How Hogtown transformed itself into one of the world’s great cultural capitals.
It is a spring Saturday night in Toronto. Municipal tulips glow under the lights of University Avenue. Bouncers are putting on their size 50 jackets, ready for their shifts in the Entertainment District. Fashionistas huddle in cashmere shawls at Yorkville’s Hazelton Hotel sidewalk café. Everyone on the Queen streetcar is using a smartphone.
And in the Air Canada Centre, Leafs Nation is gathered, 18,800 strong, full of noisy hope for maybe, maybe, this year, a Stanley Cup. Toronto is the home of the ’67 Champions. How can the gods not understand that it is our turn?
If the cup ever does come back, it will arrive in a different Toronto. The Air Canada Centre, the Hazelton Hotel, the Entertainment District and even the tulips were not there the last time Torontonians claimed Lord Stanley’s prize. And on this hypothetical Saturday night, in this new Toronto, plenty of people have found ways to forget the Leafs.
Two thousand of them are on the edge of their Jack Diamonddesigned seats at the Four Seasons Centre as Tosca stabs the police chief. Anton Kuerti’s fingers are dancing their way through Mendelssohn for 2,500 at Roy Thomson Hall. The Sony Centre is under renovation, its 3,000 new seats just about ready for the folks who have booked to see Merchants of Bollywood. There are 700 devout fans of Tafelmusik’s baroque orchestra in full Annex gear at TrinitySt. Paul’s Church on Bloor. David Mirvish’s hoofers are tearing up the scenery for 6,000 people in four glamorous theatres, and Albert Schultz is making 300 people cry at Soulpepper. At the Isabel Bader Theatre, Lethal and his dance crew, the Supernaturalz, are introducing another totally bucc hip hop number at the Dare to B school-to-school dance-off.
The lights are burning at the Queen Street offices of Luminato, where they are reviewing locations for music, dance, art and theatre that will be seen by a million people this summerabout the same number that stayed up past their bedtime for Scotiabank’s Nuit Blanche in October. The custodians are finishing up at the Royal Ontario Museum, the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Gardiner Museum after a crowded Saturday. They are finding fewer lost mittens now that it is May. At Union Station, a gaggle of artists is ready for a drink. They are the Diaspora Dialogues troupe, and they have done a full day of free poetry, music and theatre for surprised travellers.
In their homes in Moore Park or Leslieville, couples are online, a glass of Prince Edward County Chardonnay beside the PC. They are booking seats for Stratford (they will be among 600,000 others who visit) or for the Shaw Festival, or maybe one of the summer kids’ events at the National Arts Centre. Cottagers are reviewing the phone numbers for the septic tank service guys and checking out the websites for the Guelph Jazz Festival and Parry Sound’s Festival of the Sound.
Back at the Air Canada Centre, as crestfallen Leafs fans are filing out, glum, but still believers, there is one thing sure. This Saturday was a better night for the arts than for hockey.
In Toronto, it often is. Although a friend warned me it might be dangerous to say this, I’ll do it anyway. In and around this city, there is a diverse, exciting and innovative arts scene that is bringing Toronto very close to being one of the leading cultural centres in the world.
Why should it be dangerous to say this? First, we all hate Toronto. As the municipal elections grind on, even the folks who want to run the place speak endlessly about Toronto’s shortcomings. In the rest of Ontario, and certainly in the rest of Canada, to mention that Toronto has done okay at something can provoke a constitutional crisis. Second, the deficit cloud darkens every blue sky. The arts in Ontario suffered terribly in the mid 1990s and the scars have not healed. If we admit that the arts are doing well, will “they” cut back again? And third, more seriously, art is struggle. Every success is fragile, and there are not always successes. Actors like R.H. Thomson worry about disintegrating, outmoded theatres. In the last 15 years, at least 30 arts organizations have disappeared from Toronto.
Nevertheless, as Galileo said, it moves. The accomplishments are undeniable, the quality is indisputable, the passion is everywhere. The changes have been jaw-dropping. Those of us who arrived or grew up in Toronto in the Stanley Cup 1960s remember that the parades were not Caribana or Pride, but King Billy and Eaton’s. What happened?
Toronto is neither inspired by nor burdened with a history as a great arts town. It is not informed by the thousand-year cultures of Asia or Europe. The struggling citizens of “muddy York” or “Hogtown” or “Toronto the Good” had other things on their minds.
