In May, I attended the PACT (Professional Association of Canadian Theatres) conference in Calgary. Over the course of one of our lunch breaks, we were invited to an information session presented by the Canada Council (Theatre Section) on a new program called New Chapter. I invite you to visit the Council’s website to find out more. (http://canadacouncil.ca/council/grants/new-chapter).
The response in the room (where sat about 150 members of the theatre community from coast to coast to coast) was not what one would expect, given the fact that this is new money, money in addition to what we normally have access to. The response was anywhere from cool to negative, certainly not excited. I too struggled between feelings of confusion and anger, but I couldn‘t find a way to articulate how I was feeling and why.
Below is an article written by Kim Selody, currently the Artistic Director of Presentation House Theatre and who was a Canada Council Program Officer in the Theatre Section from 2006 to 2011. Kim has managed to capture my thoughts and feelings about this new program. I thank him for it and share it with you today.
A NEW CHAPTER AT THE CANADA COUNCIL, IS IT NEW?
Senior Management and the Board of the Canada Council must be feeling very proud of accomplishing the greatest increase in funding to a government institution in the history of the country. Recently, they announced its plans for the first wave of additional funds infused to them by the new government. Artists and Arts Organizations have been anticipating this announcement since the election in the fall. You would think with this first 20% increase in funding for next fiscal year ($40 million dollars) that artists would be jumping for joy. Instead, most of my peers are shaking their heads in frustration and bewilderment. The Canada Council’s “New Chapter” Fund, announced May 9th, with a July 14th deadline, is asking us all to “think big” and “be daring and bold”. We must pick one and only one project and, in the case of my field of practice, ask for up to five times what our previous requests have been for a project.
So, what impact do these kinds of funding programs have on the ecology of the arts community? It seems the thinking from the current leadership of the Canada Council is that it will improve the quality of art in this country and we will get a lot of “really good” creations out of this: a “legacy” of great art, under this leadership. The reality is usually far from that. These programs, concocted by arts bureaucrats that make artists continually have to jump through “strategic” hoops in order to access funds, are misguided and ill conceived. Perhaps they had no choice and the directive came from Heritage Canada or the Treasury Board as to how the funds needed to be spent. If that were the case, then it would call into question the arms-length role the Canada Council plays in arts funding.
I have some understanding of what can happen. I used to be an arts bureaucrat at the Canada Council. I spent five years there as a program officer in theatre, before choosing to return to the arts community and run a small theatre. By my own choice, in doing this I took a 50% pay cut and doubled my working hours. I did it because at my core, I am an artist. I went into the Canada Council to make difference. I was often frustrated with the decisions coming out of the organization. After five years, I learned a great deal of why and how those decisions were made. I was not able to change much, but it was a great learning experience. In 2006, the Canada Council had an infusion of a 20%, one time only, increase in funding. The thinking, at that time, was to bolster “key” arts organizations. The program was called the Supplementary Operating Funds Initiative (SOFI). Senior staff anticipated excitement and relief coming from the arts community. Instead, the funds were targeted to the larger arts organizations, at a time when smaller, newer arts organizations had the greatest need. You see, the Canada Council had been lobbied and virtually threatened by older, more established arts organizations for the bulk of these new funds. The result was that the peer assessment process was “rigged” to ensure that larger arts organizations got the significant portion of the money, and many vital, smaller arts organizations were passed over. The outcry from the community was significant. You would think we would have learned from this. After all, evaluation is an important component for learning from your mistakes. In the case of SOFI, no clear evaluation of the impact of the program was put in place. Organizations were asked to create their own evaluation process. We at the Canada Council had no standard evaluation process in place at that time. In the case of our Arts Partnership in Creative Development program (APCD), which was a creation program in partnership for the 2010 Olympics, we abandoned requesting final reports all together. As an organization, we moved on to the next shiny thing. What we did hear loud and clear from the artistic community was, “Please don’t create new programs and hoops for us to jump through, when you already know what we are doing and can see that we are underfunded.” So, ten years later, with another infusion of funds, has the Council learned anything? Apparently not.
