10 questions: Claire Hopkinson

1) What the fuck is going on?
A tremendous amount, that’s for sure. There is a mind boggling amount of wonderful work happening in Toronto – all the time. The biggest change for me personally – since leaving my theatre/opera producing career a year and a half ago – is to make sense of the whole spectrum of arts activity in Toronto.

I’m in exploration mode, and it is quite exciting. I now wish I’d known more of what was going on in visual, new media and dance while I was at Tapestry, because of the potential there for interesting artistic collaborations. Theatre and contemporary opera are such inclusive fields, but we don’t always get the chance to see the work of artists from different disciplines.

2) Do you feel that the Toronto Arts Council (TAC) is currently living up to the spirit of its mandate?
I do. Approximately 100 artists and arts workers sit on the various arts discipline committees and make recommendations regarding TAC grants. They also advise on emerging trends and the development of policy. In this sense, TAC is really the largest “artist-owned” arts council in the world.

There are many challenges, of which funding is not the least. We need to respond to the whole city of Toronto, including the former boroughs, which had little arts investment in earlier years. Responding to the diversity that is Toronto is also a key issue. Responding to new talents and visions on the scene is critical, but we also can’t neglect existing organizations that contribute so much to the health and vitality of our arts community.

Currently, TAC funds approximately 450 organizations and 200 individual artists. Fully two-thirds of all grants have the potential to go to new projects and individuals each year. In this way, TAC acts as a catalyst for contemporary expression, and most often is the “first funder” for new groups.

3) How do you feel about the current state of arts funding in Toronto?
I am in a painful quandary. In comparison with all the major cities in North America, Toronto has the lowest municipal arts funding rate. Toronto’s per capita contributions to arts, culture and heritage (including both operating and capital expenditures) is $14.64. Compare this to Vancouver at $17.71, Chicago at $21.95, Montreal at $26.62 and San Francisco at $86.01. Toronto’s municipal funding is not sufficient for a city that is home to so many talented people, a city that is a hotbed of creativity, a city whose value-proposition truly is arts and culture!

This is not to say that the arts are not valued here. We have champions at City Hall, and our current Mayor is certainly arts-friendly. If you read the newspapers these days, you’ll know that the City is in a terrible financial straight jacket. Years of downloading from the Province plus a Federal government that seems unwilling to invest in Toronto, are taking their toll.

My question is, what can we as citizens, as artists, as people who care about this city do about it? If you are not yet a member of Toronto Arts Coalition, this is a internet-based group of arts supporters and a forum for communication with politicians. It is free and you can join by going to www.torontoartscoalition.org.

4) How much of the Toronto Arts Council’s budget goes to supporting theatre artists?
$2,313,550, or nearly 25% of TAC’s entire grants budget went to theatre organizations and theatre projects in 2006. TAC also funds organizations and projects in the disciplines of dance, community arts, music, visual and media arts.

We also have an individual artist grants program for composers, writers, visual artists and media artists totalling $987,600. Some of these applications also involved work for theatre.

5) What is the Toronto Arts Council looking for when it reviews grant applications from theatre artists?
I recruited Margo Charlton, TAC’s theatre officer, to answer the next few questions:

“I don’t think it’s what is TAC looking for – it is what are your peers looking for? TAC, like all funding councils, works as an arm’s-length agency that uses peer adjudication. A standing committee of 10 members of the theatre community review the applications based on the assessment criteria given to all applicants in the application form.

“For project grants they are looking for a combination of artistic excellence (based on the script sample or other support material) and how clearly the applicant expresses their objectives. They keep in mind how the project will impact the larger community, the theatre community and the artists involved. For operating grants they look at the company’s mandate, their track record and their plans. They discuss a company’s connection to the community, their relevance and their outreach.

“The assessment process is by its very nature subjective, but we strive to have a balance around the table. TAC is the only funder that has a 10-person jury and all of the artists are from Toronto, so they know the scene here. We hope the committee is a microcosm of the larger theatre community. Anyone can be nominated to sit on the committee. So it is not TAC who is ‘judging’ the work, it is your peers who are balancing out a number of criteria to come to decision.”

6) What are some of the common mistakes you see on grant applications?

Common mistakes on grant applications include:

  • Incomplete applications
  • Applications that come in too early without key pieces of information such as director and cast
  • Little or no information about process, such as a director’s statement about how the work will be developed or staged
  • Unrealistic budgets

Margo Charlton runs grant-writing workshops throughout the year. They are promoted through TAPA and other organizations. They are free of charge. The two-hour workshops provide lots of tips on how to write effective grants. Look for a workshop in June before the August deadline.
7) Do you see any fundamental problems with the grant system of arts funding?
It isn’t nimble. Because it involves a committee review process, it takes time to turn grants around (3-4 months). When opportunities arise we aren’t able to respond outside of the deadlines.

There isn’t enough money to support companies at the levels needed. This is particularly a problem for smaller companies because they don’t have the infrastructure to do the kind of fundraising needed. TAC grants for project productions are on average between $8000-$10,000 – it takes way more money to mount a show and can take an indie company three years to find enough resources to finish a project.

8) Aside from applying for grants, what can local artists do to improve their access to resources and income?
Well when it comes to the granting system, don’t hesitate to call TAC’s grants officers. Margo Charlton is here to be of assistance. Talking to her is free!

If a company intends to be around for a while it is good to incorporate and apply for a charitable status. Then you are eligible to apply for foundation support, and give tax receipts to individual donors. If that is too much for small groups then you have to be resourceful – find ways to co-pro with other groups in order to pool resources, look for in-kind support, negotiate deals on everything from lumber to printing. Ask for advice from more established companies – many veterans are happy to mentor artists trying to get started. They’ve been there themselves. Successful companies put a lot, a lot of time into building relationships with the community. Small groups, too, can raise money by fundraisers, which also turn out to be “friend-raisers”.

Both Margo and I have produced a lot of shows for small theatre companies and we know it’s tough. Most importantly, communicate what you do in the most inventive way possible. Your blog site is brilliant, for instance.

9) What are some of the Toronto Arts Council’s recent successes?
The City budget committee has just recommended a $400,000 increase to TAC, despite very difficult financial times for the City. This will be voted on next week by City Council, so keep your fingers crossed.

Through the Toronto Arts Council Foundation, TAC’s sister organization, we’ve been successful in partnering with other organizations and some corporations to find new sources of revenue for the arts. A unique partnership with United Way of Greater Toronto, for instance, has enabled us to increase the amount of funding for arts programming targeted at youth growing up in high-needs areas of the city.

10) Any other tips for theatre artists trying to navigate the bewildering world of municipal, provincial and federal arts funding bodies?
Research funding agencies though their websites to get basic information, but don’t hesitate to talk to arts officers. Funding organizations have been created to help artists – it is at the heart of everything we do.

My epiphany in running a small arts organization a number of years back was in realizing that funding agencies were my partners, not my judges. Don’t try to cram your ambitions into what you might perceive to be strict funding criteria – express you aspirations in a compelling fashion – you are, after all, talking to other artists.