Outside town, it was worse. Well-bred colonists such as Susanna Moodie, writing in Roughing It in the Bush, told of learning other satisfactions: “I have contemplated a well-hoed ridge of potatoes on that bush farm with as much delight as in years long past I had experienced in examining a fine painting in some well-appointed drawing-room.”
Most of the organizations that Toronto treasures as great cultural institutions are only a few generations old. The ROM started life as the Museum of Natural History and Fine Arts in 1857; the Royal Conservatory of Music was born in 1886, and the AGO in 1900.
The first national attempt at an arts policy came in 1951 with the Massey report. Since then, writes Joyce Zemans (art historian and former Canada Council head) in Where Is Here? Canadian Culture in a Globalized Environment: “Unlike most European countries, Canada has not clearly formulated its purpose in the creation of cultural policy … Without the clarity of purpose which underlies policy development in many European countries or an understanding of what has been achieved, we have no framework for action.”
If the steady progress of a long history or coherent national strategies cannot explain the positive changes, then what happened?
Here is my theory. A great cultural city requires five things: artists, audiences, creative spaces, patrons and government support. We are trained to believe that government support is the key. As Louis Napoleon is supposed to have said to a critic: “You say we have no literature? This is the fault of the Department of the Interior!” But it is not. Government can incent and comfort artists, can develop and encourage audiences, can finance and make way for creative spaces, and can reward patrons. But government cannot, will not and should not do it all. The four other conditions must be met by varied means. The great good fortune of Toronto is that, now, all five conditions have been fulfilled in just that way. And something else, even more transformative, is underway too. But first, the five conditions.
Counting artists is a slippery exercise. The definitions are tough, and artists won’t stand still. The figures are always slightly different. But we do not need precision math to get the right answer. By all counts Toronto has the greatest number of cultural jobs anywhere in the country. And as the last provincial budget noted, those are jobs that were not hit by the economic bad times: “In 2009, despite the global recession, creative-industry jobs increased by nearly three per cent.”
The artists are in Toronto because the work is here. They are here because other artists are here. And there is something else. It is the nature of many artists to feel “different,” to see themselves outside the mainstream. Toronto is a big city, with all the big city stuff, but oddly enough, it is not a mainstream city. It is a city of neighbourhoods, a city of minorities, a city of debates and questions and media to report them from every point of view. It is a city (mostly) of tolerance. It is a city where artists can feel as good as artists ever feel. One of the many reports on Toronto as a cultural city wisely recommended that planners “leave room for the outlandish.” And Toronto does.
Statistics Canada has the facts, in a snappily titled 2005 article “Understanding Culture Consumption in Canada.” It is based on a survey that relates people’s characteristics to their attendance at cultural events. The conclusions: you are more likely to buy tickets if you are well educated and well off. If you are a woman, you are a little more likely to go, and if you are in management, business, finance, education or administration (as opposed to primary industry or manufacturing), you are quite a lot more likely to be in an audience. And if you fit all those qualifications, and also have a spouse or parent who fits them, you very likely have a file at Ticketmaster.
This profile is a good fit with the average Torontonian. The city has the second highest average income in the country and the most wealthy people. It gets that wealth from a concentration of jobs in business, finance and management sectors. Torontonians are well educated: 58 percent have post-secondary degrees.
That base is a natural arts audience, but yes, it is an elite base. What is growing the base is the city’s population of early adopters of technology. The digital world is providing undreamt-of ways to introduce, promote and socialize the arts experience. The audience can join the ensemble, mash up the scores, rewrite the script, chill with the artists. Ownership, involvement: powerful forces. Toronto is also growing a diverse arts audience. With a wealth of smaller companies, an established television production industry, thriving multicultural arts schools from Sheridan College to the Ontario College of Art and Design and endless cultural festivals, Toronto is experimenting with repertoire, casting and technology to provide fresh experiences for a diverse city. The audience is never the problem; it is always the opportunity.
