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Making the Arts an Election Issue: How Theatre Orangeville Did It

You know your community. You know your audiences. Take that to the next level by leveraging your position as a local cultural leader to raise awareness about the arts and make arts funding a campaign issue in the next federal election, Monday Oct. 21, 2019. That’s what we’re doing.

Theatre Orangeville specifically targeted candidates and all candidates’ meetings for the recent Ontario provincial election on June 7, 2018.

Nine months before the provincial election, our regional arts umbrella organization (Headwaters Cultural Roundtable) was contacted and asked to act as the face of our awareness campaign.

This served three purposes…it spread the workload, raised the profiles of both our organizations, and spread the word across the various disciplines within the arts community that we had a united role to play to protect funding for our provincial arts council (Ontario Arts Council). Ideally, we wanted the Round-table to host an arts-specific all candidates’ meeting, but they declined the offer, saying they didn’t think there was enough interest.

(I disagree. A local non-partisan environmental group recently hosted an all-candidates’ meeting focused on the environment for our municipal election. It clearly demonstrated the extent of the candidates’ knowledge on the subject and there was plenty of time for the public to ask their random, but important questions.)

Back to the provincial awareness campaign. The next step was to contact all the political riding associations for candidate information and set up brief face-to-face meetings with the candidates. At the same time, we collected information on location and dates for all candidates’ meetings around the riding.  It is important face-to-face meetings happen before heavy campaigning begins, and before candidates are overwhelmed with information from lobby groups, at least three months before the election.

Candidate meetings were short and to the point. We focused on why the Ontario Arts Council needed their support, tying it back directly to the economic benefit the arts bring to their riding. We left each candidate with an information package which contained fact sheets, told them we would be asking arts-related questions at the upcoming all candidates’ meeting and provided the specific question.

Keep the specific question very short and to the point. Avoid long qualifying preambles. In our case the two all candidates’ meetings were tightly controlled by the local board of trade, which pre-screened and selected all questions in advance, and did not allow free questions from the audience. Our question was selected one of two times, even though the meetings took place in different communities in front of different audiences.

Candidate responses to the public question were similar to those of the face-to-face meetings… supportive and non-specific.

The information package provided to the candidates included excellent summary fact sheets from several organizations including Ontarians for the Arts (an arts lobby group), the Ontario Arts Council, and an annual overview of arts activities in our riding done by a local arts journalist. Though we tried to keep our background package brief, we admit we are old school, and doubted anyone read it. Next time we would do a one-pager with links to further information and send it digitally.

So how did it go? We met with the four main provincial candidates, Conservative, Liberal, Green and NDP. Other parties’ candidates declared so late, we were unable to meet with them mid-campaign. The four main candidates were aware of the importance and referred to the arts frequently during the campaign. Local print and radio media (still important in a semi-rural riding like ours) had been informally notified of our campaign. (Next time, I would be more deliberate about getting the local media on board and meet with them individually.)

Overall, the outcome was worth the effort. It laid the foundation for awareness, which we continue to build on. We are fortunate that our incumbent MPP (who was re-elected and now serves in cabinet) is a long-time theatre and arts supporter, well-informed on the economic value of the arts in the riding.

This past November with so many municipal candidates in the race, we did not pursue face-to-face meetings, however, in spite of that, the arts were extensively discussed by all the local candidates and support for arts funding was specifically mentioned in many of the candidates’ platforms. We have to think that our efforts provincially spilled over to the municipal campaign, however, we have no concrete evidence of that. We did succeed in having an arts question asked publicly at the mayoral candidates’ meeting.

In the end, Orangeville elected what is likely the most arts-sympathetic Town Council ever. We will continue to employ and refine our strategy in the upcoming federal campaign.

Bernadette Hardaker
General Manager,
Theatre Orangeville

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