George Laverock returned home to the terrible news about MusicFest Vancouver after five weeks in Europe, including time at the Polyfollia festival in Saint-Lô, France, where he sits on the artistic committee. With a budget of about €1-million funded entirely by government, the choir festival stood in contrast to Mr. Laverock's years as MusicFest's founding program director.
"With [MusicFest], you have to find money here, you have to find individuals, you have to do [fundraising] events, you have to go to foundations, you have to find small and large corporate donors, you have to find aid in kind – people who will donate hotel rooms to you and wine for receptions and so on. You get all these things together, and then you have a festival."
And if you don't, you don't have a festival.
This week, MusicFest's president confirmed that the 2013 festival has been suspended due to "some financial difficulties." The festival, according to Mr. Laverock, rang up a deficit of more than $150,000 this year, in addition to a previous deficit of about $50,000.
Over coffee at VanDusen Botanical Garden, where MusicFest staged some unforgettable concerts, Mr. Laverock tells a story. A few years ago, festival officials met with the B.C. Arts Council. When they inquired about what level of support a festival such as theirs could expect from the Arts Council, they were told about 7 or 8 per cent of their annual budget. With a budget of about $1-million, that would add up to about $70,000 or $80,000. This year, MusicFest's operating grant from the B.C. Arts Council was $5,000 (plus a special projects grant of just over $11,000).
"It has made the struggle that much more intense," Mr. Laverock says.
MusicFest did also receive a B.C. Gaming grant this year of $50,000 (but not until October, two months after the event) as well as support Mr. Laverock describes as generous from the federal government and the City of Vancouver.
The problems with MusicFest were not limited to government funding, of course. Ticket sales were another factor. The economy was no doubt an issue, and Mr. Laverock also points to declining media coverage of the arts, particularly on CBC Radio (he retired from the CBC in 1997).
Whatever the reason, this latest blow to the local arts scene has prompted some cultural soul-searching. What does the festival's failure say about Vancouver?
"This is one of the things that puzzles me a lot," Mr. Laverock says. "I thought [Vancouver] was becoming a cosmopolitan, sophisticated city. But now I'm not sure. I'm not sure that it is as cosmopolitan as we would like to think."
MusicFest Vancouver is not the only arts group in Vancouver facing challenges. Earlier this year, the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company shut down. Other organizations such as the Vancouver Art Gallery and Vancouver Opera have struggled in recent years with deficits or, in the case of Ballet BC, near bankruptcy. Both the VAG and VO were back in the black this past fiscal, but there have been other blows this year: D&M filed for creditor protection, the Book Warehouse chain closed down – except for one location, which was sold to new owners and the Ridge movie theatre will be torn down to make way for, of course, condos. It's a giant cultural bummer.
"It's very distressing to hear of another cultural organization in the city … giving up," says Vancouver-based composer Jeffrey Ryan, who made his MusicFest debut this summer with his composition The Whitening of the Ox. "To think that Vancouver can't sustain this or isn't willing to invest in it to the point that it's viable – that's very sobering."
So would we rather be hiking than taking in a world music concert? Too busy – or too poor – paying off our crushing mortgages to get out to the theatre? Is culture not an important part of the West Coast fabric?
I will no doubt be taken to task for asking such things. Questioning the commitment to culture in this city is sacrilege, I have learned. But when venerable institutions and festivals such as the Playhouse and MusicFest go down, how can you not pose these questions?
Of course there are organizations that are packing them in instead of packing it in. While the Playhouse struggled, the Arts Club Theatre Company posted a $43,000 surplus for 2010-11. Attendance at Bard on the Beach this summer reached 86,000 – up 2,000 from 2011. The PuSh International Performing Arts Festival clocked in this year with an 84-per-cent average house capacity, including 31 sellouts. The Vancouver International Film Festival recorded about 140,000 admissions this year – although that was down from 152,000 the previous year. Now VIFF is in search of a new main venue, with the Granville 7 shutting down.
This city has a lot to offer, culturally. This weekend, you can see an edgy program of three premieres at Ballet BC; watch the VSO perform with acrobats, contortionists and other circus types; take in artist Michael Morris's first solo show at a Vancouver commercial gallery in 30 years. Because there are children in my life, I'll be at the VAG's always excellent Family Fuse. There's a lot to choose from, and I'd like to keep it that way.
MusicFest may well return; Mr. Laverock says the board is optimistic. But in the meantime, he's saddened that local artists and audiences will miss out on acts such as Norwegian vocal jazz sensation Pust, which he saw at Polyfollia. "I would like to see them come to a festival like MusicFest Vancouver, but that will never happen now."