Rising security costs and frozen funding have festivals arguing for more federal support

Photo courtesy RBC Royal Bank Bluesfest.

Soaring security costs and frozen funding is putting increased pressure on cultural festivals across Canada and prompting a call for more support from the federal government.

The call for federal investment is being made by Festivals and Major Events Canada (FAME) which represents  local events such as RBC Ottawa Bluesfest, the Montebello Rockfest, the TD Ottawa Jazz Festival, the Gatineau Hot Air Balloon Festival, all backed by the Ottawa Festival Network.

The rising cost of security is one of the key factors driving the request, said Bluesfest executive director Mark Monahan.

The festival has seen a sharp growth in costs to keep the annual event in LeBreton Flats safe.

This push for help to offset security costs is new, he said.

“It’s not something we have advocated for in the past, Monahan said, “but it has become a substantial issue and a growing cost.”

Bluesfest’s costs, for example, have risen from about $150,000 a few years ago for policing, security and special barricades, that sort of thing to a little over $500,000. That represents about four per cent of the festival’s overall budget, in the past eight have been one per cent, he said.

There is another challenge with that cost.

“It is really hard to get sponsors or other funding for the … new bollards we have to install or the riot barricades. It’s a cost that has grown without any potential revenue stream” that could defray some of the spending.

In an environment with razor-thin margins between financial success and failure, that’s a problem, Monahan said. And in the case of the big acts that festival such as Bluesfest brings in, these artists and their managements are insisting on proper security. If it’s not there, these acts won’t come, he said.

To help offset these security costs FAME is asking for the ability to tap into a fund overseen by the Public Security minister that protects cultural institutions. FAME said this program could also support measures aimed at countering cyberattacks that are increasingly affecting servers and ticketing systems. The festivals would also like some financial assistance to defray some of the labour costs associated with security which take up about 80 per cent of security expenses.

The festivals, through FAME, are also asking for specific federal support for events that have generated or seem likely to generate tourism revenue for communities.

Finally, FAME said, Canadian Heritage budgets have been unchanged for 10 years while demand has grown by 30 per cent  over the past five years.

FAME says two programs in particular — the Programming Support component of the Professional Arts Festivals and Performing Arts Series Presenters program and the Building Communities through Arts and Heritage – Local Festivals program need an injection of new money.

“These programs haven’t grown with the industry. Today the federal government is about to develop a strategy on tourism. Canada is now 17th in the rank of tourist destinations and we used to be 10th. We are losing ground and the federal government is saying ‘What’s going on here?'” FAME said in a media release.

Using Bluesfest as an example, the amount of money coming from Canadian Heritage now represents only about half of one per cent, Monahan said. The rest is ticket sales, sponsorships, concession sales and municipal and provincial funding.

“The federal side is really tough. They are not supporting, in our opinion, festivals anywhere near the level they need to be at.”

One of the issues at the federal level, he added, is that the federal government wants to market Canada without spending any money on the product it is selling to the world.

“What are you marketing? We have to spend money on product development.”

Under-funding, Monahan said, is crippling the industry.

In Canada, most festivals run on a not-for-profit basis for a reason, he said. “There’s no profit. We have full-time jobs in the arts here and we are committed to maintaining those year-round and we do lots of different things in the community. These things are not always revenue-generators.”

This means the whole festival world is in a precarious position.

“The long term prospects are not good for us and all not-for-profits. Five years from now, if this is the way we are going with a total freeze on government spending, demands on infrastructure, on costs, on security, if this is the way we are going it is going to be challenging.”

The festivals will be looking toward the next federal budget in the spring of 2019.

Monahan’s assessment is echoed by the artistic director of the Ottawa International Writers Festival.

Sean Wilson is also the president of the Ottawa Festival Network, an organization representing 100 festivals, fairs and events in the National Capital Region, is also calling for an investment into the the Canada Arts Presentation Fund (CAPF).

“The vitality of our local festival industry is internationally recognized but is in jeopardy without this investment,” he said in a media release. “Ottawa’s industry alone creates more than 4,100 jobs annually and about $100 million in economic impact, making its leveraging power undeniable. The CAPF fund is critical to sustainability and will ensure continuing positive impact at the community level, allowing festivals and events to successfully compete within an increasingly competitive global cultural event industry.”

At present, Ottawa gets just under $2.1 million from CAPF, Wilson said in an email reply to ARTSFILE.

“The program is totally oversubscribed,” he added, “to the point that we now get less than the Writers Festival did 20 years ago.  Despite having a budget that is more than three times what it was in 1998, and an audience more than five times we were back then, our funding is down to $20,000 when it was $30,000 for almost 15 years.

“The federal government did a fantastic thing when they doubled their investment in the Canada Council for the Arts. The issue now is that there has been no increase in a decade into the CAPF program which supports arts presenters.

“As Julian Armour told me, that’s like hiring a chef to make an amazing soup but not supplying any bowls or spoons. It’s great to support creation but sharing the work with the community is just as fundamental to artists and Canadian culture.”

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.