Arts and the city budget: interview with Su Ditta

For our second episode of the Budget Week podcast, Peterborough Currents spoke with Su Ditta, executive director of the Electric City Culture Council to learn more about the role of advocates in the budget process and what she’s advocating for the 2021 municipal budget.

The audio in this episode is an edited version of the interview. To listen to the unedited interview, clickhere.

Episode transcript

 0:02 Ayesha

Hello you’re listening to Peterborough Currents, I’m Ayesha Barmania. This is the second episode of our series on the 2021 Budget Week, and today we’re talking about arts and culture advocacy.

0:14 Beau Dixon  

You know, when I first moved to Peterborough, I was drawn to the thriving arts community. Coming back here to Peterborough, I’ve taken advantage of the low, you know, moving back into my house low mortgage. My partner and I are able to do a lot more more work in home digitally. We’re able to rehearse because there are spaces here in Peterborough to be utilized. I’m having clients from Toronto, I’m now in talk about having clients from Toronto come to Peterborough because they are needing spaces to rehearse. Simple things like that, where it’s been overlooked in the past because Toronto has offered all of these resources. But I’m really seeing now that Peterborough has an opportunity to really seize the moment. And an opportunity to maintain that reputation that Peterborough had when I moved here 20 years ago, and this is almost an opportunity to revitalize the arts community because of economically where we all are but because of the the talent that lies here in Peterborough and by doing that we can generate some income and we can bring more work and artists into this area.

1:34 Ayesha

That was Peterborough performing artist Beau Dixon speaking at the public budget meeting on Monday. During his presentation he joined the calls for sustained arts funding from the city and more support for artists working during the pandemic.

He added his voice to the calls spearheaded by arts and culture advocacy group EC3 – the Electric City Culture Council. 

Since advocacy and lobbying is a major part of the material that gets considered when drafting the budget, I wanted to understand more about how advocacy groups set their priorities and go about their work.

So I called Su Ditta, the executive director of EC3 last Monday and I  asked her to start by talking about how she is approaching arts advocacy with regards to this city budget.

2:17 Su Ditta

So for the 2021 budget, of course, it was different than in previous years, we needed to think about what was going – what the overall situation with finances was going to be with the city, which was that the city was facing a very significant deficit: what kind of money was going to come down from the province and how much of that money might be earmarked for other things, and how much we thought we might be able to ask to be earmarked for our sector. 

We have to also be very quick on our feet in terms of a gut reaction that happens in a time of crisis, which is, everything else is more important than the arts or luxury. Because we know from feedback from many, many articles and research papers that have produced in fact, the arts have been a critical critical tool for communities for large populations and small to get through this crisis in good mental and spiritual form. 

So we had all of those things in mind. 

Then you think about, ‘Okay, what things are we going to do that are direct advocacy or hard advocacy? And what kind of things could we do that are indirect advocacy or soft advocacy?’ 

So one of the things that’s different in advocating this year around financial support for the arts is that the arts are invisible right now. The venues are closed, exhibitions aren’t happening or happening only recently, in small forums, concerts aren’t happening. ArtsWeek 2020 was cancelled. And that normally happens right before budget discussions. That was a huge issue. And the second one was to kind of – advocacy had to be shaped towards the incredible vulnerability the community has right now. And that there were certain organizations that were having a particularly tough time: the venues that are box office dependent and have high operating costs. So all of those things are informing our work as we prepare the advocacy program.

4:35 Ayesha  

Absolutely, and you’ve done – EC3 has done a fair bit of research on the impact of COVID-19 and the recession on the local arts community, how are you synthesizing all this information? And what is the – what are the priorities that are coming out of this information you’re looking at?

4:53 Su Ditta  

So organizations in Peterborough say pretty much the same thing that organizations all across the country and internationally say that the first thing to survive and to have a healthy recovery, and better long term future is to have stable basic operating income. So that means that we wanted to argue for no cuts to the community investment and project grants budgets, and to the service grants for arts, culture and heritage organizations. So knowing that that stability is there makes a huge difference to people.

5:34 Ayesha  

And I wondered if you could just speak a bit to what role do these community grants play in the arts ecosystem?

5:42 Su Ditta  

Municipal – the community grants are essentially the contribution from the municipal level of government to the operating grants of the core major arts organizations in the city. The service grants fund some and I can talk about those separately. But there’s, you know, a group of about I can’t remember exactly, maybe 20 groups that get their municipal level of their operating funding through that program. And it’s absolutely crucial. 

So that money combined with provincial money they get, combined with the federal money they get, creates the core operating budget to pay for overhead costs. So to pay staff salaries, rent, office supplies, insurance, all of those really critical things that you can’t go on and carry on with unless you’re paying your utility bill and making sure you’re covered by your insurance and that you have money for basic marketing and promotion and all the things you need to keep your doors open.

You know, there comes a point and I know a number of groups feel now they’re going to just squeak through till the end of the calendar year which for some people is the end of the fiscal year but it was going into next year where things were really really dicey because uncertainty is our worst enemy right now. We have no idea when things can open right up again, no idea when we can get back to our, to our audience to our ticket sales to our fundraising events. So it becomes a certain point where you just can’t carry on.

