Changes to Edmonton Arts Council funding promise relief for organizations affected by COVID-19

By Jackson Spring

The past year was rife with cancelled live festivals, performances, and art shows, plus a rush of new online events, as the Edmonton arts community grappled with public safety guidelines and restrictions.

"Some of these organizations were functionally hibernating, and some were busier than they'd ever been," said Stephen Williams, grants director for the Edmonton Arts Council (EAC).

In an effort to better support arts and festival organizations affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, EAC has developed a new set of funding programs to replace its arts operating grant and festival operating grant. Williams said eligibility for the previous funding streams was dependent on a group's activity, and they did not properly account for the adjustments arts and festival groups have had to make over the past year.

"We clearly have to recognize we're in a situation where the old paradigms around activity don't work very well," he said.

EAC has proposed three new programs. The first, called Sustain, was unanimously approved by Edmonton city council on Feb. 22, and will specifically address groups that are forced to cancel most or all of their activities.

Williams expects the second, Activate, to be brought to council this spring, while the third, Invest and Adapt, only involves small investments and likely will not require council approval.

The changes do not include an increase or reduction in funds, Willams said. Instead, EAC is reallocating funds that were available under the old grant programs, and adjusting the criteria for eligibility.

Edmonton Arts Council helps fund many of the city's public art installations. (Mack Male/Flickr)

Edmonton Arts Council helps fund many of the city's public art installations. (Mack Male/Flickr)

The Sustain program is available to organizations that have previously received regular funding from EAC. Unlike the previous programs, eligibility is independent of whether the organization is active, so arts and festival groups that can’t carry out regular events and activities due to public health concerns could still receive some money to keep them afloat. EAC's website says an inactive organization can expect a minimum of 50% of the funding they received under previous programs.

“It responds to organizations that we have an established relationship with,” said Williams. “We don’t really do any assessment — here are some organizations that are functionally hibernating, and they get a modest amount of money. They still have ongoing costs.”

Activate will be available to groups that are active, even if they are not currently organizing public events.

"What we're looking at is how you're pursuing your goals and mandates right now, even if that means not necessarily public activity," said Williams. "We don't want to be in a position to encourage things that are not safe."

According to EAC’s website: "Activate will only invest in organizations that exhibit clear planning and consideration of public health restrictions."

The details of the Invent and Adapt program are still being finalized.

Williams said the changes to EAC's funding programs have been in the works since before the pandemic. In 2019, the City of Edmonton published its 10-year plan for arts and heritage, Connections & Exchanges, which included guidelines for grant providers like EAC. Williams said EAC immediately began working on adapting its program to fit this plan, but had to modify the changes to address the pandemic specifically.

"We planned to spend 2020 building forward into the future," he said.

"What we've put out is another transitionary structure in recognition that it was just not possible to build that full future right now."