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.
As Conversations Towards Change describes, from 2102 to 2015 the Council conducted a series of formal consultations with the artistic disciplines that it serves. For each, the Council made substantial efforts to assure a participation of members of the community from across the country and from a wide variety of organizations and individual artists. For example, in October 2013, the consultation of the relatively small Bureau of Inter-Arts involved meetings in six regions of Canada with over 300 participants. Similar or greater efforts were made in the domains of literature, dance, theatre and aboriginal arts.
Two of the consultation documents are publicly available, the aptly titled What We Heard, the publication of the Inter-Arts consultation, and Art, Future, Change the published result of the consultation within the Visual Arts community.
Rather than provide a traditional consultation process where participants might comment directly on possible changes to Council structures and programs, the Council sought through the workshops, small group discussions and face-to-face-meetings to gain a sense of the « core purpose” of the institution.i
The summaries of these consultations contain dozens of suggestions and proposals by artists and arts administrators for improving the services and impact of Canada Council investments. These run a gamut from the creation and promotion of art education programs, the pooling of digital resources to the creation of new tax credits to stimulate private sector investments. Amongst dozens of propositions for a « Exploring a Future Ecosystem, » participants in the Visual Arts workshops envisioned a future where artists would receive a living wage, where they would have space to work and the opportunity to engage with other artists from across the country.ii
Throughout the discussions, the Council never evoked the possibility of the elimination of the 147 programs of the Council and their replacement by six generalist programs like « Engage and Sustain.» Nonetheless, the Council distilled from these consultations the certitude that the artistic community supported the radical changes to come.iii
In April of 2015, Simon Brault, head of the Council reiterated that the artistic community supported the need for change.
Earlier I mentioned that the response to our planned changes have been very positive to date. It’s clear that the arts community understands the need for change and applauds our determination to make it happen on our own terms.iv
Again, it is difficult to see how the Canadian artistic community could be said to support changes, the details of which have yet to be announced.
In the same speech, Simon Brault acknowledged that concerns of the artistic community must be addressed. But he is careful to make clear that any concerns or objections to the changes must not be allowed to become an obstacle to the Council’s momentum of change and the eventual implementation of those changes.
And while I believe that we must deal with concerns head on and with honesty, we should not let them consume our energy and focus. To maintain momentum, it’s important to give as much or more attention to the expressions of expectations and hope.
By insisting that concerns of the community should not block or disrupt the implementation of the proposed changes, and by denying the community access to the information needed to comment meaningfully on the proposed changes, the Council has effectively abandoned good-faith efforts of collaboration and dialogue. Further, it has conflated a general support for change within the milieu, evidenced by the dozens of proposals found in the published consultations, with a dubious claim of support for unannounced changes that will be implemented in the coming months.
In the place of a productive dialogue based upon mutual trust, between partners who share the same interests and goals, the relationship between the federal institution and the Canadian artistic community is currently one of diktat. The Council will impose of what it has determined to be necessary change regardless the intentions, the interventions or the objections of the artistic community.
In the coming months and years, the reconstructed ideals of « flexibility, » « access, » and « excellence, » like that of « consultation, »will take on wholly new and unfamiliar meanings. Their imposition will guide the construction of a new paradigm within the Canadian arts community, one that will sweep away one artistic order to install another.
The next text which will appear on Monday, November 9 will concern the reformulation of the ideal of “excellence” and how its transformation within the mandate of the Council is intended to dramatically reform the non-profit arts sector.
i. Canada Council for the Arts. ART. FUTURE.CHANGE. Investigating the dimensions of change in the Visual Arts in Canada. Ottawa : CCA, 2015.
iii. Canada Council for the Arts. Conversations Towards Change. Ottawa : CCA, 2015.
iv. Brault, Simon. «An Inspired Future for the Arts.» Canadian Arts Summit 2015. April 10, 2015. Keynote address.