Toronto arts funding: young artists like ISPA Fellow Che Kothari lead the way
Friday, January 18, 2013
Posted by: Nicole Merritt
Congratulations to Che Kothari, a 2013 ISPA Fellow who was featured in the below article about the recent passing of the "Billboard Tax" which will help fund arts organizations in Toronto. The original article was written by Martin Knelman, an Entertainment Columnist for thestar.com, and was published on Friday, January 18th, 2013. You can read the original on the thestar.com website here.
”Follow the artists,” one of Toronto’s top real estate agents advises.
He was explaining how to choose one of the city’s future hot zones.
But this week, with the fairy-tale news of how the billboard tax will be
used for a desperately needed increase in the city’s arts funding, we
got a stunning demonstration of how valuable that maxim can be when it
comes to setting strategic policy.
It was disenfranchised, marginalized young artists who came up with
the idea that billboards, which make the city more ugly, should be taxed
and the profits turned over to creative people whose mission is make
the city more beautiful.
That’s a revolutionary stroke of genius according to Gail Lord, an
astute cultural consultant who lives in Toronto but works all over the
"During 40 years of working in the arts, I have known many artists to
make the case for supporting the arts,” says Lord, co-president of Lord
Cultural Resources. "But this is the first time I have ever heard of
artists creating a new source of revenue and getting it implemented.”
It took years to get it done, but Toronto now has a legal,
court-approved billboard tax worth about $10.4 million annually. And
after years of ill-advisedly shortchanging the city’s creative
community, Toronto City Council has voted to using the loot to boost
arts funding to the long-elusive goal of $25 per capita.
No doubt, in 2001, when a young artist named Devon Ostrom first
suggested a billboard tax to Rita Davies — Toronto’s visionary former
executive director of culture — many rich and powerful people would have
dismissed it as a crazy idea.
Well, to quote a famous lyric by Ira Gershwin, "They all laughed at Wilbur and his brother when they said that man could fly.”
The upshot: Those who once laughed at the idea of a billboard tax will have to change their tune.
Ironically, Davies, the leader of a decade-long fight for more
cultural funding, is no longer at city hall to savour this moment.
And, in what had the air of a last-gasp religious conversion, even
the notoriously culture-phobic Rob Ford endorsed the motion that made
this real, as framed by Councillor Gary Crawford.
"It’s amazing how much a crazy idea can do for the city,” says Che
Kothari, a photographer and community organizer who has been a driving
force in making this happen. "It’s about innovation. Young artistic
practitioners know how to make something out of nothing. This
breakthrough will transform the way funding will look for generations.”
That real-estate expert I mentioned was talking about how to predict
which neighbourhoods will be the ones where the hot properties will be,
with smart, affluent buyers moving in to gentrify crumbling old
buildings while transforming a shabby, forgotten part of town into a
fashionable destination for the hip and the affluent.
We’ve seen this story unfold many times over the past half-century:
on Toronto’s Queen West and elsewhere in the world. Cash-starved artists
take over rundown warehouses in shabby areas. Before long, they’ve
created the kind of exciting creative cluster that leads to booming
economic development. Sadly, the result is often that the artists who
made this happen can no longer afford to live and work in the hot spots
But now with the billboard tax, it becomes clear that "Follow the
artists” is a slogan we can use not just in terms of where we choose to
live, work and play, but in the more general sense of looking for ideas
on how to solve urban problems, and help make this city both more
beautiful and more prosperous while developing its sensational cultural
Most of us would look at a billboard and see nothing more than a
commercial trying to sell us something while cluttering up the
environment. It took young artists to see billboards as an opportunity
for supporting art.
Let’s keep in mind that while improved funding will help culture at
every level, it was not the established institutions or the most
successful and famous artists who came up with this game-changing plan.
It was the young and the restless part of our town’s lively and diverse
It would be both fair and smart if a sizable chunk of the new money
goes to them, so that Toronto can offer a place where young and gifted
artists cannot merely survive but flourish — while making winners of us