The OAF Blog

Summer Travels - 2016

September 01, 2016

Among the arts organizations supported by the Foundation are theatre and music festivals located outside Toronto and whose programs are summer based. So this summer, I took the opportunity to visit as many as I could, seeing parts of southern Ontario I had never been to. It offers a different view to the ‘Canadian landscape’.

From Parry Sound to Gananoque, Grand Bend to Millbrook, the talent and creativity across the festivals was breathtaking. This was not ‘work’, in addition to meeting the Artistic Directors, Managers and actors, I saw a wide variety of performances. In every location,—the arts organization is a ‘presence’ in the local community, drawing in residents, visitors and tourists. Many local communities rely on the economic contributions from the arts.

It doesn’t get much better to combine being on the water’s edge in Parry Sound in July in the early evening, watching the sun set and then listening to superb  Canadian musicians at the Festival of the Sound.

Another perspective was a magical early evening northeast of Toronto in Millbrook. The 4th Line Theatre is an outdoor theatre, using farm buildings converted to seating/stage.

The production was developed from historical events in this part of Ontario and the cast (both professional and local community volunteers) used the stage and adjacent fields, blending landscape into the performance experience. 

Further east, on the St. Lawrence River, we saw the most amazing one man performance based on the life of Tom Thomson at the Thousand Islands Playhouse. We stayed over and engaged in ‘retail therapy’ on the main street of the town.

In the tiny village of Blyth, the Blyth Festival has developed a history of compelling theatre where we were challenged by a thought provoking drama – well acted and creatively staged.

After experiencing a summer Saturday evening in Kincardine with the local Pipe Band parade (30-40 strong), we drove down Lake Huron to enjoy, sing and laugh at the Drayton Entertainment Huron County Playhouse's production of Mamma Mia.

Embracing all ages, one of the lead actor’s children was performing on a smaller stage next door in a panto production of Aladdin – the arts embracing all ages!

We saw theatre in small productions in Port Dover (Lighthouse Festival Theatre) and Port Colborne (Showboat Festival Theatre), as well larger scale shows at the Shaw Festival and Stratford Festival -- ‘Breath of Kings’ two back to back performances (you can never have too much Shakespeare).

In the musical theme, I had great fun wandering festival site at Ottawa Bluesfest. This included small blues/jazz groups in an intimate stage setting as well as mingling with thousands to hear contemporary rock/rap groups!

The common denominator was a passion for excellence.  From playwrights, staging, directors, musicians, actors – the quality was high.  I came away impressed with every organization, every community.

All of this lies within a day’s drive of Toronto – it was a refreshing break to see more of Ontario, to meet playwrights, actors, musicians and be intellectually challenged and satisfied.

It was VERY clear how important the arts organizations and festivals are to the life and economy of their towns/cities. Whether it was our having dinner in the bistro across from the Blyth Festival, staying in local inns/B&B’s or being one of 40,000 attendees at one BluesFest concert, it was clear that Ontario’s our arts organizations and festivals are important contributors to their local economy – employment, taxes, generation of visitor/tourist activity and effective engage with their community.

A visible example were the teenage volunteers at Huron CountyPlayhouse selling 50/50 tickets before the performance, acting as ushers – involving the local community.

What a treat this summer was – there are still many places and arts organizations to visit and I look forward to planning next summer !



Transformation in the Arts

July 13, 2016

While the mandate of the Ontario Arts Foundation is to invest in perpetuity, i.e. for the very long term, we recognize that arts organizations, like any organization cannot exist in perpetuity based solely on past success. To continue to deliver sustained arts programs, organizations need to adapt and respond to change in their operating environment.

Transformation or Bust

Diane Ragsdale, a well know arts commentator, spoke at a 2016 Creative New Zealand Conference – her topic was titled Transformation or Bust - When Hustling Tickets and Contributions is Just Not Cutting it Anymore. It is lengthy, but a thoughtful perspective on the arts and the notion of creative transformation to be viable and successful.

She observes that the justification for the arts in western culture seems to have shifted too far in the direction of ‘measurement’ – arts as paying its way, or contributing to economic growth. It is absolutely true that the arts are strong economic contributors, but have we lost, at the political level, sight of ‘culture for sake for culture’s sake’?

Positive Transformation

Diane identifies five ways arts organizations can work to transform in a positive way and continue to engage with their communities:

  1. Let the community back in

  2. Practice radical hospitality

  3. Be the kitchen table. Be the campfire

  4. Focus on impact rather than size. Form covenants rather than contracts

  5. Create scaffolds of meaning-making rather than money-making

Each intriguingly named theme is accompanied by examples of organizations being creative and transforming themselves, or how they practice their craft and engage with their audience.

Read the full transcript here.



Taxing Endowment ?

May 25, 2016

To our minds,  taxing endowment is very short term thinking.  Lately, US media and politicians have called for taxation of the larger endowment funds. As lawmakers look for sources of funds amid declining tax base at the local level, along with rising tuition costs, the presence of large, successful and growing university endowment funds have become an enticing target.

Most endowments, including the Ontario Arts Foundation’s, saw the market values of funds under their stewardship decline during the 2008 economic crisis.  Legislators and the media seem to have forgotten the impact.  Endowment distributions dropped or in many cases, had to be suspended for a year. Since that time, a combination of improving security markets over the last 5 years, sound investment management and new donations have seen the aggregate value of funds held in endowments grow significantly. Lawmakers in states where the large universities are located ( Harvard, Yale, Princeton ) are making statements that the school endowments should be ‘forced’ to make mandatory payouts to reduce education/tuition costs or help offset deficits in education budgets.


Not surprisingly, we are not supporters of this for several reasons:

  • Recent history of a time when the market value of endowments declined below the original principal, resulted in an inability to make the annual distributions that the arts organizations we support rely upon. Our investment strategy looks to mitigate that risk by growing the capital and maintaining a reserve to ensure we are able year over year, to make distributions. But no Board or investment manager has control over global markets.

  • Taxing investment profits, or challenging tax exempt status of endowments will mean that donors intending to provide long term support to an organization may use other vehicles, or not make the gift. One of the advantages of an endowment is the pooling of multiple funds to lower investment costs. Taxing an endowment and driving donors elsewhere may increase costs, which impacts the amount available for distribution.

  • What is forgotten in the dialogue is that many individual endowments, collectively managed by the foundation, or a university have very specific purposes (i.e. fund an arts award). The governing organization does not have the ability to re-direct the capital or income to the purposes external bodies are suggesting.

  • Endowments are an attractive tool for generating sources of income that are separate from government funding, operations/arts programming. The stability of returns is an important part of an organization’s finance’s.

Taxing an endowment may be attractive to the media or a politician, but it truly is short term thinking at its worst.

Wall Street Journal article March 28, 2016

Bloomberg article March 23, 2016

Forbes article August 25, 2015


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