By Frank Moher
The Canada Council was created in 1957, so there’s every reason to suppose it might be in need of serious change. At the same time, it was pretty much inevitable that artists would react with alarm and suspicion to news of that change coming. For all our talk in artistic circles of embracing change, exploring new ideas, etc., anxiety is often what we do best.
But the changes proposed last week to the way the CC hands out its funding are neither as scary as this tweeter thinks:
— Porcupine’s Quill (@porcupinesquill) June 3, 2015
nor as confusing as Russell Smith insists they are in The Globe. At least not yet.
What the Council proposes is cutting the current 147 programs it administers to just six. The new categories are as you see in that tweet above. You can watch short videos explaining each of them here, but basically: “Explore and Create” appears to be intended to foster new artists and new projects, “Engage and sustain” will support existing organizations, especially high-end ones, and maybe encourage them to make genuine connections with their communities, “Creating, Knowing, and Sharing Aboriginal Arts” is exactly what it sounds like, “Renewing Artistic Practice” is about sustainability — in other words, staying in business — while also coming up with new ideas and visions, “Arts Across Canada” will help artists and companies get their work seen around the country, and “Arts Abroad” will get it seen around the world.
Pretty straightforward. And based on my experience, a good encapsulation of what the Canada Council does, and should do more of.
Now, whether it will work is a whole other question, and will depend a lot on artist buy-in. Canada Council director Simon Brault raised some alarms with talk about changes to the peer-assessment system, noting in The Globe that “All over the world, peer assessment is an endangered species.” One reason it’s endangered is that semi-despotic governments such as the one recently re-installed in Britain would prefer to call the shots on arts funding themselves, rather than leaving it up to left-leaning artists, and Brault’s remarks, along with the mass shuffling of categories entailed in the new scheme, seemed to suggest that might happen here, too.
But he was quick to clarify in Canadian Art that “there’s absolutely no intention to do away with the peer system as the core criteria to do assessments at the Canada Council.” So we will be spared political appointees making decisions about who and what gets funded for now. He also noted that “The programs are non-disciplinary; they are not multidisciplinary and they are not anti-disciplinary.” This comes as a relief to those of us who think that a play, for example, may still have merit even if it doesn’t contain a contemporary dance sequence or require viewing through an oculus rift headset (not that that wouldn’t be entirely cool).
So I say good; good for Brault for shaking things up. It remains to be seen how all this will play out if the Council actually starts to apply these ideas next year; action is the downfall of many good intentions. And they may meet with stiff resistance from artists meantime. But I suspect that part of what Brault wants is to be able to steer the Canada Council, and the country’s cultural course, with six joysticks instead of 147. That can only be good — it means less interference at the operating level, where the artists and officers do their thing.
So before we do what audiences sometimes do when presented with a challenge — that is, throw our hands up and walk away — let’s give his ideas a fair shake. We are very good at fomenting change; now, perhaps, it’s our turn to accept it.
– Stephanie Small of The Porcupine’s Quill responds.