Use arts scene to attract workers, Ottawa group urges

As a growing number of businesses confront what they perceive as a shortage of skilled workers in Canada’s capital, an association representing the city’s festivals is making the case for companies to value of the impact of the arts on their bottom lines.

The Ottawa Festivals Network has released a new multi-year strategic plan and held a conference in late November aimed at helping local businesses leverage Ottawa’s arts and culture community.

Among the speakers was pollster Nik Nanos, whose research firm recently looked at the value of arts and culture investments in attracting skilled workers to a city’s businesses.

“Traditionalists tend to see arts and culture as a soft investment. We really should be thinking about it as a hard investment,” Mr. Nanos says.

Companies can signal their interest in the arts beyond sponsoring festivals or passing out tickets to the National Arts Centre, he says. Businesses often make it a priority for employees to be able to volunteer or make charitable contributions, but the study indicates that making time for workers to be involved in local arts and culture activities may hold high returns as well.

The study, commissioned by Business for the Arts, found that 65 per cent of skilled workers surveyed feel a thriving arts and culture scene is a driving factor when considering to relocate. An equal proportion of businesses surveyed agreed a city’s arts and culture offerings can help to attract talent.

Yet, there appears to be a disconnect. Only one-quarter of all businesses surveyed say they make annual financial contributions to the arts, while an additional 16 per cent say they do so on an irregular basis.

“I think this is a bit of a missed opportunity for businesses,” says Mr. Nanos.

He says he was surprised to learn that workers in the high-tech knowledge sectors actually tended to be more likely contributors to and consumers of the arts rather than sports and physical activities, an area of attention for many businesses.

The Ottawa Festivals Network is hoping the emphasis on festivals and celebrations to mark Canada’s 150th anniversary next year will help underscore its message.

“It’s a good time to take stock of where we are today and the importance of cultural events going forward,” says Carole Anne Piccinin, executive director of OFN, now in its 20th year. “We really want to build momentum off of (2017), and we really want to avoid any hangover.”

The organization’s new strategic framework is a result of a year’s worth of consultations with OFN staff, stakeholders and the public. It focuses on fostering entrepreneurial mindsets and collaboration within its network.

Last month’s summit also featured a panel including representatives from Shopify and Beau’s Brewery, companies Ms. Piccinin says are examples of local businesses making rewarding investments into Ottawa culture.

She adds that events are a great way for businesses to leverage brands and provide value back to the communities they operate in.

“We’re hoping through that dialogue we’ll inspire others to get engaged,” she says.

Ms. Piccinin says that while she’s happy with the 20-year partnership OFN has with the City of Ottawa, further investment in the festival and event space is in the best interest of both the public and the private sector.

“Would I like to see more support for festivals? Absolutely, because we believe that we have much to contribute, and we do contribute greatly to the economy of our city,” she says.