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 learning.vi

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.

i 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.

v 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.

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 specters 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.

On Consultation

The Canada Council for the Arts announced earlier this year that it would proceed with a comprehensive restructuring of its funding model, the manner by which, in recent years, it has disbursed more than 170 million dollars into the Canadian arts community.

The details of the changes to come are few. We know that all of the 147 current programs of the Council will be eliminated to be replaced by six new generalist programs. Global funding envelopes for each of the disciplines will remain stable. A peer jury system will remain in place, though perhaps with substantial modification. Apart from this, little is known. More details will be forthcoming in November of 2015.

According to the Canada Council, the rationale for these radical changes rests in part on the demand of the artistic community. As the Council’s publication Conversations Towards Change states in large italics, « The constant dialogue with the artistic community is the keystone of the work of the Council. » It is this « rich and constant » communication with the community that is guiding the formulation of the changes.
Continue reading “On Consultation”

On Flexibility

In January of 2015, Simon Brault, the newly appointed director and CEO of the Canada Council for the Arts, announced a radical reform in the way the Council funds artistic practice. Details of the proposed changes remain secret but we know that the new model will reduce the current number of funding programs at the Council from 147 to 6 and will be fully implemented in April of 2017.

One of the key arguments proposed to support the new funding model is the need for increased «flexibility» within the institution.1
Continue reading “On Flexibility”