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The Debate about Arts and Culture: Part 2

February 2010

When I saw a movie called Blade Runner in 1982, I felt my first real empathetic pang of what death could feel like. The movie had violence, eroticism and very cool special effects, and maybe that’s what caused the death-implication imprint on me that Midnight Cowboy, Vanishing Point and Silent Running (all equally profound statements on dying) didn’t have. It’s almost impossible

Alison Lapper in Trafalgar Square: does it resonate?

to predict what kind of sensory images will go deep into the bone, and that’s the problem facing creative expression in Canada today. It’s not a genetic issue; we remain hardwired to be moved by some statement or other, but it’s not happening enough. Too much choice, too much anxiety, too little time; there are so many reasons, and they’re all making us a rattled and therefore poorer society. This is the main discussion among people who not only have a vested interest in widespread appreciation of creative expression (all the arts) but also feel that without the intrinsic lubrication of that expression, we’re all going to hell in a handbasket. Some of these people are trying to change things. One is Paul Dewar, Member of Parliament for central Ottawa. Others in the private sector are taking risks to stay out of the handbasket. But this is, after all, Canada, and Dewar has some leverage with policy makers, and policy is still how this relatively un-entrepreneurial country gets stuff done. In October he started a parliamentary arts caucus, which is a lobbying body, and in January produced a report called Arts and Minds to spur the direction he feels we need to go if arts are to protect themselves from being trivialized in our economy. The report, of course, starts with statistics from the Conference Board of Canada’s study of how vital arts are to the marketplace. It also offers ideas of how change can happen, rather than calling for more studies. This is new; this is good; this could work. The report looks at three main ideas: primarily, arts needs to be rebranded to help people become reacquainted with its role in a happy life. Secondly, change will take command and control mechanisms, like tax incentives, by the government. But the vital point is that arts need to be in greater demand, just like any product vying for shelf space in a store.

Rebranding. That means relaunching an old product in a new market and changing the metrics of what we value. That’s a tough one.

Tax policy is easy to change: things like incentives and write-offs for consuming creative products – for every Canadian, not just Canada Inc. as it works now; income averaging and higher tax thresholds for those in the sector; and pensions for those who spend their careers creating and, as yet, have been unable to contribute to public pension plans. All are immediately possible. Dewar says he will have them included in an upcoming federal budget, after the one currently tabled.

Increased demand is where the fun begins because with the way things are going now, any new idea in action is bound to have positive effects. There is little a government can do to require that the public consume creativity; supply and demand is, after all, the nucleus of our democratic lives. Dewar’s crowd may be able to reframe, and re-fund, arts in education, and it can help create a new vision of arts and culture in this country. But the immediate downside is this probably means using large, publically funded organizations like arts councils, which all-too-often seem fearful of raising their voices for change to protect their own shrinking income. One painful example is Canadian Heritage, which didn’t ruffle a feather when the current government announced it was cancelling the department’s Canadian Magazine Fund grants for all arts-and-culture magazines with a circulation less than 5,000 copies. Those publications represent about 75% of all Canadian arts-and-culture media, although not necessarily readership. Considering Chatelaine magazine received $2.7 million in 2009, according to the Globe and Mail,  from the CMF, that represents about 135 magazines with free, bi-monthly circulation of 1,000. That means a small arts publication for every urban centre over 11,000 people in this country. This is not a guess because for the past two years I have published such a magazine for an annual overhead (not including salary) of one one-hundred-and-thirty-fifth of the Chatelaine grant. Think what 135 new arts magazines would do for creative appreciation in this country.

No, changing arts in Canada is not going to come through a trickle-down effect. It will only come through new ideas, new leaders and far more artists willing to be involved with these ideas and

Needed: strange bedfellows

 leaders. Some possibilities could include:

–          New venues, but not expensive, dedicated cathedrals, rather space like unused community centre rooms or alternative venues like Hintonburg’s Carleton and Elmdale taverns, which have already hosted the area’s Chamber Theatre.

–          New partnerships and collaborations, like a classical music ensemble and artengine’s creative technology people; or the Coalition of New Canadians for Arts and Culture’s music-mentor program with corporate-office decorators; or sculptors and recyclers.

–          Polls about what arts Canadians actually want. A study by the James Irvine Foundation in California this past summer found that of 6,000 people questioned, one-third would like to take dance lessons. Rather than question people about the importance of art, find out what they want to consume and then fund its availability.

New paths will require seed money from public agencies, but that’s just a start. You can tell people arts are important, yet until they feel it deep in their bones, arts will remain a highly discretionary part of the culture. Any significant change to resize creativity into our current market means the private sector has to see a way to make money from it. Doesn’t need to be big money, especially if corporations get tax incentives that will make them stakeholders. That may sound cold – putting arts into the same bin with toys – but arts and business are natural allies because they desperately need each other for future survival.  No one is better than large companies at selling. After all, successful branding is simply about making people believe their lives are fuller with a certain product than without. Why can’t part of that product be creativity?

One Comment »

  • miklev said:

    I agree that the “arts brand” needs to be embraced better by the average Canadian. However, how will that happen? Maybe by looking around the world “to see where arts is working” but we really have some sterling examples right here in Canada.

    Interestingly, many of these are in Quebec, where few residents would support the notion that there could be “too many artists”. As an example, there are low-cost home mortgages available only to cultural workers in one Quebec City arts neighbourhood. This provides some much-needed stability for professional artists. And, yes, this also involved government funding at the outset.

    But why is there such an appetite in Quebec for home-grown talent? Is it the combination of innovative and sympathetic government funding, pride, perhaps even a measure of isolation? Has that helped build a “brand equity” that is so hard to promote in other parts of Canada? (In that light, it might be interesting to compare the cultural communities on both sides of the Ottawa River.)

    All in all, I would say that we don’t necessarily need more funding — at least not right now in these difficult times — but we do need to look at how existing funding is distributed and how we can most effectively use our limited budgets. So, good for Paul Dewar! His committee just might make a real difference in the way we think about culture.

    Whatever the outcome, there’s a very real possibility of establishing, in high government circles, a clearer understanding of the contribution of the arts to the Canadian identity and of exploring better models for cultural support in a country that relies more and more upon its intellectual capital.

    Charles Reynolds

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