Praxis Theatre is currently on hiatus! Please find co-founders Aislinn Rose and Michael Wheeler at The Theatre Centre and SpiderWebShow, respectively.
June 10, 2008, by


By Michael Wheeler

This post is not about the art being presented at Luminato. There are a lot of really cool works being presented at the festival and I wish all the artists involved enormous success. Except for Joni Mitchell. What? Joni Mitchell is a visual artist!?!

This post is about money. Cash dollars for the arts. How it is spent, who decides, and for what purpose. I didn’t really understand how off the rails this whole spectacle had gone until I read Kate Taylor’s May 24th , 2008 article From zero to $22.5-million in 2 years in The Globe and Mail.

And then my head exploded.

Taylor begins by answering some of her own questions:

“How did a 10-day Toronto arts festival, which had completed only one season, win a direct provincial grant of a kind usually reserved for established government agencies? How did Luminato, that ill-defined grab bag of splashy public spectacles and pricey international performances (which gets underway for a second season on June 9) come out of nowhere so fast?

The answer is: one part strategy, one part timing, many parts political connections.”

She comes to the conclusion based on the following evidence:

The festival was founded and is co-chaired by Tony Gagliano and David Pecault. Gagliano is CEO of St. Joseph Communications, which publishes Toronto Life, and is also friends with Greg Sorbara, former Liberal finance minister and architect of McGuinty election victories. To complicate matters, his family also donated $10 million to the recent AGO renovation. This is relevant because the three major grants for the arts by the Ontario Government recently have been to the AGO, the ROM and Luminato. There is a strange, out of my just-trying-to-make-rent league, cycle of money going on there.

Pecault is Senior Partner with The Boston Consulting Group but, surprise, is married to Helen Burstyn, a prominent Liberal supporter who used to work inside McGuinty’s office and is now volunteer chair of The Ontario Trillium Foundation, another provincial arts granting body.

These well-connected founders managed to immediately, out of nowhere, get our Ontario government to commit $7.5 million dollars towards this festival over its first three years. What the? Praxis Theatre has to receive three successful project grants before we can even qualify to apply for operational funding. But fine, the post-SARS tourist economy ain’t what is used to be and some stimulus that skips the red tape is perhaps in order. But this latest, no-application process, trust us we’ll do something good with it, extra $15 million dollars – which Luminato admits that they don’t know what to do with yet – is quite frankly beyond the pale.

Here’s the top three reasons why:

First, access to public arts funding should not be political. Public money can’t and shouldn’t be about who you know. We have a hard time making the case for public arts funding period. Why not house the homeless, make the TTC cheaper, and paint some more bike lanes instead? If it begins to be even perceived as a slush fund for political friends to throw exclusive red carpet parties, while they wine and dine international artists, we’re screwed selling this idea to the rest of our citizens. The connection between the co-chairs and the Premier’s office are embarrassingly obvious. For all of us in the arts.

Second, there has been much to do in the media, and on this blog, about what’s wrong with theatre in Toronto as of late. In particular the lack of strong new voices and the conditions many artists work in. Alec Scott’s Toronto Life Article (who publishes Toronto Life again?), comes to mind. A lot of arguments have debated whether or not the criticisms are valid – not much talk about why they could be true. I think the answer is money and access to it. The more people that live here, make plays, and can find a way to live, the more exciting new art will be made. Throwing $15 million at Luminato will do little to address this for Toronto theatre.* If you think you know about the other disciplines being presented at the festival, let me know. It’s going to do very little to address the root causes of what plagues us in Theatretown.

*Note. Yes. The Luminato windfall was immediately followed by a $5 million increase to the Ontario Arts Council yearly budget to deflect this sort of criticism. But consider these #s: With the new money, The OAC distributes $60 million a year to roughly 400 organizations. This is peanuts, we’re talking $150,000 a piece after a rigorous process of peer review. Right now Luminato is rocking along with an average of $7.5 million a year and they just invented themselves.

