The Canada Council Remake - Part 3 - On Excellence

In the summer of 2015 the CEO of the Canada Council for the Arts, Simon Brault, posted to the Council’s blog concerning the major changes to the Council’s funding model which will take place over the next year and a half. In response to a question concerning the continued importance of artistic excellence in the evaluation of projects within the new system, Brault had this to say.

Artistic merit is – and will remain – a vital criterion for Council funding. All applicants must demonstrate that their work is guided by a quest for artistic excellence.i

He continued, however, with this caveat.

Each program will also have other criteria including to encourage the creation and sharing of art, increase the impact of organizations, encourage innovation, foster the renewal of artistic practices, and highlight national and international outreach for artists and organizations.

The rationale for the radical changes to the Council’s funding model, and the increased importance of the non-artistic criteria in evaluation, stems, in part, from changes in the way that the Council views its role within the Canadian society. Though it has been the case for some time, Simon Brault has recently reiterated that both he and the Board of the Council believe that the true clientele of the Canada Council is not Canada’s artistic community. It is the Canadian people.ii

In the past several years, the Council has developed arguments to ascribe to the Canadian artistic community and to artistic activity in general a determinant role in the economic and social health of the nation. In an attempt to quantify the benefits of public arts spending for Canadians, in the spring of 2015, the Council posted on its blog a three-part series of documents , “Art Is Serious Business.” In the postings we learned of the total number of jobs in the Canadian arts sector is 671,000 and the estimated total value of Canadian cultural activities is 50 billion dollars, along with a host of other facts related the arts economy and the effect of the arts in Canadian society.

In addition to this assortment of facts and figures, both the Council’s Board and management have posited a more fundamental role for arts in the health of the nation. In the Council’s 2014 Annual Report, the late Joseph Rotman, then president of the Council’s Board, described the organization’s rationale for the funding of the arts.

Now, in the sixth year of my mandate as Chair, I believe more than ever that the Canada Council, by funding artists and arts organizations across the country, creates the optimal conditions for creativity and innovation to thrive in our society.

That’s why we are working to be a leading national voice for the importance of the arts in our daily lives.iii

This notion that investment in the arts can provide an economic good for society is based in part on the research of Professor Richard Florida who posited a link between a society’s capacity for creativity and its economic strength. Florida, a professor at the the Rotman School of Management in Toronto, believes that there is a quantifiable association between the number of artists, and other “bohemians” residing in a city and its capacity to succeed and prosper in a knowledge-based economy.iv

For Simon Brault, as well, investment in the Canadian non-profit arts sector is the key to imbuing Canadian society as a whole with the capacity to solve its social and economic problems.

Finally, at a time when the world is looking for innovative solutions to complex and interconnected problems, creativity in all sectors, and at all levels, is more important than ever. But creativity needs to be nurtured. I believe that governments have a responsibility to create the conditions for creativity and innovation to thrive. I believe this starts with ensuring a healthy arts sector that touches all Canadiansv.

This goal of using the non-profit arts sector in Canada as the fulcrum and lever, or the cog and the screw, to power and revolutionize the Canadian economy may sound like empty political rhetoric, but artists and arts organizations in Canada would dismiss this new orientation at their peril.

Already, the outlines of the new investments, structures, programs and criteria are taking form in the Canada Council that will shift the focus and the effects of Council programs to assure that over the next generation publicly funded art practice in Canada will serve an increasingly well-defined economic and social purpose. Artistic merit will remain as an important yet diminished evaluation criteria, and an emphasis on innovation, renewal, technological prowess and market development will serve to inextricably bind the public arts in Canada to the yoke of economic and social reproduction.

That is, speaking in general terms, that publicly funded art in Canada will become less an expression of an unregulated expression of Canadian’s capacity to give expression to human suffering as Adorno might put it, and in its stead it will tend to conform to the ideal of a standardized tool whose function is to reproduce things as they are. One imagines an ever more innovative and technologically proficient art practice, one that is in a constant state of renewal and which seeks as wide an impact as possible within the Canadian public.

Though the spectres of the collapse of diversity within the media, the wholesale encroachment of the industrial surveillance state on the formerly private sphere, the blanket commodification of human desire, as well as the more banal fates of once touted services and technological advances like MySpace, Digg, CompuServe, Atari, AOL chat rooms and the venerable and forgotten BBS message boards might spring to mind to give one pause, it is beyond the scope of this posting to tackle the question of why binding Canadian public art practice to the overwhelmingly dominant social ethos might lead to perverse consequences.

As the CCA’s funding system becomes more flexible, and as the modified evaluation criteria are applied within the system, arts organizations which lag behind in a constant technological “evolution,” or which are unwilling or are incapable of developing new practices that attract a significant public, will experience a dramatically increased financial and existential incertitude. Many will disappear.

Such a “rationalization” of organizations within the public art sphere is far from being an unintended consequence of the oncoming administrative reform. On the contrary, a central purpose of the reform is to provide the agency a much greater flexibility to invest in projects it deems to be strategic. In a further post, I will explore the upcoming second stage of the Council reform and how the dismantling of funding to arts organizations may shape its five-year plan from 2017 to 2022.

The next posting will speak about “innovation”, “renewal” and “failure” and what the reformulation of these concepts will mean for small chronically under-funded public arts organizations in Canada.

iiSimon Brault, An inspired future for the arts, Canadian Arts Summit 2015, Speaking notes, April 10, 2015.

iiiJoe Rotman, Annual Report 2013-2014, Canada Council.

ivRichard Florida, Bohemia and Economic Geography, Journal of Economic Geography, 2002.

vSimon Brault, National Arts Service Organizations’ Annual Meeting, Speaking notes. Lord Elgin Hotel, Ottawa, October 19, 2014.

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Known for the performance of his poems, Fortner Anderson has produced a number of audio recordings and books, including six silk purses in 2005, and solitary pleasures in 2011. His CD single,he sings, describing the incarceration of Omar Khadr appeared in 2006. His most recent audio and book publication, annunciations, appeared in 2012. Fortner is the creator and host of the longest-running radio program presenting spoken word in Canada, CKUT's Dromotexte ckut.ca/en/oldgrid/4%2C20%3A00