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The ground floor of City Hall doesn't often host a party. Lined with administrative counters, it's usually where citizens go to conduct the more mundane transactions of local government - applying for permits or paying their tax bills.
But on Monday night, January 14, the rotunda at 100 Queen West was bumping to the sound of hip-hop music, breakdancing and the unmistakable air of celebration. Hundreds of young people gathered to mark a victory that's being called a major turning point for Toronto arts funding.
A week before, Mayor Rob Ford's executive committee endorsed a four-year plan to use proceeds from the new tax on billboards to invest in the arts. Base funding will increase by $6 million in 2013, and by a total of $11.5 million in the three years after that. By 2016, Toronto will be spending $25 per capita on arts programs and grants (up from $19 per capita today), a target that council has endorsed three times since 2003 but failed to live up to until now.
Council signed off on the proposal on Wednesday, January 16.
The plan's success owes much to visual artist Devon Ostrom, who first floated the idea of a billboard tax to fuel the arts during the 2001 Creative City youth consultations. He and Beautiful City, a coalition of 60 arts groups, have been fighting to make it a reality ever since.
"It's going to do amazing things," says Ostrom of the funding boost. "Toronto is going to be a more vibrant place. There's going to be more art that people can enjoy. More young artists are going to come up and make huge waves internationally."
The billboard tax campaign has been arguably the most successful sustained grassroots effort in city politics in recent years. From the start, Ostrom's idea gained traction because it struck many City Hall players as inherently fair. Ads in newspapers or on television finance media content that the public wants, Ostrom argued, but billboards merely intrude on public space. A billboard tax would force advertisers to give something back in the form of public art.
After years of advocacy by the arts community, council approved the tax in 2009, only to have the industry challenge that decision in court. It was eventually upheld by the Ontario Court of Appeal in April 2012, and in November the Supreme Court sealed the victory by refusing to hear the industry's appeal.
City staff estimate that advertisers owe $22.5 million in retroactive payments dating back to 2009, and going forward the tax is expected to bring in roughly $10 million a year.
But it was far from assured that these proceeds would go to the arts, until Councillor Gary Crawford took the issue to Ford's executive this month. The tight-fisted mayor is not generally seen as a supporter of government-funded creativity, but Crawford convinced him to back the plan by framing it as an investment that would have an economic impact on areas like tourism.
The councillor also encouraged Ford to see the similarities between arts programs and his infamous football foundation, which the mayor claims keeps at-risk youth out of trouble.
"The mayor's a big sports buff. He understands the importance of sports to youth," says Crawford, who moonlights as a professional artist and part-time musician. "I said, ‘Well, look at the arts - in many ways they're the same as sports. There are kids [who are] not interested in sports but the arts appeal to them, engage them and give them the focus and the desire to continue.'"
How the new money will be allocated has yet to be decided, but Crawford's executive committee motion recommended prioritizing, among other things, youth mentorship programs and two new local arts service organizations in North York and east Toronto, areas where the arts sector has historically been underfunded.
If recent history is any guide, the new spending could help uncover major talent in marginalized neighbourhoods. Before the party kicked off in the rotunda Monday night, Juno Award-winning singer Jully Black told the crowd how she got her start through Fresh Arts. In the 1990s, that program, administered by the Toronto Arts Council, helped launch her career along with that of Canadian music icon Kardinal Offishall.
"It helped me open up my mind and realize there's a world outside of Jane and Finch," said Black. "I got a chance to share my art, share my craft and the gift that God gave me with others."
Although the new funding plan marks a watershed moment for Toronto artists, the $25 per capita target the city is now on course to achieve is no longer the gold standard it was when council endorsed it 10 years ago. Since then, cities like Montreal ($55 per capita), Vancouver ($49) and Ottawa ($28) have all surpassed that level.
Claire Hopkinson, executive director of the Toronto Arts Council, acknowledges that we have a lot of catching up to do, but she refused to let anything dampen her spirits as she watched the festivities Monday night.
"This is not a day for disappointment," she said.
"It really is a historic moment. Many of us can hardly believe it's here."