Third, and most importantly, this is bad strategy. It’s the same kind of Lastman-era flawed logic that got us a basketball team named The Raptors and the notion that somehow we can buy a world class city instead of building one. Hiring a high-priced American Artistic Director to bring World Class shows to Toronto will not put us on the map as an international hotbed of talent. People travel to London and New York for this reason because of the shows that are created there, and the tradition the community has of making great works that push boundaries. That’s when the rest of the world follows suit and tries to participate with it as well. Until we have more legitimate domestic talent, stars, and the hits that go with them, we’re never going to achieve that sort of status.

So I’m Lumi-not-going. There are a bunch of shows, both domestic, and international, that seem really interesting. Normally I probably would check them out. But I’m disturbed enough by all of this to opt out. I’ve got a grant application I should probably be working on anyhow.

This is the first in a series of four blog posts on theatre by Michael Wheeler.

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  1. Anonymous says:

    I’m Lumin-not-going either. Nothing’s sadder than watching a bunch of rich Torontonians dressing up and trying to be New York or London.

  2. deepthroat says:

    Luminato…Illuminati?…There is more to this than you can possibly imagine… The truth must come out…

  3. mike says:

    that’s funny cause i almost called the post “Iluminatio”, but being paranoid about the Illuminati is so 2002.

    what do you know that we don’t know deepthroat? i’ll play woodward if you’re the provincial cultural policy equivalent of the deputy director of the FBI.

  4. Philip Akin says:

    I like to look at it this way.
    If you total up all the government monies that Obsidian gets this year and get that same amount going forward it will take 142 years to get 15M.
    Ok so 142 years vs 1.5 years

    As Arsenio used to say…Things that makr you go hmmmmm!

  5. mike says:

    i’m not even going to tell you how that math works out for Praxis. humanity may not be around for that long. i will say this though, C&C Music Factory would be singing a little diddy that Arsenio ripped off.

  6. The Watcher says:

    What the Toronto arts groups need are more blogs exposing this questionable government strategy. Nobody is talking about this.

    And, what about other communities in the province who are also crying out for funding; do they have the same concerns?

  7. deepthroat says:

    No way Wheeler, I get to play Bernstein. The real Deepthroat of the Toronto Arts scene will never sell out! I have one clue for you… Varsity Arena, you look there and find the truth! Stir the shitstorm… The truth shall set us free!

  8. mike says:

    watcher: good point about other groups outside Toronto. at least those of us in the T dot get peripheral value from the festival. North Bay and Napanee should be double-pissed.

    deepthroat: dude, you can’t be deepthroat and bernstein at the same time. that’s like being pitcher and catcher simultaneously.

  9. mike says:

    Wow. i just read The Star’s piece on Gagliano and Luminato and Wow. The thing that I always thought was dodgy about Taylor’s article was how he was “friends” with Liberal kingpin Greg Sorbara. Lots of people are friends with people. Maybe this was just like how Obama is friends with The Weather Underground you know?

    Not the case. The article quotes Sorbara as having to say this about Gagliano:

    “”He was not in the political loop in Toronto or Ontario,” says MPP Greg Sorbara, former Ontario finance minister, who pressed the province to support Luminato to the tune of $15 million (announced in April), an enviable amount for any arts festival, let alone one in just its second season. “That’s changed dramatically. “

    They just flat out admit that A) Gagliano used political connections to get the 15 million and B) the former finance minister used his influence to help his friend get the cash for the new festival he invented. In the newspaper. Like it’s no big deal! Shouldn’t they at least have the decency to obfuscate?

  10. Anonymous says:

    You are ill informed, do your research. Neither the CEO or Artistic Director of Luminato are American, they are both Canadians. The CEO is Toronto born and raised, the Artistic Director is an east coast native who founded the well regarded Celtic Colours Festival along with other East Coast music lovers. They both lived and worked in New York before returning to Toronto to launch Luminato, 80% of the artists who are employed at the Festival are Canadian (70% Toronto artists), you were crazy to miss Black Watch and Supple’s Midsummer if you are the true theatre lovers you say you are. Luminato is already investing in numerous Toronto and Canadian theatre companies and productions that will be seen in future seasons (LePage, Ross Manson, Tarragon etc) and supported in this most recent Festival Tapestry, Gryphon, Roseneath, Factory, Vancouver Playhouse among others.