The thinking behind these initiatives is, in my view, disturbing. On the surface, it seems as if the Council is saying that the Arts in Canada can be great, if only given the funding. But if you look at the subtext, asking artists to “be daring” and “bold” and “only pick one big project for a legacy” implies that we have not been thinking bold, have not been being daring and have not been focusing our resources on making “one good thing”. It shows a lack of respect for the artist. There is a kind of paternal nature to this thinking. For an artist who actually makes something, rather than just managing the money that creates art, it is breathtakingly naive and wasteful to think “great art” comes out of these kinds of programs. As artists, we have been “trained” by the Canada Council and other public funders to be frugal and cautious with our funds, find partners who believe in what we are doing, build relationships with audiences, connect with like-minded organizations in the community, and most importantly, plan ahead carefully. We have done all that. In most cases, what has been holding us back is the lack of stable, consistent resources to fully realize these plans. So with an infusion of new funds, we are suddenly asked to put that careful planning aside and “be bold and daring.” I have never heard artists use these words to describe what they do, except in a grant application to meet the criteria set out by a funder.
When the APCD program was launched, budgets were thrown together, paying artist fees more than double what the industry standard was at the time. This was great, on the surface. But when you looked at the reality, some groups were suddenly given large amounts of cash, while others got nothing, based on “artistic excellence”. If there is one thing that I learned in my 5 years at the Canada Council is that “artistic excellence” is relative to many things. It is not an absolute. So, some artists were able to create a project that met the criteria, and then score some fast funds. Out in the real world the economic ecology of the arts community was being disrupted significantly. If you were working on a project that got funded, suddenly you were making double. If you were not, then you got no increase at all. Then two years later, it was all back to poverty. Did “great art” come from this? In my view, the work was as innovative and bold as it had always been.
It disturbs me that the current leadership at the Canada Council believes that the artistic community is unable to be bold and daring, unless we are told to be. It is also depressing to me that they are directing funds without really listening to what the artists have been saying for years. It seems this program has been modeled after a particular method and practice of art making, and that Council is saying that they know best how good art is made. I have seen this thinking first hand. Is this a question of hubris and ego? Do the arts bureaucrats really listen to artistic community? Or do they believe that they see the full picture and know best, seeing themselves as the experts in art. They are often, in my view, the actual problem and create wasteful programs such as the “New Chapter”. It smells of “legacy making” rather than truly trying to help the arts community.
This kind of “one-off” funding is like asking homeless people who are struggling to feed themselves and have been diligently applying for food stamps, to suddenly dream up the perfect meal and submit another request. Then picking some of them and taking them to the most expensive restaurant and feeding them for a night, while the rest of them look on. Then expecting them to return to their peers, and their poverty, the next day and continue on.
The costs of creating and implementing new programs are significant. There is a tremendous burden put on staff, both officers and administration, to design, disseminate and assess a new program, when they already have the programs and knowledge and understand the needs of the community. Why not use the existing programs and assessment processes to distribute the funds?
Of course, I will be filling out an application. I will strive to adapt our current plans to fit this new program. A good artist never takes their eye off the ball of what they are trying to make, or fall into the trap of inventing new projects to please criteria in grant programs. If I am lucky, I will make a “compelling argument” for my peers. After having filled out more than 10 grant applications since Christmas, I will do another one, “thinking big, being daring and bold” then return to worrying about paying bills, and balancing budgets. Then I wait to see if I am thrown into the land of hyper creation to make “better art”.
Am I taking a risk by speaking out against this new program I am applying for? Will my application be rejected because of I criticised the Council? I don’t think so. I have complete faith in the peer assessment process and the officers that run them. I know that my application, like all the others, will be assessed fairly. And even if the leadership of the Canada Council does not like what I have said, they cannot intervene in the process. Unless, of course, they choose to change the assessment process and introduce senior staff approving grant allocations.
If I am lucky, as artistic excellence is subjective and relative, I may get funded. If not, then I will watch from the side-lines as others eat. Either way, I fail to see how this thinking is helping create a stable, healthy arts community.