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Our National Crisis - THE COMMENTARY

By Joseph Planta

- First in a series.

VANCOUVER -- I got an e-mail not so long ago from a reader who expressed interest in me “investigating,” as she put it, the arts in this town and across the country. Now, I know I bitched a couple of weeks ago about taking story or column ideas from readers, but then I remembered the suggestion last fall or winter for me to do columns on the CBC. Those turned out well, so lemme take on the arts.

I have always been a booster of the arts. Theatre, television, cinema, music and all the other art things in society, are pillars of ourselves. The arts, however, especially in this country have felt the brunt of the political climate. With the nation leaderless at the front with a half-wit like Chrétien at the helm, the arts are affected. I guess I am suggesting that there is a correlation between the political nature of the country with the arts. It is the sheer reality of the climate of Canada, but what I won’t suggest is that the state controls the arts. Should an inkling of that begin to appear, then I shall lead us out of this country myself. Thank goodness that the state doesn’t control the arts, they simply go hand in hand.

The reality of the arts in the United States constantly pits the left versus the right. In the States, the Democrats and all left-leaners stand behind the National Endowment for the Arts and fight for its upkeep and its protection, while right-wingers and the Republicans call for its elimination. The NEA, for many years headed by Jane Alexander, weathered storms of protests from the GOP and survived, due in part to the election of Bill Clinton and the Democrats in 1992. With a strong presence of the Republicans still in the House of Representatives, the survival of the NEA has still been in question.

It’s a good campaign issue for this November too. Bush will probably cater to the anti-NEA mouth breathers and express serious thought into cutting its funding. Gore will win the votes of the bohemian crews of the Broadway and Hollywood and promise the NEA’s perpetual salvation. The NEA would be considered the American HRDC. It’s a boondoggle and purists will clamour that nothing practical shows for a $10,000 grant to some inner-city school music program. I think the NEA is a useful tool and like it’s Canadian counterpart, Canada Council, they are also costly.

In Canada, the arts have been an important part of our identity and our national pride. Sure there isn’t much support for the local community theatre or the local aspiring musicians, need they be clubbers or buskers. Why it is a national crisis is the fact the arts have been somewhat dependant on governments. When that happens, there is a serious problem. The state has no place dictating what is art and how art is made available. But with Canada Council and venues like the CBC in serious doubt, in terms of their future, their survival becomes solely dependant on the average citizen.

I like the theatre, but didn’t go to the theatre much until Garth Drabinsky and his mammoth Livent, began trekking their over-budget and over-bloated musicals to this town and the now empty Ford Centre for the Performing Arts. Shows like Show Boat and Ragtime, over-shadowed the venerable productions of the Arts Club. The Stanley’s rebound was slightly over-shadowed by the road companies of Garth’s Livent, and then the Garth one’s successes were stifled by charges of fixing the books. Garth was out and the great Canadian success story of Livent, a company that began to really be a big player on Broadway was divided off by Mike Ovitiz. Vancouver felt the brunt of that.

The Ford Centre now sits empty and while impresario Garth is in exile, local players like David Y.H. Lui and Bill Millard are basking in the success of the Stanley and the annual Norm Grohman show at Granville Island.

The arts do need help. They mostly need a vision. Sadly, or not, we look to the top for that. Can Governor General Adrienne Clarkson and her consort John Ralston Saul lead us out of the dark ages? Can they restore the excitement Canadians should feel in all things artistic? Or is it the reality of globablisation and e-commerce? Why need the arts when we’ve got the Internet? Does it come to that?

I hope not.

In future editions, I’ll look at different facets of the stuff I’ve outline up above.

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An archive of Joseph Planta's previous columns can be found by clicking HERE .