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Arts funding conflict helping Kelowna understand purpose of arts centre

Rotary Centre for the Arts

KELOWNA - The “heart of culture” in Kelowna is getting a transplant, but will it be enough to satisfy a divided city council quibbling over two per cent of the Rotary Centre for the Arts’ million-dollar budget?

Tyler Russell has only been the new Executive Director for the arts centre since late October and wasn’t in City Council chambers during budget discussions last week when a $25,000 addition to the centre’s base budget was one of the hottest topics of debate and only got approved by a narrow 5-4 vote.

“Part of what we’re supposed to be is the heart of Kelowna’s arts and cultural experience,” Russell told “(We want to) make Kelowna not just a venue where certain people come and show their thing, but it’s where we make art. By Kelowna being a site of creation, people are going to be looking at that and going, wow, this is what we need.”

But, first, he may have to focus on justifying the centre’s goals in light of last week’s debate.

The centre was opened in 2001 after a conversion of the old Growers Supply building. It was mandated to be a core element in the creation of a cultural district in downtown Kelowna.

The city contributes $280,300 to the arts centre's base budget but granted an additional $25,000 in 2014 on a temporary basis. When that $25,000 was requested again this year, Coun. Luke Stack objected, triggering the only serious debate on cutting anything from the city’s proposed budget.

“We are supporting them to the tune of $280,000 a year to help pay for the thriving centre that is there and I’m fully supportive of that,” Stack told council. “What I am having an issue with is jacking it up $25,000 without having an understanding of what they’re going to do with the money and how they’re going to move forward. It was a temporary fix five years ago and I don’t like something becoming a permanent fix without some explanation.”

Coun. Ryan Donn countered.

“I vehemently disagree,” he said. “If we want to see the facility full, then it’s properly funded. If we want them to produce their own works, then they’re under-funded.”

He suggested that, to fulfill its mandate, a major increase in funding may make sense.

In the end, Donn’s arguments won the support of Mayor Colin Basran along with councillors Charlie Hodge, Gail Given and Loyal Wooldridge, with Stack, Brad Sieben, Maxine Dehart and Mohini Singh opposed.

Helped by the $306,300 from the city, in its last fiscal year the centre brought in $1.3 million in revenues, but had slightly higher expenses for a net loss of just under $5,000, Russell said.

Still, that was $100,000 more revenue than the previous year and dropped the city’s share of funding to 24 per cent from 26 per cent.

“This last summer was a challenging summer,” Russell said. “With the fires and so on, the traffic here was quite low. In large part, because of that and the transition (to him as Executive Director), it seemed it was good to maintain that extra bit of support for a year or two.”

While he would rather focus on more art being created in Kelowna, he does have a plan for dealing with concerns about the extra $25,000.

“One of the things is making sure we have a strong business plan and that all our business areas have a measurable outcome so we can have a strong profit-loss analysis and improve our bottom line,” Russell said.

The Rotary Centre for the Arts contains the Mary Irving Theatre, which is already heavily booked for 2019, low-rent studio space (a rarity in Kelowna), long-term rentals to organizations like Theatre Kelowna and a bistro. It also runs a number of educational programs with School District 23 to encourage young people in the arts.

Food and beverage is the second largest revenue generator at almost $263,000, followed by rentals at $218,000.

Part of Russell’s job is dealing with the complexities of all the different revenue centres and how they’re accounted for.

For example, one presentation by Theatre Kelowna was recorded as in-house while another was classed as a rental.

Donn, in his comments at the council meeting, said the centre is only producing six shows a year instead of the 15 it did in the past. But, given the complications of the accounting system, what is termed in-house and rental can be a grey area.

Russell understands that getting those kinds of accounting details worked out is important, as is building a strong working relationship with the city.

He could simply jack up rental rates, for example, but that risks losing bookings and tenants so must be looked at carefully.

What he repeatedly emphasized was the need to encourage the creation and fostering of art in Kelowna, noting it has tangible and intangible economic benefits.

While economic spinoffs can be measured by the number of people who work in the arts and cultural fields, how much they earn and how much is spent, there’s also the fact that talented people may be leaving Kelowna because of its culture, or lack thereof.

“When I speak to people who say, one of the reasons I didn’t stay in Kelowna was because the cultural scene just wasn’t enough for me - so what does that mean to our economy?” Russell asked. “It’s really hard to put a value on the loss of particular human resources, people who would have stayed had that vitality been here.”

The same holds true when industry tries to recruit workers to relocate to Kelowna. For them, too, arts and culture can be deciding factors.

Despite the conflict so early in his new posting, Russell is keen on the future of the RCA and Kelowna.

“If you come out to our Arts Blast Gala on March 30, you’ll see what kids are going to be doing and how we’re coming together and creating culture together,” he said.

To contact a reporter for this story, email Rob Munro or call 250-808-0143 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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