  11. mike says:

    hey there anonymous, who are you? i always take criticism a lot more seriously when someone has the courage to attach their identity to their words.

    i have a post addressing most of your points coming up next week. i am assuming by omission that from your seemingly well-informed position you aren’t quibbling with the egregious manner in which the the public funding system was hijacked by those with political connections (regardless of their most recent country of residence).

  12. MK Piatkowski says:

    Mike, I have similar concerns that I wrote about here. I do disagree on one point – I believe it’s valuable to have an international arts festival. I saw a huge difference stylistically in work done in Australia, which does have yearly international arts festivals, and English Canada. I also believe that the international festivals in Quebec have a lot to do with the evolution of Quebec theatre.

    I think as a community it’s important to have a window to international work, and a large festival provides leverage to get the funding for it. (Harbourfront also does a fantastic job of this.) I also think that festivals can commission work that would be beyond the reach normally for organizations – I’m thinking how Ronnie Burkett has been using festivals to commission his last couple of shows.

    But like you, I have reservations about Luminato being that festival.

  13. S Varga says:

    Check this too …
    Toronto Community Foundation
    a $25,000 Vital Idea Grant for what you ask .. a Family Arts Guide ..

    and guess what …
    Tony Gagliano is on the TCF Board
    sounds like a VITAL idea to me ..

  14. Kate says:

    I am truly shocked, and quite alarmed, to read that the Toronto Community Foundation awarded Luminato $25,000 for publishing a Family Guide. To imagine a festival with the budget the size of Luminato’s is eligible for funding from the TCF is unconscionable – especially given the millions of dollars already awarded to Luminato by our provincial government. Imagine the number of worthy grantees who were turned down by the TCF – the TCF certainly cannot fund every organization that applies. But including Luminato in their mix of grantees? I’m thoroughly dismayed.

    Can anyone explain the rationale behind this? I see, too, that Mr. Gagliano (a person who I know to be a great philanthropist) is on the TCF Board. Isn’t this a conflict of interest??

  15. Anonymous says:

    Some interesting math in response to this Globe & Mail article (pasted from the G&M comments section)

    What I find irritating about the $15 million provincial gift is that Luminato isn’t even using the money this year. In one of Kate Taylor’s earlier G&M articles Luminato CEO Janice Price is quoted as saying “This [the 15M] is for the future.” It would be nice to think that the province would have asked some questions about how the money would be spent BEFORE handing over the cheque. If they did ask, & knew that the money wasn’t going to be spent this year, it’s worse that the province didn’t have the foresight to invest the money in a high interest acct. until Luminato was ready to spend it. This way, enough interest could’ve been earned on that $15M to provide several arts organizations with a similar one-time gift. According to my math, based on a 3% rate of return, about $450,000 dollars could’ve been generated in one year from that $15,000,000. I guess Luminato will just have earn the interest themselves. (Of course this is barring any contractual obligation to return accured interest back to the gov. but somehow I have a pretty good feeling that Luminato has this money free and clear). What’s disturbing about this $15M is that this money is in additon to a second $300,000 Celebrate Ontario grant Luminato received from the province (administered by the province through the Ministry of Culture). If you do all the math Luminato is sitting around $15,750,000.00 in provincial grant money this year. Now let’s take a look at the Toronto Arts Council (TAC) granting budget. In 2007 the TAC, the arms length municipal arts funding agency, provided 665 Toronto based arts organizations/individual artists from numerous artistic disciplines (theatre, dance, music, visual arts, literary, community based arts) with grant money to fund their work. Toronto Arts Council’s 2007 granting budget: $9,738,829.00 $15,750,000.00 for (1) organization vs. $9,738,829.00 for (665) What exactly was the province thinking?