John McKellar's Acceptance Speech

Business for the Arts' Bovey Award 2011 

We sometimes hear people speak of the Canadian arts scene as something small – a “cottage industry” – with an image of a few strange people painting or creating shows which are only seen by themselves and their friends.

But the truth is that the arts are business – big business. The arts sector employs as many people as the combined sectors of agriculture, forestry, mining, fishing, oil, gas and utilities. In Toronto, the sector comprises 8% of our work force, generating $9 billion in GDP. Over 600,000 people in the country belong to the sector. Canadians spend more than twice as much on live performances in the performing arts than on sports events.

Some have suggested that the arts have little public support in Canada. But the truth is that in Toronto alone over 40,000 performances, exhibitions and events are presented annually; attended by 20 million people; all supported by 35,000 volunteers spending over 1 million hours of their time.

In the Toronto City Managers Core Service Report of July 2011, 70% of people rated policy issues on culture and sport to be a priority and when listed with such items as fire services, garbage collection and emergency medical services. 60% of the participants said arts, culture and heritage programs were necessary for the city as opposed to being less important or not required.

Some people have downplayed the arts as a bad local government financial investment, but the truth is that for every one dollar government invests in the arts, at least 13 additional dollars are leveraged into the economy from donations, ticket sales and other donors – to say nothing of the extra business of the restaurants, bars, cab drivers and so on. 

And we all know that it is human creativity, based on new ideas and knowledge rather than natural resources or manufactured goods that has become the essential economic driver, and governments are becoming increasingly conscious of the need to advance the creative agenda.

Would it surprise you to hear that recent studies, particularly in California, have made it clear that bringing the arts to children in the high risk areas after school goes a long way to make them better citizens – and less likely to move into the dangerous gang world? Participation in the arts helps more than sports in this connection to promote community pride. I like the statistic that shows that a high school kid who has been in a play is 42% less likely to tolerate racist behaviour than a kid who has never been in a play.

And I haven’t yet mentioned the arts in the promoting of understanding between cultures and in bringing tourists to our towns and cities. Spending on culture by visitors is 3 times larger than their spending on hotels, motels and other travel accommodations.

And in her recent book, Provoking Democracy, Professor Caroline Levine argues that democracies need art, challenging art, to ensure that they are acting as free societies, just as the most rebellious artists need the protection of the democratic state. This reminds me of the old story of the two boys who took the wrong turn in the mall and by mistake went into a gallery showing only modern art. After looking around one of them said to the other, “Let’s get out of here or they will say WE did it.”

But despite all the statistics on what the arts do from a financial standpoint, they also create moments in time that will be undeniably present and we share. They engage us directly. They make us laugh or cry or just think. They provoke or inspire or insist on dialogue after the show. They give us, the audience, an incredible opportunity to feel alive.

As my Vancouver friend, Max Wyman said, at another Business and the Arts Award function, “The real business of art is tied inextricably to our personal search for authenticity; the hidden truths of our daily being – the heartbeat, if you like, of being human.”

You remember Edmund Burke’s dictum, “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.”

So when you hear uninformed people talk disparagingly about the arts please talk back. As business people we know the facts. Don’t let them get away with it.

Business and the arts. Two partners in making our Canada the best place in the world to live.

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