going forward, Crawford hopes minds can be changed. To that end, he's sent a letter to the City requesting a meeting for further discussion on the grant issue. And the Gallery will be collecting signatures on a petition from 11 am to 4 pm this Saturday.

"I guess the real question for the City," said Crawford, "is does the Gallery bring value to the community and what is that value?"

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia/Gord Goble</who>

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