The Creative Spaces
In May 2003, Toronto’s cultural world shook. The federal and provincial governments announced an unprecedented, massive investment in arts building. They put $300 million on the table and stood back. It was a gold rush; and when the claims office closed, five organizations drank champagne: the ROM, the AGO, the National Ballet School, the Royal Conservatory of Music and the Canadian Opera Company. Roy Thomson Hall and the Gardiner Museum also got millions for renovations; and later even more funding piled up: for the new OCAD, the Toronto International Film Festival’s Bell Lightbox, and for the film and television centre, Corus Quay, as part of the Toronto Waterfront project. The best international teams would be commissioned to design the buildings; Toronto would blaze in architectural glory; artists would feel themselves valued and inspired as they worked in clean and valid spaces. New exhibits, new genres, new productions would all be possible. There had to be a catch. But, incredibly, there was not, and Toronto was transformed. Suddenly its institutions are making top-ten lists. Toronto has the third largest English-language theatre centre in the world; the fourth largest producing opera company in North America; and creative industries in Ontario collectively form the third largest cluster in North America, after New York and California.
The openings of these great cultural palaces go hand in hand with another good news story: the little spaces. The Ontario government and the City of Toronto have cooperated in innovative ways to establish smaller artistic spaces populated by little companies and individual artists. In the Distillery District, low-rent art space is available through Artscape; the Toronto Arts Foundation offers artists cheap bed-and-breakfast space on Toronto Islands; the renovation of the Gladstone Hotel sparked the development of West Queen West, where zoning laws encourage galleries and craft shops.
Toronto makes its streets cultural spaces too, regularly shutting down traffic for buskers, jazz singers, poetry slams, behemoth parades and huge city-wide festivals like Luminato, Nuit Blanche, Doors Open and the Toronto International Film Festival.
The great cultural building boom could have been a disaster. The amount of funding provided by government was not even close to the needs of the major cultural organizations. As Barbara Jenkins of Wilfrid Laurier University wrote in the Canadian Journal of Communication in 2005, only about 35 percent of the funding would come from government. “These new institutions will have to rely on private funds, either through increased attendance or from private donors,” she says. “A total of $488.5 million must still be fundraised from private donors, far more money than has ever been donated by private individuals in Toronto’s history. Individual cultural institutions will have to organize these funding drives on their own.”
The institutions did organize the fund drives. But they did not raise $488 million from the private sector. They raised $899 million. They had to: the lovely buildings they financed were almost all much more expensive than planned. But the money came in: the $30 million gift and the $50 donation tacked onto a subscription renewal. It was another transforming experience. Arts fundraising in Toronto had depended on a few reliable sources and an attitude of “aw shucks, if you really want to give us something that would be great.” A friend who worked in the arts told me of joining a large organization in the 1990s to find that only four of the 30 board members had ever made a donation. We laughed at the thought. Now arts administrators hire directors of development who are professional, assertive and resilient. They know that the funding campaigns gave Toronto a new, satisfied base of many thousands of donors who have experienced the pleasure and significance of contributing. They will be called on again. And asked to bring their friends.
First, there is no such thing as enough government support for the arts. Every need that is met produces another need. Second, there is no such thing as too little arts funding for some taxpayers. In the middle of these competing views, Ontario, Toronto and the Canada Council for the Arts are seen today as providing reasonable support, and that is high praise. Ontario’s Dalton McGuinty Liberals actually have a thought-out cultural platform. Their government funding organizationsthe Ontario Arts Council, the Ontario Media Development Corporation and the Trillium Foundationget good marks as institutions with people who get it and provide real help. Ontario has smartly included other ministries, such as finance, immigration, economic development, and training colleges and universities in creative initiatives. Toronto has been thinking about the creative city concept longer than any other jurisdiction. Its programs are often original and cutting edge. As for the feds, Joyce Zemans writes: “Due largely to the Canadian commitment to the arm’s length tradition and the central role that artists have played in the development of [Canada] Council policies … Canada has been more successful than almost any other English-speaking nation in supporting individual artists and providing access to the professional arts.”
What does this new cultural city mean to The Rest of Ontario? No applause can be expected. There will be suspicion that resources will be siphoned off and tax dollars unfairly distributed. Local artists and audiences will fear marginalization and deprivation.
The facts, however, are that nearly half the population of the province lives in Toronto’s metropolitan area. And as Dimitry Anastakis points out elsewhere in this issue, Toronto’s prosperity helps all of Canada.
These facts will not satisfy anyone in TROO. But our political system has only a shaky grasp of representation by population; and the rural ridings will continue to be served, as they are now. Ontario requires the major Toronto cultural organizations to do outreach, which is often code for passing on some of the grant money to assist smaller centres. The Trillium Foundation is an advocate for arts in the towns and villages, with funding and prizes. Ontario funds municipal arts councils to work at meeting the five conditions in their own areas. In fact, as the arts prosper in Toronto, some residents of TROO may get more culture than they actually want.