7:31 Ayesha  

Absolutely –

7:32 Su Ditta  

You know, this is a sector that knows how to make a dollar go a long way. There is no fat in these organizations. People are grossly underpaid. Artists are grossly underpaid. And it’s a very, very vulnerable sector to work in. So this is an incredibly difficult time. 

And one of the things that’s, as it often does come out of a very difficult time is the resilience of some of our arts organizations. We’ve seen Artspace put many exhibitions in its windows. We saw Public Energy organize an incredible suite of outdoor performance activities with Pivot. Same with the Fourth Line. The Art Gallery of Peterborough did their online auction and all the money is going to artists. The Peterborough Singers have found incredibly innovative ways to keep rehearsing. That’s one of their big problems. If they’re not rehearsing all the time, they won’t be ready to perform when there’s a vaccine and when restrictions have lifted. And so they’ve worked incredibly hard, particularly for their staff and their artistic leadership to do many rehearsals three times a week.

People are doing absolutely everything they can. So any cuts would have shaken them to the bone.

8:56 Ayesha  

These grants, some of them, at least, come with certain requirements that projects be completed or services be provided. How have we seen the pandemic impact organizations’ ability to do those– conduct those activities? And how is– what are you looking for in terms of like any kind of leniency there?

9:19 Su Ditta  

Well, there as I said, there was a comfort condition letter that – it was a good one – that went out with all the grants. And I would say that every major public funder at every level of government has done the same thing. They said, “Here’s the money that you got based on our assessment of your grant application, and in the context of who else was applying, here’s your grant. But we understand these are our special circumstances.” 

And I think particularly in last year’s grant applications, which would have been made in December, long before the pandemic. So I think the challenge will be in the assessment process of the Community Investment and Project grants to see you know, what people are actually able to do and what they’re proposing to do next year. But I think that the you know, I think that that kind of open ended granting and trust has to be in place there because we have no idea when people can open again.

10:23 Ayesha  

In addition to continued support for maintaining basic operations during the pandemic, Ditta says arts organizations need funding for COVID-specific expenses like personal protective equipment, staff training and renovations to promote physical distancing. Especially as a lot of arts organizations hope to reopen in 2021. To help with those costs, EC3 is requesting the city make a contribution to its new Arts Alive Fund.

10:48 Su Ditta  

That’s a fund EC3 has been building in collaboration with the Community Foundation of Greater Peterborough. And it’s specifically COVID-19 relief and response funding.

11:00 Ayesha  

So that would be addressing some of the access to PPE? And –

11:06 Su Ditta  

All of those kinds of things. Yeah, some people may or may need additional support with fixed costs, they may want to start bringing staff back. You know, they may have things they want to do, in terms of virtual initiatives, anything, it’s very wide open. But to date, the City hasn’t provided any relief to the sector. So we were very, very fortunate to have a private individual come forward and donate some money and to offer to help us continue to build the fund. And we had a $20,000 anonymous donation, which really pushed the fund forward. And we know two other cities – it’s really interesting, I am co-chairing this new alliance the Municipal Arts Councils, this one regional Arts Council, and two other cities have exactly the same experience –

12:02 Ayesha  

Of the City not providing support?

12:04 Su Ditta  

Well, they turned us down or earlier, but we’ll ask again, because this is a very effective way for them to provide this strategic support, this emergency support, because we do all the work.

12:19 Ayesha  

How does Peterborough stack up against other Ontario municipalities in terms of investment in either public art or the kind of operation fund- operations funding?

12:33 Su Ditta  

I don’t know the numbers on public art. So I’ll tell you, it’s hard to know. And it’s something that we should commission a really good study on if necessary, because different– I mean, there are reports on this and there’s some stats available from Creative Cities Network or from Hill Strategies Research that is kind of like a, you know, a literature review of all different reports that come out. But one of the things that’s difficult is having a consistent baseline. 

So people will say that the funding is usually reported on a per capita basis. But what do they include? Do they include the, like our Memorial Center, which does have some entertainment activities, but it’s primarily a sports activity, that they include that in our in an arts and culture, rundown of numbers. If you’re trying to report on where we are, it’s a little bit hard to say, I’ve looked at different numbers, everything I’ve looked at says we’re or lower than most cities, like ours, but I like to throw the numbers around. It’s really hard to establish that baseline.

13:41 Ayesha  

I think that’s, I think that’s everything I wanted to ask about. Is there any lingering thoughts you wanted to add?

13:48 Su Ditta  

You know, I think that what COVID-19 has shown all of the board and staff members at EC3 and a lot of the incredible team that we work with in the city, you know, all the sponsors of Arts Awards, and all the sponsors of ArtsWeek is how incredibly valued the arts are in this cit, and how vulnerable the sector is to any kind of disruption in its their annual cycle of hard work to raise money. And finally, just how resilient and creative the sector is, what they’ve been able to do under incredibly, incredibly tight the strict restrictions is just extraordinary.

14:38 Ayesha

That was my conversation with Su Ditta, executive director of the Electric City Culture Council and advocate for the arts. It was recorded last week on Monday. If you’d like to hear the unedited conversation, there is a link in the show notes on our website:

That’s all for today’s episode of the budget week podcast. If you have a question about the budget that you’d like us to answer – email us at

Music in this episode comes courtesy of the Mayhemingways. My name is Ayesha Barmania, and I’ll talk to you later this week. Ciao for now. 


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