State of the Arts

Victoria Ward

Statiscally speaking…

Last week the Ontario Arts Council (OAC) released a major report detailing the economic benefits to cultural tourism in Ontario. Titled Ontario Arts and Culture Tourism Profile, the document is free to download from their site, all fifty seven pages of it. In it you will find tons and tons of statistics covering how many people came to Ontario in 2010 and engaged in some kind of cultural event such as going to an art gallery, a museum, a play, a musical event and or a festival.

Stats like: “Nine-in-ten or 18.5 million of the 20.8 million North Americans with Ontario travel experiences have participated in an arts or cultural activity as one of their many travel activities on trips taken over a two year period.” abound in the document. It isn’t gripping reading but it does spell out that when people come to Ontario one of the things they do is go to see some culture thereby contributing to the overall economy.

This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who works in the arts. We meet people all the time at art festivals and galleries who are from out of town and find themselves wandering around looking at things. This kind of information however is crucial in order to make an argument for more spending on the arts and also defending spending on the arts. Kudos to the OAC for creating this important nugget of information that bureaucracies and accountants thrive on.

Yep, the Mona Lisa. Don't tell me that people aren't interested in art.
Yep, the Mona Lisa. Don’t tell me that people aren’t interested in art.

There was no interpretation with the document save for some stats pulled out to highlight the numbers i.e. the tourism generated $3.7 billion to the GDP province-wide in 2010, 67,000 jobs in the cultural sector and $2.4 billion in wages, and $1.7 billion in taxes. These kinds of numbers make the world go round. I do wish however that economics in the arts had the kinds of interpretive writing and thinking that the stock market or the auto industry has. Both of those sectors are maggoty with books, experts, pundits and celebrity journos who repeatedly make the case for and against the ebb and flow of how our economy is impacted by auto manufacturing and hedge fund dividends.

Wouldn’t it be a treat if the CBC’s National had a monthly pundit crew of arts workers on to discuss issues of national importance about the arts? For the most part the arts makes national headlines when someone throws blood on something at the Art Gallery of Ontario or  a work of art is purchased by the National Gallery that is reviled. Or, if you’re another station without gigantic government subsidies and have to survive on advertising then your arts commentary will involve Canadian celebrities like Justin Bieber or that movie about the hostages which was once a Canadian story. Remember Ken Taylor? Now the person most associated with that crisis is film maker Ben Affleck. But I digress….

We have always lacked a good lobby. We have arts councils that give out money and write press releases about this and that artist and who is going to the Venice Biennale (two guesses? Do you know? Do ya?) but we don’t have an organization that makes us a presence in people’s day to day lives. There are good guys who try like Jian Gomeshi on Q, not my favourite radio show but he does try. And artists are really stepping up to the plate online; some of the best blogs out there are art blogs (see the Ottawa Citizen’s Big Beat by Peter Simpson and the UK Guardian’s Jonathan Jones). Surely we should have a Paul Krugman or an Andrew Coyne, someone with a persona that exemplifies and celebrates their expertise and political orientation.

But wait. I know why we don’t. Art speak. Of course. We don’t have anyone to disseminate figures, stats because most of the people now involved in the arts are tenured university professors and MA candidates who insist on creating their own language and descriptive entreats. These people don’t want to be in mainstream media or on TV, that stuff is for the unwashed masses. These careerist doctrinaires only need to speak to each other and like any small and exclusive club you will not ever be granted inclusion unless your artist statement, grant application and label in a gallery is littered with words like transversal and historicisation (I have no idea what either means, and I read them in a sentence with context).

Art has always had the bad smell of pretension but when adaptation to new paradigms of economic realities (doing old crap in a new way) are necessary for survival we need some plain but inspiring voices to stand up for us. If the OAC is correct, more people than ever are engaged in the arts which means that a cloistered attitude toward creativity and presentation will hinder this boom. Explaining art doesn’t mean dumb-ing it down, nobody wants that. However if we are to move away from being called a luxury or a subsidized sector and take our place among other important economic levers in our community then we can’t waste our time fiddling away with Google word search in order to find the most obscure way of communicating ourselves.

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