The five conditions for a creative city are falling into place, but there are more overarching changes going on in the cultural landscape, changes that could rearrange everything we have thought and done about Canadian culture. Almost from the beginning, Canadian cultural policy has had one goal: defence against the United States. Our concern about the overwhelming influence of American culture led to the creation of the CBC and the National Film Board. Especially in the media, it produced a complete “tool kit” of cultural protection, from subsidies to content quotas to simultaneous substitution. It also produced hilarious debates about what Canadian content is and endless speeches in which the phrase “telling our own stories” was required by CRTC regulation. But the tool kit worked. Canada has now produced a large, confident, qualified group of artists. However, many of them think differently about Canadian culture. They play offence, not defence. They work every day with globalizing technologies. They are not worried about Buffalo anymore. They are competing with Barcelona and Berlin; and they see Canada not as a survivor, but as a winner. In the City of Toronto 2003 Creative City plan, the writers express it this way:
We used to think of London, New York, Paris, Rome and San Francisco as places that existed in another realm from Toronto. But now Toronto is very much like these cities we once envied. These cities work with their minds. Their populations display a potent mix of high education and cultural diversity. But none of them can claim the combination of the high educational and diversity levels of Torontonians.
These globalized artists are not in the majority yet, but their voices will be heard and their policy demands will be very different. They could lead a revolution in cultural policy: a shift from the Atwoodian notion of survival to a brasher “Own the Podium” strategy. This does not mean government can abandon the arts: the reverse should be true. But the weight of comforting regulations with their intricate balancing of regional sensibilities, genre protection, huge companies, individual artists, copyright and content rules is being increasingly defeated by nimble artists and borderless technology. Ownership will probably continue as a bedrock: our companies will be as Canadian as possible under the circumstances. Most other regulation is in the furrowed brow stage of change.
A second truly radical change is the position of culture in our economic and political thinking. Culture has always been a political side issue. Now, it has moved to the forefront. Investment bankers talk about the Bohemian Index, MBA schools put creativity on the curriculum and arts executives are asked to sit on economic panels.
Barbara Jenkins saw this shift in the role of culture in 2005, when she noted that cultural events drew more visits to cities than sporting events and that retail sales per square metre are higher in New York’s Museum of Modern Art store than at Wal-Mart. She writes:
Toronto’s Cultural Renaissance must be understood as a complex, global phenomenon … Economically, cultural institutions are seen as a way to revitalize flagging depressed industrial-based economies through cultural tourism and increased spending on leisure and entertainment. Culture and cultural diversity are also seen as attractions that will draw “Creative Class” workers to a city, accompanied by the kinds of high value-added industries that employ such workers.
Can Toronto win in this global economic competition? It has many advantages: a hundred languages are spoken here; the city’s policies and values accept and encourage diversity far more than many of its rivals; and the five conditions for culture are met. While the great cities of Europe struggle with terrible unemployment and debt, Toronto can forge ahead. The city is a new competitor, with a fresh look. There is a sense that history is calling. Globe and Mail reporter Doug Saunders, based in London, told Toronto Life: “In Toronto, it feels like everyone is building the city. The most dramatic parts of London’s history are in the past, but in Toronto, the next 100 years will be the most exciting.”
A dynamic cultural sector, says the Conference Board of Canada, is a magnet for talent and a catalyst for economic prosperity:
Our estimate, taking into account direct, indirect and induced contributions is that the economic footprint of the culture sector was approximately 84.6 billion, or 7.4 per cent of Canada’s total real GDP, and that the culture sector contributed 1.1 million jobs to the economy.
Culture, dreamy, prettily dressed and used to sitting in the back row, is now being pushed forward and loaded with our heaviest hopes for prosperity and growth. Is she tough enough to do the job? I think so. Northrop Frye said that the Canadian existential question was “Where is Here?” Now we know that Here is a place we imagine and create every day, alone and together. Our lives, good or bad, depend on how well we are allowed and inspired to imagine. A creative, cultural city that values imagination and all its freedoms is an opportunity we shouldn’t miss. Even if Toronto never wins another Stanley Cup.