By Invitation

IT’S A FALL Friday, and a dozen people have laid down $150 each to attend a five-course dinner at the Baldwin House on Deer Lake in Burnaby. On hand are a pair of architects—one famous, the other not—and their spouses; writers and general culture vultures; and several people (including the cook) who have an intimate connection to Theatre Conspiracy, the group that invented the Secret Spaces Supper Club.

Each dinner, in a series of fundraisers for Theatre Conspiracy’s shows, takes place in luxurious surroundings; tonight’s is hosted in a modernist gem that Arthur Erickson designed for friends in 1965. The previous one took place in June at the B.C. Binning House in West Vancouver. Both events sold out, and not just thanks to the allure of meeting in precious homes to eat fine food. “We’re trying to be attentive to the notion that arts-going is a social experience,” one organizer explains. “Arts groups too often focus only on the performance aspect.”  

The impolite subject of money does loom over the dinner table, though. The provincial government has recently announced its catastrophic cuts to the arts. In 2008/09, it doled out over $47 million; in 2010/11, the arts will receive a mere $7 million. “These cuts are devastating,” said the NDP’s culture critic Spencer Herbert, “and will throw the future of many organizations in the arts, culture, and heritage sectors into doubt.”

Decimating cultural institutions is not only impolitic; it’s highly impractical. Herbert noted that, according to the government’s own study, for every $1 invested in the arts up to $1.36 is paid back in taxes to the provincial treasury. Every other jurisdiction in Canada (including those with larger deficits than B.C.’s) have either increased or maintained their support for arts and culture.

Some cultural enedeavours can thrive independent of government support, of course. Several of those assembled around the long dinner table at the Baldwin House are capable of funding small arts ventures on their own. (There’s even some glamour in the silverware which, we’re informed, was once used by Mayor Gerald Grattan McGreer, who built City Hall.) The house itself is the only structure sitting on the water’s edge of the Deer Lake parkland and, as such, it calls up the value of private will in the midst of “public interest.”

Dinner is candlelit and consists of scallops and lamb shank and lemongrass gelato. The conversation volleys across several mine fields: the stupidity of our transit system (“Everyone can get to town but nobody can get around town”); the Woodward’s redevelopment (“Smart urban planning, but is the tower actually beautiful?”); the perils of wealth (“It takes away hunger”); alcoholism (“So easy to live with”); Gregor Robertson (“Shockingly good-looking up close”); and the true nature of Eames chairs (“Beautiful, but impossible to relax in”).

As plates are cleared and guests stand around smoking or finishing their wine, Norman Armour, the tall, wide-eyed executive director of the Push International Performing Arts Festival, broaches the topic on everyone’s mind. He had, the day before, hand-delivered a 3,000-word letter of protest to Kevin Krueger, Minister of Tourism, Culture, and the Arts. Armour’s thesis was that, contrary to the government’s attitude, the arts matter to more than artists. “We’ve been thinking we’re just preaching to the converted,” he said. “That the arts is just some little group of people.” He waved at the table where we’d all been sitting. “But that’s bullshit. We are huge. We have to stop thinking of ourselves as niche.”

Still, a select group of private financiers might be what’s called for. American arts institutions, consistently neglected by their governments, have evolved a symbiotic relationship with patrons: the philanthropists pay the rent and, in return, are granted atonement for their advantages. As Canada’s wealth gap broadens, there’s increasingly a need for private giving. If local arts are to survive, perhaps an American model (or something like it) is necessary. The alternative, that governments will restore funding, can be filed under “Fantasy.”

As Douglas Coupland Tweeted three days after the Baldwin House dinner: “You can’t turn the arts off like a switch and plan to turn them on again some day; you can only kill them. You’ll have killed something real.” William Gibson, another writer with some experience thinking about the future, declared, “This is governance guaranteed to rot the fabric of our province’s future.” A moment, surely, when private funders need to step in and support what the government has left for dead. But that’s a lot of Secret Supper Clubs—Theatre Conspiracy has raised $4,000 from this year’s dinners, three percent of its budget.

“Would you look at that!” One of the women dallying at the table goes out onto a patio overlooking the lake. Several follow her to see the sunset wash the sky and water in a deep mauve. As soon as the light fails, the air grows intolerably cold; everyone retreats into the home and makes their excuses.