Subterranean Homesick Blues (Nov/Dec 1988)

Hard Times for the Funnel
by Mark Rogers
Fuse Magazine

Lurching from controversy to crisis, the Funnel – Toronto’s experimental film co-operative – has been forced to close down its Soho St. location. Volunteers who had labored over the renovations for a year were obliged to tear down the theatre they had built. The space was vacated in July and the equipment moved to the basement of Funnel director Gary McLaren.

Early statements by Funnel board member Pascal Sharp alluded to an increased tax assessment as a central factor in the board’s decision to give up the space. However, there are indications that even without such an increase, the co-op was in over its head. A dwindling, over-worked membership, already saddled with the high overhead costs associated with prime Toronto real estate, was dealt a crippling blow when two arts funding agencies failed to commit monies.

The Funnel outgrew its spawning ground at the Centre for Experimental Art and Communication on Duncan St. in the last ‘70s and moved into 507 King St. East. First listed in Parallelogramme in July 1980, the Funnel billed itself as “primarily a theatre for the exhibition of experimental film.” The 2200-square-foot space on King St. included a 100-seat theatre, a gallery, editing room, darkroom, offices and a library.

During the seven years on King St., Funnel staff and members sustained an intensive and varied programming schedule, screenings films twice weekly. Under pressure to do more programming in order to get additional funding, staff and membership invested enormous amounts of time and energy. Longtime staff person, former member and past director Anna Gronau characterized the achievements of the co-op during this period as nothing short of “amazing.” Eventually, the Funnel outgrew its King St. location. It was found to be somewhat out of the way for its clientele and was short on space for production and workshops. So the Funnel moved to 11 Soho St. in the heart of Toronto’s Queen St. strip in the fall of 1987 and began to renovate the 5010-square-foot space. Founding member Ross McLaren describes the Funnel’s ambitious plans for the Soho St. facility as an “heroic effort that resulted in tragic implosion.”

Renovation costs were absorbed by the operating budget in the belief that a federal Department of Communications (DOC) capital grant would be forthcoming. But Funnel sources claim that a bureaucratic gaffe at the DOC (Funnel claims the application was lost – a charge denied by the DOC) resulted in a long delay before the grant application was considered. The result was that the application became a request for a retroactive capital grant. The DOC does not award retroactive capital grants. The effect of this bureaucratic misadventure snowballed when a previously approved Community Facilities Improvement Program (CFIP) grant fell through. Sources at CFIP claim that the application was withdrawn.

As unforeseen costs mounted at the Soho St. location, and without the grant money, it became apparent to the Funnel board of directors that they simply could not afford the space. Board member Mikki Fontana allows that they had been “naïve in dealing with the building management people. The board is comprised of artists and filmmakers who didn’t have business experience.”

As the dust settles, some members of the experimental film community express frustration over the fact that the labour of so many artists had been wasted in a failing proposition. The months leading up to the final collapse had been trying for all involved. The stress of renovations had a negative impact on the Funnel’s ability to operate smoothly; equipment access was occasionally curtailed and the publicity for shows became haphazard. As well, support for the Funnel waned in the face of the demands it made on volunteer labour and the perception that the board had become hidebound.

Longtime member Jim Anderson attributes some of the Funnel problems to a “matter of bad image” and suggests that they had to “break down the idea that the Funnel was controlled by all the same people.” This perception was furthered in no small measure as a result of the 1986 annual general meeting. Some of the membership brought forward a motion to extend voting rights to the associate membership. Such a move, these artists argued, would increase the support base of the Funnel and encourage broader political involvement. The motion received one vote less the necessary two-thirds majority and was defeated.

The vote against the motion was seen as stemming from a fear that the Funnel would fall victim to the problems encountered some years earlier by the Toronto Filmmaker’s Cooperative. This scenario saw the Funnel being subverted by more mainstream filmmakers insensitive to the aims and structure of the Funnel. The voting structure of the Funnel was designed to prevent such an occurrence.

Those who sought to change the structure felt that the Funnel was well enough established and that it could reach out to the community with assurance because its aims were well known. In any case, when the motion was defeated, an already small community was further divided. Those who remained became overworked and the ones who left felt their interests were no longer being served.

Still, the aims of the Funnel continue to receive broad support. “The original concept of the Funnel is very important,” says John Porter, author of the motion to expand voting rights. “It tried to supply all the services needed by experimental filmmakers.” In this respect the Funnel was unique in Toronto. Whether or not the Funnel will be able to continue to provide production, distribution and exhibition facilities in the future seems doubtful. As it stands, space for exhibition is not a priority in the Funnel’s plans to relocate. More importantly, it must be wondered whether sufficient members of the experimental film community will support a new endeavor.