CBRM proposal to provide artist grants on hold due to provincial law

·3 min read
New Waterford filmmaker Nelson MacDonald told CBRM council in September that small grants could help overcome an inequity in provincial arts funding from Arts Nova Scotia. (Tom Ayers/CBC - image credit)
New Waterford filmmaker Nelson MacDonald told CBRM council in September that small grants could help overcome an inequity in provincial arts funding from Arts Nova Scotia. (Tom Ayers/CBC - image credit)

A proposal to provide small grants to artists in Cape Breton Regional Municipality is on hold.

CBRM council backs the idea, but the Nova Scotia government is not ready to give municipalities that kind of power.

"In other provinces, they're already running programs like this, so it's not a radical idea," said New Waterford filmmaker Nelson MacDonald. "It's something that's really, really, desperately needed."

Local artists just need a little seed money to launch and grow their careers, he said.

With small grants of up to $2,500, they could qualify for further provincial and federal funding.

The COVID-19 pandemic hurt a lot of artists and arts organizations, MacDonald said, but regardless of the pandemic, new artists need a boost.

Tom Ayers/CBC
Tom Ayers/CBC

Similar grants exist in St. John's, N.L., and in some municipalities in Ontario and British Columbia, he said.

"We have a lot of people with a lot of ideas who haven't been able to do work for the past couple of years," MacDonald said. "What better time to launch a program like this than right now?"

In September, CBRM council voted unanimously in principle to consider allotting $50,000 to its regional enterprise network for the project. The REN, as it's known, is operated by an island-wide business group called the Cape Breton Partnership.

But the Municipal Government Act forbids municipalities from granting money to individuals.

CBRM Mayor Amanda McDougall said the plan won unanimous council approval and they made a request in November for a provincial change to the legislation, but that hasn't happened.

"This has been truly disappointing," she said. "We have met with every single MLA, done everything we possibly could at this end. All we need is confirmation that we can work with a third party or get a ministerial order."

A group of artists and other officials have been working to create a transparent set of funding criteria and an application and vetting process, the mayor said.

Distributing grant money to individual artists through the REN would provide a level of accountability, as well, she said.

Tom Ayers/CBC
Tom Ayers/CBC

"It's sad. It's a $50,000 increase to one of our budgets that already exists that could have such a huge impact and it's so frustrating being at the municipal level of government and not being able to use the money that we think would be the most meaningful way."

The program could also help fix an inequity in provincial government arts funding, MacDonald said.

Arts Nova Scotia's website lists 252 grant recipients for 2021.

Of those, 16 went to artists on Cape Breton Island. Seven were in CBRM, five in Inverness County, four were in Victoria County and none were in Richmond County or the town of Port Hawkesbury.

Many of the rest went to artists and organizations in Halifax.

Province to encourage funding applications

Arts Nova Scotia director Briony Carros said in an email that the agency gets a higher number of applications from Halifax because of the concentration of artists and organizations in the capital.

The arts-funding agency plans to get out across the province to conduct in-person information sessions to encourage applications, she said.

Municipal Affairs Minister John Lohr will not say whether he thinks municipalities should have the power to grant individuals money, but said the province will be negotiating a wide range of issues with municipalities under a broad review of the legislation, a memorandum of understanding and a service exchange agreement.

"That's happening this summer and fall coming and literally everything is on the table," he said.

McDougall and MacDonald both said that may take too long, leaving emerging artists to continue to struggle.

"If you think of the artists we could have helped this year with the money, let's say that's 25 artists we could have helped this year, well, that's a real shame," said MacDonald.

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