With a full third of the theatre blocked off for press and the candidates staffers, Cinema 1, the largest in Bell Lightbox, has never felt smaller. As this seemingly interminable municipal election cycle enters its final throes, ArtsVote's debate between the three front-runners in the race, as well as 'fringe' candidates Morgan Baskin and Ari Goldkind, manages to draw enough people to fill both Cinema 1 as well as Cinema 2, where the debate will be simulcast.Damian Abraham isn't your typical moderator. As the lead singer of hardcore band Fucked Up and the most recent and sadly, the final host of Muchmusic's recently-cancelled rock/indie show The Wedge, Steve Paikin he ain't. Genial and self-deprecating while maintaining a steady focus on the issue at hand, even as Chow and Goldkind attempt to slyly steer the debate towards transit, Abraham deftly keeps control over his charges.
The stated topics are four-fold; the role of a mayor as an arts and culture champion on Council, the creation and maintenance of affordable, accessible arts spaces, sustainable arts funding year-over-year rather than short-term, unreliable injections, and the fostering of committed partners in culture both inside and outside of downtown. There are also some pre-selected questions, some of which are read out by 'all-stars' from the arts community, like Katie Stelmanis from the band Austra and Piers Handling, the programmer and CEO/director of TIFF. No questions from the audience at all.
As a format it's a little rigid and doesn't leave much room for the candidates to banter back and forth. While this means a lot less bickering, it also seems to result in candidates repeating themselves often, and lots of statements go unchallenged. Morgan Baskin, who was the strongest and most sincere candidate on display here, unleashed one of only two major barbs in the debate, pointing out that Doug Ford has voted against most of the arts funding-related motions that have crossed his desk. He laughs this off. We move on.
Ari Goldkind has a lot of thoughtful points and is easily the most animated of the candidates, but a lot of his energy and time is spent exchanging with Abraham and, as mentioned, tried on at least two occasions (unsuccessfully) to bring up transit in an accessibility context and to put a green deck on top of the Gardiner. Both are ideas I'd personally support but are misplaced in a debate about the arts. That said, his position is otherwise fairly clear: the government has a role in arts-related policy but it should take the lead from the community and profit shouldn't be the only consideration. This, of course, plays very well with the crowd.
Baskin is the most thoughtful and passionate candidate at this debate. Possibly the biggest takeaway from her answers and statements is that she feels that art should be injected into the small places, and be considered in all or at least most of the design decisions within the city. She also hammers Doug's constant (and it is constant) references to the Austin City Limits Festival that he, Mayor Rob, Gary Crawford, and Michael Thompson attended last year. Her contention is that Toronto should be crafting its own cultural identity rather than lifting it from Austin, which is a great line and hit home for a lot of the audience — many of whom were, of course, local cultural creators and curators.
Doug Ford is uncharacteristically subdued, and has clearly been coached for this outing. He relies heavily on two points: the aforementioned trip to Austin City Limits with his brother and several councillors, and a mural he worked on with some local kids. The latter is talked about when Ford is asked about his 'most transformative experience with art' and while that answer is pandering and thin, it's better than anyone can expect from Doug at this point. The bar, folks, is pretty low.
John Tory and Olivia Chow both come out, naturally, as strong supporters of the arts and culture, and both provide specific ways in which funds can be allocated to these areas. There's not a ton of disagreement on these points and both advocate for stable, year-over-year funding and attainable, realistic targets. Tory has a neat-sounding idea about beautifying vacant storefronts and turning them into arts spaces. Chow calls on her experience with Artscape as well as promoting the awesome Remix Project.
And then there's the part you've already heard about. It plays out like the climax of Stephen King's prom-com gone wrong, Carrie. The bucket of blood teeters above Carrie's head, and there's a minute before it drops where you can't look away. Olivia Chow starts talking about her personal experience as an artist, and you think "hey, that's great, that’s the one thing she brings to the table here that no one else does."
Then the bucket drops.
Chow reaches into a folder and extracts a crude rendering of Tory's admittedly-flawed transit plan. The crowd groans. That other sound you hear? The faint hiss? That's Chow's campaign deflating a little bit. She is, sadly, a candidate in desperation mode and clearly throwing anything at the wall she thinks will stick. As someone who walked into Cinema 1 with Chow as my first choice, it's more than a little disappointing. Chow's latest poll numbers — keeping in mind that we're still a month away from the election itself — seem to reflect a downward trend that this progressive finds disheartening.
However, Chow's jab at Smarttrack is a valid point and should be the central issue for this campaign. We have seen how the ill-thought-out haphazard election year transit plan can leave us in stasis we can't afford, and throwing money down a hole created by yet another scheme will necessarily take needed funds from things like the arts. However, this was a mistimed stunt that shows a complete misreading of the crowd in attendance.
On a more positive note, Baskin emerged from this debate as — while not a front-runner in this particular election cycle — someone who should definitely be watched in the next few years, as a spot on Council and possibly the mayor's office is likely in the cards. She's articulate, extremely knowledgeable, and tremendously confident. If Baskin is the future of City Council and municipal politics, well, I think we'll be okay, Toronto.