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Toronto arts groups await word of city funding

Toronto mayor Rob Ford drops in on budget committee deliberations at City Hall in Toronto on January 8, 2013.

J.P. Moczulski for The Globe and Mail

Toronto arts and culture groups will have their fingers crossed this week and next, hoping that the city's executive committee and city council as a whole will okay a recommendation from finance staff calling for a $22.5-million increase in civic funding for the arts over the next five years.

The money could come from the retroactive collection of revenue from a billboard tax the city passed in late 2009, according to a briefing note presented Tuesday to the city's budget committee. That tax subsequently met with legal challenges at the superior and appeal court levels but last November the Supreme Court of Canada upheld the city's position, declining to hear the matter on appeal.

The tax was largely the result of lobbying by the Beautifulcity.ca Alliance, a collective of 60 arts organizations, including the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Toronto Arts Council Foundation, the Gladstone Hotel and the Scarborough Arts Council, to counter "the flat-lined funding" of arts at the civic level.

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On at least two previous occasions, the city, as part of its "culture plan for the creative city," committed itself to increasing direct support to the arts to $25 per capita from its $14 level in 2003. (By last year that figure was $18.77. The city's total investment in the arts, direct and indirect, in 2012 was about $67-million.)

What still has to be determined is if city councillors will approve dedicating revenues from the Third Party Sign Tax to arts and culture. The finance staff brief outlines a scenario of providing an additional allocation of $2.5-million to arts and culture this year from the TPST, with a $5-million top-up for each of the next four years. The scheme is scheduled to be considered by council's executive committee Thursday and council as a whole Jan. 15-18.

However, "it's not a lock," said Claire Hopkinson, executive director of the Toronto Arts Council, on Wednesday. When the billboard levy was passed three years ago, "neither the politicians nor city finance were eager to see any kind of revenue going directly into a specific expenditure account."

Nevertheless, she hopes "the billboard money [will serve as] a catalyst to allow the city to make good on its commitments … What's wonderful is that this revenue stream really was 'found' by the arts community to contribute to the arts community, to continue that civic investment, as opposed to it coming strictly from the taxpayer base."

Councillor Gary Crawford, chair of Mayor Rob Ford's task force for arts and theatres and a TAC board member, says the proposed $22.5-million ought to be seen as "a cushion to get us to the point where we can look at increasing the city's per capita funding" in a way "that is sustainable and ongoing." Using the TPST reserve should "help facilitate a longer-range plan for arts funding," he said, one that could perhaps gradually shift such funding to the tax base.

Crawford plans to present a motion to executive committee Thursday calling for a $6-million increase to arts and culture for 2013, using money from the TPST. "The one good thing about the billboard tax . . . is that there'll be no extra cost to the taxpayer because we've been collecting this tax and it's been building over a number of years . . . so it doesn't impact our 2013 budget particularly."

Meanwhile, the Beautifulcity.ca Alliance is hosting a rally the evening of Jan. 14 at City Hall "in support of using the billboard tax to rejuvenate arts and culture in Toronto."

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Editor's note: The original version of this article  incorrectly stated the number of arts organizations in the Beautifulcity.ca Alliance and the location of Beautifulcity.ca Alliance's rally. This version has been corrected. 

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