Photo by the author
Yesterday, Damian Abraham of Fucked Up fame (and our Canadian Cannabis series) moderated a mayoral debate hosted by ArtsVote at the TIFF Lightbox in Toronto. As we approach the one-year anniversary of Rob Ford admitting he smoked crack—and look back on Toronto’s year of police surveillance, professional wrestlers and boxers visiting City Hall, FordFests, and sudden medical emergencies—the inclusion of Canada’s favorite screaming frontman moderating a debate seemed just about right.
That said, compared to last week’s debate, during which candidate Olivia Chow was told to “go back to China” by a heckler and a Ford supporter shouted homophobic things, the ArtsVote debate was remarkably civil. Abraham began by warning the crowd that homophobia and racism would not be tolerated (it’s a shame that this warning needs to be issued, in 2014 Toronto) and the candidates began to trip over each other to answer questions about the future of arts funding in Toronto.
Joining the regular trio of Doug Ford, Chow, and John Tory were Morgan Baskin, the “teen candidate,” who at 19 has already developed an impressive amount of political acumen, and Ari Goldkind, a famous defense lawyer who, in a profile published by the Toronto Star called “Meet the Longshots,” told the paper, “People think that my job is getting somebody off. It’s not. It’s making sure we dot I’s and cross T’s.”
During the debate, the candidates naturally did their best to sell their connections to the art world, some more than others. Goldkind’s performance was strong, and he was quick to take on Tory and Ford. He called Tory the “king of maybe” and challenged Ford, who often mentions the economic benefits of the arts, by saying, “You can’t legitimize the arts by saying it makes a profit.” When asked about his most transformative arts experience in the city, however, he mentioned the one time he had dinner at O.Noir, the restaurant where all the servers are blind.
Nice try, Ari.
Chow is arguably the candidate most connected to artists and creative projects across the city. She namedropped the Remix Project—an academy and nonprofit for youth in low-income areas to study music, photography, and business—multiple times. She also made sure to mention other successful creative projects, like the ArtSpace renovation of an old school on Shaw Street that has provided studio space for artists. But she often got bogged down with dreamy philosophy about how art can help business, and how important creativity is for a city, repeating such ethereal phrases as, “Creativity allows us to see the world in a different way.”
Hearing Tory speak about the arts was, unsurprisingly, like listening to your Conservative uncle tell you about his favorite painting. He was nearly incapable of answering a question about his “most transformative art experience,” beginning with a ramble about how impressive one-man plays are (without specifically naming one) before ending on a general answer: Nuit Blanche. Tory also referred to Queen Street West as the “second coolest neighborhood in the world,” though he probably hasn’t set foot it it since the 1980s.
Doug Ford’s performance, in contrast to his last debate, was surprisingly subdued. Goldkind cracked that he must have had a tea before the debate, and it’s clear that he’s been coached to calm the fuck down. Given that Ford doesn’t have much of an arts record, he focused on two key things: his trip to Austin with his brother to plan a “music city” initiative in Toronto, and the arts gala he and his brother organized (the division of labor is unclear), which raised a million bucks.
Doug committed to keeping that fundraiser going, which is great, but his attempt to paint himself as an arts advocate fell to pieces when he continuously referenced his goal to “bring a world-class music festival” to Toronto. He cited SXSW and Austin City Limits as world-class music festivals (though he's never been to SXSW) and called North by Northeast (NXNE) Michael Hollett, a vocal critic of the Fords, a “friend” of his.
The problem with this is that NXNE is, by all accounts, already a world-class music festival. (Full disclosure: I'm a member of the festival's advisory board.) Its lineup is often quite similar to the lineups you’ll find at other marquee music festivals across North America, even though, as any concert promoter in Toronto knows, there are various municipal blockades in place when it comes to booking off-kilter venues or holding electronic music events. (As Chow said: “We need to make sure we're not afraid of [EDM].")
Doug also mentioned the City Hall music office, which is a Ford initiative that was never followed through on. He constantly referred to it, as if it’s some great success, when in reality it never opened. Unfortunately, none of the candidates called him out on that.
The most impressive debater was Morgan Baskin, who is obviously a serious long shot in the race, but who is already demonstrating she’s willing to go toe-to-toe with the other candidates. She was the only candidate who, when asked about whether Toronto needs an official "creative director," made mention of actually attending the public meeting about having such a position. And she was not afraid to mention the Fords’ reluctance to vote for arts initiatives (though, to be fair, Rob voted against TIFF funding and Doug did not).
Photo of Olivia Chow via Twitter user graphicmatt.
Ultimately, the more conservative candidates (Doug and Tory) made the mistake of acting as if their future initiatives would suddenly make Toronto a world-class city for the arts. Tory said that he would take the Toronto arts from “good to great,” when the reality is that the city is already full of talent. What’s needed is more funding, fewer roadblocks, and more affordable space for artists to live and work. That’s where the government comes in—and clearly, most candidates have no idea what’s actually happening in the city's arts scene.
Unfortunately, the debate ended in embarrassing fashion, as Chow declared that she was going to share some original art of her own with the crowd. She then held up a crude drawing of John Tory’s transit plan, which elicited a sea of groans in the crowd. Abraham, who was there to keep the candidates on the topic of the arts, threw his hands up in frustration. And Tory, as if to say, Now now, just let her prattle on, advised Abraham to just let her continue.
It was a sad display from a woman who, earlier in the debate, had said, “We can’t play politics with the arts.”
If this is the kind of maturity that our mayoral hopefuls are bringing to the table, the Toronto arts community shouldn’t be holding their breath for a windfall of municipal support any time soon.
Follow Patrick McGuire on Twitter.