Toronto has been buzzing about a rift between the Chalmers Family, one of the most charitable in Canadian patronage, and the Ontario Arts Council, a provincial funding agency, providing grant and award money to fund arts in Ontario, primarily performing arts. They're also namesakes of the annual Chalmers Awards.
The Ontario Arts Council Foundation which manages the money, as among its $12.5 million in assets, $11 million of which was donated by the Chalmers family.
Now, daughter Joan Chalmers and her sister-in-law Clarice Chalmers have announced they want nothing more to do with the "OAC" because it has betrayed their goals and become too bureaucratic."
There is some concern the arts bureaucracy is "top-heavy." Executive Director Gwen Setterfield is reported to be earning $110,000 a year, a mammoth figure when theatre artists average below $10,000.
In a May 8, 1996 letter, to Paul Hoffert, Chair of the Ontario Arts Council, from the Chalmers family stated: "Our desire to fund the arts and artists will, as always, continue. But we will never again entrust our money to the whim and fancy of bureaucrats and appointed boards. "Ontario Premier Mike Harris has been quoted as mentioning the OAC, stating the party was concerned that money from both government and charitable sources should go directly to artists and not be swallowed up by the bureaucracy of administration.
"We specifically mentioned the OAC as a body that ought to be looked at. Clearly it just isn't the government that thinks that. It's a lot of people donating money too."
The Ontario Arts Council has had its provincial budget cut by 28 percent. They have reduced their annual costs by 34 percent, eliminating nearly half the staff. In 1997, the OAC administration costs will be 14.5 percent of its budget, or $4.5 million out of $31.2 million.
Members of the Chalmers family did not attend the 1996 awards ceremony, and the announcement came after the OAC was attempting damage control to charges by Ontario Culture Minister Marilyn Mushinski, who claims its administrative costs have not been reduced enough.
Among recent concerns voiced by Barbra Amesbury, who is Joan Chalmers' partner and representative, is more direct control over how the funds are spent and managed. Another concern is what happens if the government agency disappears.
The late Floyd and Jean Chalmers began their involvement in the arts in 1935, when Floyd became Chair of the Finance Committee of the Conservatory of Music. Jean organized the Opera and Concert Committee. Later, Jean, Floyd and their daughter Joan helped to found organizations including the Royal Conservatory of Music, The Canadian Opera Company, the Stratford Festival, Young People's Theatre, the Canadian Crafts Council and the Ontario Crafts Council. Wallace Chalmers, Floyd and Jean's son along with his wife Clarice, established awards for industrial design and for women studying engineering at the University of Toronto.
Floyd S. Chalmers was instrumental in establishing the Ontario Arts Council. Founded entirely through the private philanthropy of the Chalmers family, the Chalmers Awards are the most generous and comprehensive awards program for the arts in Canada, including 16 awards for the country's leaders in dance, theatre, crafts, visual arts, music and film and video documentaries.
For the past 24 years, the Chalmers family has been supporting artists through the agency foundation. Their support is paralleled by a passionate personal commitment. Joan continues on her parents tradition of outspoken advocacy for the arts, sitting on boards of the Glenn Gould Foundation and Toronto's Harbourfront Centre. She is an officer of the Order of Canada, a member of the Order of Ontario, the first Canadian recipient of the Fondation d'Entreprise Montblanc de la Culture award for arts patronage.
The Chalmers family is largely responsible for the international reputation Toronto and Canada has in the theatre community, stemming from the early firm foundation they have provided.
Since 1973, more than $5 million has been provided to 700 Ontario artists. In 1997, the awards will be worth more than $500,000.
In February 1995, Joan Chalmers and Barbra Amesbury wanted to pull a half million dollar art exhibition from the Royal Ontario Museum. They had created the show called "Survivors, In Search of a Voice: The Art of Courage" where two dozen female artists had a mandate with funding to create art about breast cancer. This rift resulted in a disagreement about catering, fund raising and museum security; however these issues were resolved as the ROM compromised. The exhibition is currently touring North America raising public awareness of breast cancer and raising funds to fight the disease. The problems between Chalmers/Amesbury and the Ontario Arts Council may not be so easy to fix.
Barbra Amesbury stated: "Hoffert (Paul Hoffert, Chair of the OAC) is now saying public funds have to be administered at arms' length but philanthropists can participate in decisions about private funds. He's saying the right things, but it's years too late. One of the things we'll be looking at is board representation. If you bought 25 percent of General Motors shares, for example, you'd get seats on the board. Maybe it's time for the OAC to do something like that"
A recent press release from the Ontario Arts Council said Paul Hoffert indicated the announcement was a total surprise after a 24 year relationship. "We were in contact with Joan Chalmers two weeks ago about the details of this week's Chalmers Awards celebration and she mentioned none of these concerns at that time. Council and foundation representatives will continue to seek a meeting with Joan Chalmers and I sincerely hope she will reconsider her decision. In any case, the announcement will not affect the existing Chalmers Awards and grant programs. They will continue to be administered by the OAC and presented according to the terms of the trust."
One cannot imagine what long term effect this atmosphere may have on private support of the arts in Canada, if other benevolent citizens decide to withhold funds. Does the Ontario Arts Council stand on shaky ground? The Theatre News will be meeting with Paul Hoffert of the Ontario Arts Council as details of the situation continue to unfold.