Culture wars start with this kind of question: if museums, opera houses and symphony halls all receive public funding because of their social value, shouldn’t hockey arenas and football stadiums benefit as well?
It can be difficult, days after the cheesy excesses of the Super Bowl, to view professional sports franchises as noble and needy cultural institutions. But it’s a key part of campaigns to launch new sports venues across the country to leverage government funds – money initially intended for large-scale community projects, not facilities used by professional teams across the country. profit.
Take plans for Quebec’s new $ 400 million amphitheater, which will be announced Thursday. The building may look like a hockey arena designed to attract an NHL team to the home of the long-gone Nordiques, but for fundraising purposes, according to Quebec City Mayor Régis Labeaume, it is actually a “multifunctional” entertainment center: an amphitheater where pro hockey will take its place in the social hierarchy alongside concerts, Quebec galas and Olympic-style wellness events.
The notion of public good will always be difficult to define in a capitalist democracy, especially at the cultural level: is the idea to make people better citizens or to give them what they want? Should we aim for the Parthenon-style building and theater festivals of the Athenians or give in to the gleefully foolish bread and circus entertainment of the Roman emperors?
But there is a new wrinkle in the argument for subsidizing sports facilities: that choice no longer needs to be positioned as elitist versus populist. Even big budget sporting events, as the Vancouver Olympics showed, can help achieve the goals of both.
“There are a lot of people who go to theater, opera and ballet who also go to sporting events,” says Bruce Kidd, professor of physical education at the University of Toronto, who launched an artists’ coalition. -athletes. to stop the sniping from both sides ”over three decades ago. “In terms of expression, both activities are very dramatic and very moving, and both pull us out of ourselves in very memorable ways.”
Quebec is just one of the many Canadian cities that are pushing for new sports facilities conducive to the creation of these heightened feelings. Edmonton has also made plans for a state-of-the-art hockey arena, and Calgary wants to replace its aging Saddledome. Hamilton and Regina both need new CFL stadiums – Regina’s proposed $ 430 million dome will have a retractable roof if all goes according to plan.
“I truly believe there is a public good to this, as is the arts and culture,” said Ken Cheveldayoff, the Saskatchewan cabinet minister responsible for advancing the very own “multi-purpose entertainment facility.” of the province. He describes it as “improving the quality of life in the province”.
Turning professional sport into a cultural product can sound like a fundraising fallacy, a neat way to persuade governments to subsidize professional franchises in the same way they support other cultural institutions. But to be cynical about the civic role of sport is to miss the transformation underway in Canadian society: patriotic pride does not distinguish between the different modes of excellence, and sport, with its greater visibility, can in fact inspire, not compete with, the arts.
Stuart Reid discovered the social power of sport when he became general manager of the MacKenzie Art Gallery in Regina: his staff gave him a green Roughriders jersey shortly after his arrival. “Each season is exciting; there is wonderful madness here, ”he says. “One of our goals is to be part of a creative city that has a fervent pride in the arts. And I think the kind of pride that is shown around the football team is something we would like to see in the world of culture. “
The stereotypical conflict between sportsmen and artists does not play out in Regina – when the Riders celebrated their centenary, they commissioned art projects which were unveiled at the MacKenzie. A similar connection took place at the Vancouver Olympics, where Toronto poet Priscila Uppal wrote well-received daily poems about Canadian athletes. “I don’t think sport is opposed to the arts,” she said. “I think the two communities should come a lot closer together and find creative ways to create sports spaces that are also great cultural centers. “
This is the kind of argument used by stadium and arena lobbyists who can only get federal funds if they can demonstrate broader community benefits. But it is also proof that the division of the two solitudes between the athletic and creative classes has become obsolete, even though many commentators such as Don Cherry still play on the differences.
A new study on Canadian performing arts spending by Hill Strategies Research confirms a fusion of sports and the arts. “A lot of people who spend money on the performing arts spend money on sports – people who go out and do things are clearly doing a series of things,” says analyst Kelly Hill. “The arts provide the social benefits of belonging and pride, and I’m pretty sure these are the benefits of sport, too.”
Community passion is not new or special in our sport-obsessed society: Democratic leaders in ancient Athens, according to Mark Golden, a classical historian at the University of Winnipeg, saw no problem in subscribing to public festivals that celebrated the achievements of athletes and artists. side by side.
“The people of Athens invested a lot of money in their public festivals, as much as they spent to run their democracy. Some intellectuals naturally thought that sports performances did not contribute much to the city, but generally everyone was a big fan of these competitions. “
There was no taxpayer lobby in Athens to complain that governments shouldn’t fund elite equestrian competitions or pay for dramatic festivals featuring high-tech plays like Sophocles. But money was not the point at the time – these gatherings were more about the bonding experiences that sports and art offer.
As CEO of the Canadian Museum of Civilization, one would expect Victor Rabinovitch to resist the civilizing claims of sports stadium promoters. Instead, he welcomes the chance to work together in search of that nebulous thing, the public good.
“We try not to see professional sporting and cultural events as being in opposition. What is important is that people get out of their sofas, get out of their homes and go to a place where they share an experience in Sport has that strong element of creating solidarity – if you have a high quality place that brings people together, it becomes a way for a community to feel vibrant and alive. “