(April 22, 2020) Executive Director of Arts NL, formerly the Newfoundland and Labrador Arts Council, Reg Winsor talks to editor in chief Gail Picco about arts and in culture in Newfoundland and Labrador, and the impact of the pandemic.Five weeks ago, public health requirements brought the work of artists and arts organizations to a screeching halt. Performances were cancelled, seasons rescheduled and many events indefinitely put on hold. The Charity Report wanted to do a deep dive into how artists were being affected by the pandemic, and explore the vital role that the arts play in both our economy and our spirit. We talked to artists and administrators in Newfoundland and Labrador, where arts and culture are deeply woven into society. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Gail Picco: I'm very interested in looking at the art sector and how it is being affected by the pandemic, but also in talking more generally about what arts brings to people's lives and the economy. But first of all, how is everybody doing and how did the pandemic unfold for you?
Reg Winsor: It was a long weekend here, the St. Patty's Day weekend when everything started to focus. Monday was the holiday and we came back into the office on Tuesday. Over the weekend, when everything was coming down, we had virtual meetings. We are a government agency and have some responsibilities we were going to need to take on. It took us about two days to get all the files and documentation we needed to work from home loaded onto the laptops. By Thursday, everyone was working from home. We needed to inform the community. Updates were coming out from federal government. And we wanted to continue on with our programs. The individual project grants deadline was coincidentally the day we got back, and we’d instituted a fully online system about a year and a half ago, so we were able to proceed with all those grant assessments, get the notifications out on time, and then, of course, disburse the payments.
Gail Picco: That must have been pretty satisfying under the circumstances.
Reg Winsor: Yes, it was. The only program we had to suspend was our travel fund program, for obvious reasons. Now, like everyone, we’re waiting to see what's going to happen next.
Gail Picco: What have you been hearing from artists?
Reg Winsor: Like most Canadians, there’s been concern about their finances, their health and missing doing things in the public space. There are a lot of arts festivals in the summer in Newfoundland and Labrador and they make much of their money from box office. They also employ people for 12 weeks. The federal funds will be helpful to the arts community. The Canada Council (for the Arts) did a survey and there’ll be a high percentage of [arts participation] in those programs. There is still concern about what folks can apply for, but it's encouraging.
Gail Picco: Could you talk to me about how arts and culture is a part of the economic sector of the province?
Reg Winsor: There's no doubt about it. We are vital to the economy.
From our own data, we know that for every dollar that’s spent on the arts in the province, there is a return of between $5 and $7."
Arts NL’s largest grant amount is $65,000. Organizations are, of course, are getting other council funding and have some revenue from box office. But having support from the arts council means a certain amount of credibility for sponsors and the like. We fund festivals all over the province.
And that’s a great opportunity for the community too, for restaurants and lodgings."
Gail Picco: A few years ago, the St. John’s city council tried to cut their arts funding by 50%. What was your experience of that?
Reg Winsor: It was a great opportunity actually, for the arts community to come together and express their concerns. And we've seen that from time to time to with the province too. We report to the Ministry of Tourism, Culture, Industry and Innovation, and for some reason the government was planning to drop the word ‘tourism,’ so we’d be reporting into a department called ‘tourism, industry and innovation,’ but no culture. Within a couple of days, they saw the error of their ways.
There are certain things we can’t do as a government agency, but we had been talking about things that we have been doing and how we hadn’t had a funding increase in a while. Before the election, we did public consultations, so from the government’s perspective it wasn’t just Reg and Stan [Hill, council chair] coming up to see them. This was coming from the community. There were letter writing campaigns and people speaking out. As a result, all three parties agreed to increase the arts council funding from $2 million a year to $5 million a year. And after the election we did get the promised $1 million increase. A budget of $5 million would put us at $10 per capita, the top level per capita in Canada. There is a perception our culture is well funded or was well funded. In fact, we were on the lower end on a per capita basis.
Gail Picco: I've been talking to artists about the ways in art will play a role and in the way that we can regain our equilibrium when we come out of this. What role do you think art plays in healing or refocusing a society?
Reg Winsor: The arts has always played an important role in our community. People are coping and by engaging in arts and culture now. Look at all the virtual events that are happening now and that is an opportunity.
But there's the point of being able to go and see a play and the social interaction that goes with that. For artists to engage with the audience is such a key thing. Being able to go to the theater and see a show and have a conversation afterwards, that will help bring people together and help heal over time, but there’s got to be a concern about how quickly that can happen."
We're not going to just start off again. It may be a case of theaters or public spaces being able to open up, but instead of having an audience of 200, they might have 50.
Gail Picco: As ED of Arts NL, are you able to get and around to see shows and festivals?
Reg Winsor: Oh, yes. Before this, in a given week, you're always seeing one or two events, whether it's an exhibition or theatre production, whatever the case may be, and in the summertime, I find ways to get out of the office.
Gail Picco: That’s the fun part of the job.
Reg Winsor: I'm going to miss that. But, you know, we’re guaranteed to get something happening later.
The Work of Art (April 22, 2020)