State of the Arts

Victoria Ward

Taking a stand

This blog is about the language surrounding art funding, public engagement in the arts and how the arts is a healthy contributor to our economy.

Language is a tricky thing. It is amazing to me and very gratifying to know that the word Googled is now part of our lexicon. I am by no means a language purist and really enjoy the 140 characters on Twitter and texting. So… I should also be really comfortable with how the language surrounding art and its funding is now changing to accommodate a more corporate friendly ‘speak’. The head of the Canada Council for the Arts is now a CEO not an executive director for instance. The word marketing is now sprinkled throughout applications when applying for funds, on both organizations and individual artist’s applications.

Is this a good thing? I mean it is just a bunch of words right? Well that may be true to a certain extent it also signals how much our culture has given itself to our corporate overlords. I would have thought that the job of a chief executive officer was to make sure the company they worked for was profitable and that shareholders were happy. An arts council isn’t in the business of making money or at least it wasn’t in the business of making money. Perhaps it is now. I really don’t know because no one at the council or other arts councils will engage in a discussion regarding this evolution.

In the spring I took part in a conference call regarding Culture Days and the issue of artists not being paid for their participation. A representative of an arts council on this call described how Culture Days was basing its example on the sports model. While I do not think this is worst idea I have ever heard, funding for sports trumps any artistic initiative because it does not get bogged down in the subjective, you win or you lose, it doesn’t get more straightforward. Art? Not so much.

Rembrandt's Carcass of Beef at the Louvre. It could be awkward making galleries have hybrid purposes. How does this image inspire a yoga workout exactly?
Rembrandt’s Carcass of Beef at the Louvre. It could be awkward making galleries have hybrid purposes. How does this image inspire a yoga workout exactly?

By changing language and focus arts councils are definitely courting a pro business model. And perhaps this is what they have to do to sustain their funding and frankly let’s be honest here, their jobs. Funny, I feel as though I have been here before. Remember the Mike Harris Common Sense revolution? I was in theatre then trying to produce a homegrown, English opera with an amazing bunch of musicians and a fine director. I also lived with the artistic director of one of the most successful companies in the country. We were told in no uncertain terms that we must begin to find money from private sources as subsidies to the arts were being clawed back. The private sector was going to save us! Yeah!

Only, it didn’t and many, many of the artists I know from that time have not survived. Most have quit, some being embedded deep into academia. I saw firsthand how a community can be ravaged by the very unrealistic dream of private money. As a community we didn’t seize this opportunity and get out ahead of it. There was little in the way of messaging to the wider public how much the arts contributes to the over all health of our ‘all important and consuming’ economy.

What we have now is a culture rapidly evolving to fit into a capitalist, pro business mandate which negates the personal for the public, recognizes numbers over any ethereal attribution, pushes the individual artist into a collective and makes actual art a background consideration. Take the recent National Summit on Arts and Culture in Colorado that proclaimed art workers not adapting to the latest trends in public engagement which feature turning art galleries into community centres with yoga classes and arcade style techno-games is to be blind to the reality of funding in the arts. You will be left behind if you do not put a coffee counter in your gallery.

Check out a previous post on the same subject: “I do wish that economics in the arts had the kinds of interpretive writing and thinking that the stock market or the auto industry has.”

Back to language; I believe these nascent ideas about public engagement uses the terminology wrong. What they are really discussing is participatory engagement. Art already engages the public. Blockbuster art exhibitions aside, there is an art gallery/shop in every small community surviving because of a small but loyal following. These places need the kind of help and innovative thinking that is going on in Fogo Island. But then most small places rarely have multi-millionaires in their backyard.

While I agree that we need to change and innovate how we pay for art, I think it is too pat, too retrograde to make art function within our society as a repository for things we do in our leisure time. We need to begin sending messages like the one John McKellar gave during his Business for the Arts Bovey Award in 2011 where he states “The arts sector employs as many people as the combined sectors of agriculture, forestry, mining, fishing, oil, gas and utilities. In Toronto, the sector comprises 8% of our work force, generating $9 billion in GDP. Over 600,000 people in the country belong to the sector. Canadians spend more than twice as much on live performances in the performing arts than on sports events.” The question is then, why do we need the sports model for how to engage the public? This disconnection between the reality of what the arts actually does vs. how it is being funded and perceived could well be a calamitous one. It’s time for artists to take a stand and defend their rightly deserved success.

Pic from my own archives.


6 thoughts on “State of the Arts”

  1. – I have to add that there are many who call themselves artists; but so very few like you who even attempt to think about and understand what the title means from a tangible perspective.

  2. Marketing loves to be seen as art, but art doesn’t want to be seen in the company of marketing. And still, the two are driven into a forced marriage with expectations it may turn out happy. Fantasmic!

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