The Canada Council Remake - Part 4 - On Innovation

In preparation for its upcoming 5 year strategic plan, which will begin in the spring of 2017, the Canada Council for the Arts has implemented a series of fundamental changes in the way it disburses funds into the Canadian artistic community.

One of the significant changes taking place in the run-up to 2017 is a modification of the criteria by which artistic proposals will be judged in the competition for public funding. In the future, though artistic excellence will continue to weigh heavily in any determination of worthiness, projects will also be judged on their quality for innovation, their ability to foster renewal of the discipline, their demonstration of technological prowess and their capacity to reach the Canadian people.

To understand the Council’s understanding of the term innovation, we can refer to the work of Richard Evans, who was the keynote speaker at the Canada Council’s Annual General Meeting in 2012. Evans described the concept of innovation in his influential article, Entering upon Novelty: Policy and Funding Issues for a New Era in the Arts.i For Evans, innovation or adaptive change is not what we might presume. In his speech at the AGM he stated, innovation is not “the kinds of gradual improvement in our current strategies that we’re all used to and that we take for granted in our organizations, but adaptive change which requires us to shift our assumptions and do things in new ways.ii

In his 2010 article, he stated bluntly,

Innovation is not incremental change, nor is it a logical extension of business as usual. Innovations take an organization, or its programs, in a new, previously unpredictable, direction.iii

As Evans describes it, in order to effect such a radical change in its operations an arts organization must confront and then break the comfortable old assumptions that have served it in the past. This is difficult work, because arts organizations have developed numerous tactics to hide the underlying failures within their business models. He feels that these systematic problems cannot not be addressed by simply infusing more money into the system.

Another thing I’ve learned is that funds alone won’t make this kind of adaptation happen. It won’t build the resilience that we’re now looking for. Just putting innovation in the guidelines, which is what a lot of funders in the U.S. are doing, results in very little happening except forcing arts organizations to dress up what they were already going to do to make it look as though it were new, which is really no help to anybody.iv

To incite changes to the institutional culture and structure of arts organizations, to force them to become innovative, Evans believes that organizations must be compelled to move out of the relative security of the status quo. As he proposes, one effective way to force this change would be the elimination or the restriction of multi-year operating funding to arts organizations.

Operating support reinforces the status quo, it provides little incentive for anything other than incremental change and it supports technical fixes to emerging challenges. To assist organizations in remaining competitive and being of lasting public value we’ll need, I think, to find ways to inflect general operating support towards accelerating adaptive change.v

As organizations are enticed or forced to move away from the security of the tried and true, and as they place a greater emphasis on innovation, their risk of failure will increase. But, according to Evans, failure is a desirable outcome in this process.

If we want an innovative culture, we must be prepared to allow things not to work, to embrace the attempt, and to see repeated constructive failure as the place of maximum

When small chronically under-funded arts organizations fail in their innovative projects, they will learn from their experience, but this knowledge will come at a high cost. They will have suffered a setback in terms of their project, with its attendant waste of human and material resources, but more importantly they will also be at a disadvantage in the competition for future funding with other organizations. The ones that didn’t fail. With a limited pot of public funds, why or how could it be justified to fund organizations that attempted failed projects over those that realized successful ones?

But according to Evans, arts organizations embody an even more fundamental problem in the race for innovation, He sees that their very structure and history greatly limit the possibility for change. Many or most are simply not suited for the radical changes to come.

Unfortunately, the way most arts organizations have developed as they have grown makes them better suited for continuity than for divergent change. Few not-or-profits are good at stopping doing things, and many suffer from “legacy” issues that limit the scope for change.vii

The outcome of this multi-pronged incitement to innovation within the not-for-profit arts community, i.e. the restriction of operating funding and the imposition of the need to take on greater risk, will likely be the disappearance of a number of these organizations. Those that try and fail and those that do not sufficiently embrace the change agenda will become less competitive in the struggle for funding. As they lose funding, their capacity will degrade, which will further reduce their ability to compete. Over a period of several years, they will be weeded out of the grant system. Presumably, as these “legacy” structures which impede adaptive change are eliminated, the system will be able to evolve into one that allows similar “innovation” to occur constantly.

Again, this is reduction in the number of arts organizations not an unintended effect of the changes. As we saw in a previous post “On Flexibility”, the elimination of recurrent budget allocations to arts organizations will free substantial amounts of money within the Canada Council budget. These monies can then be used to invest in the Council’s new strategic priorities.

In the next posting, I’ll try to unpack the notion of the surplus production of art in Canada and how it is used to support the rational for change within the Council. Upcoming texts will include some thoughts on the 2017-2022 strategic plan and how it will effect artists and arts communities in Canada.

Richard Evans, Entering upon Novelty: Policy and Funding Issues for a New Era in the Arts.GIA Reader, Vol 21, No 3 (Fall 2010).

ii Richard Evans, Speech, Canada Council for the Arts Annual Public Meeting, Ottawa, October 16, 2012.

iii Richard Evans, Entering upon Novelty: Policy and Funding Issues for a New Era in the Arts. GIA Reader, Vol 21, No 3 (Fall 2010).

iv Richard Evans, Speech, Canada Council for the Arts Annual Public Meeting, Ottawa, October 16, 2012.

Richard Evans, ibid.

vi Richard Evans, Entering upon Novelty: Policy and Funding Issues for a New Era in the Arts. GIA Reader, Vol 21, No 3 (Fall 2010).

vii Richard Evans, ibid.


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