Simon Brault - The Arts and Public Engagement: An Evolving Discussion

Speaking Notes for Simon Brault, Vice-Chair

Canada Council for the Arts Annual Public Meeting

150 Elgin Street, Ottawa

Tuesday, 28 January 2014, 4:30 pm



On the occasion of my final contribution to a Canada Council Annual Public Meeting in my capacity as Vice-Chair, I would like to reflect on the dialogue we launched in 2012 on public engagement in the arts.

It is a complex subject that holds much promise. We believe that the role of the arts in people’s lives and the impact of the arts on society play a pivotal role in the Canada Council’s strategic positioning.

Our decision to focus on access to the arts was made for the same reasons that led other organizations around the world, with the same concerns, to do likewise.

The historical rationale for our decision can be found in article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted in 1948 and in its resemblance to the Council’s mandate as established in 1957, which clearly shows that Council is intended to be the special mechanism for enabling Canadians to “enjoy the arts”.

Article 27 of the Declaration states (and I quote):

“1. Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.

2. Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.”

The Canada Council for the Arts Act, which dates from 1957, specifies in section 8 that “The objects of the Council are to foster and promote the study and enjoyment of, and the production of works in, the arts”.

In addition to providing unswerving support for artistic creation, our mandate clearly includes fostering and promoting the study, enjoyment, recognition and dissemination of the arts in society.

In partnership with many other bodies, we must play a leading role if Canadians are to exercise their right to be involved in cultural life.

To this end, we must address the complex challenges of demographic, sociological, economic and technological changes in artistic creation and production, and in the dissemination and enjoyment of the arts.

In view of Council's special role as both observer and stakeholder, we must demonstrate informed and responsible leadership.

The current context

We therefore wish to highlight innovative initiatives that elicit full appreciation of the value of the arts and their central role in reconfiguring the economy, our systems and our communities, and in boosting our country's international reputation.

We understand that the digital era has put an end to private conversations among experts and drastically altered many former ways of doing things.

In a few years, our ideas about viewers, cultural consumers and audiences – not to mention conditions for research, training and creation – have been deeply transformed.

In cultural policy and planning, there has been a spectacular increase in concerns and initiatives related to access and distribution, the openness of creative processes, the independence of content producers, cultural appropriation by citizens, and new forms of cultural participation.

These transformations go well beyond our own community, with the media and entertainment sectors also undergoing an in-depth reorganization. Cultural content is flourishing on the Internet.

Hence the illusion that people have all the symbolic content they need to express themselves or fuel their imaginations. Worldwide attendance statistics nevertheless show that much remains to be done if people are to participate fully in their country’s culture.

Our decision to launch a dialogue on public engagement is a response to global concerns as well as those expressed by the artists and arts organizations we support. We now need to respond to those research, creation, production, dissemination and enjoyment imperatives that the marketplace never has and never will address.

This dialogue does not mean that we are changing course: we will continue to support excellence. What this dialogue does is reaffirm and update our fundamental mandate.

I would like to take advantage of this opportunity to congratulate the leadership shown by those in the forefront of the arts, because they have done much to move this conversation forward. I would also like to thank the arts community, whose comments corroborated the importance of a collaborative and cautious approach in seeking solutions.

Accomplishments of the past year: dialogue and partnership

Clearly, dialogue must lead to action.

This year, the whole Council team worked on the theme of public engagement through concrete initiatives and partnerships. A few that come to mind are the Dance Mapping Study, which provides a better overview of dance practice in Canada, and a variety of similar studies, including the one on artists from the Canadian francophonie outside Quebec, which was conducted in collaboration with the Fédération culturelle canadienne-française and the Canadian Institute for Research on Linguistic Minorities.

We actively nurtured the conversation as well, through our online posts, Bob Sirman’s participation in the Culture Days conference, Howard Jang’s contribution to the Kelowna Summit and Joe Rotman’s contribution to a CORIM [Montreal Council on Foreign Relations] conference. From among the many other examples I might have given, these at least provide an overview of the importance we assign to partnerships to advance the public engagement front.

The approach that we are adopting has been well described by Bazalgette and Davey of Arts Council England [translator's note: the Arts Council of Great Britain was divided into 3 separate bodies in 1994 - the others are for Scotland and Wales], as follows:

We have to think also about what we want from partnership. Partnership can have many forms and many purposes. It can be about finance and distribution, or about ideas and influence. Whatever form it takes, partnership is essential to the resilience of the arts and cultural sector.[i]

Reality in the field: a manifest practice

In the field – which is to say in the everyday work of artists and organizations, progress has been remarkable. The national dialogue that is underway confirms the desire for a renewal of relationships between arts professionals and the communities in which they practise, and the need to make culture an essential part of our lives.

By making judicious use of social media and ensuring that programming is relevant and offers experiences that call for audience creativity, by making their artistic output accessible in different ways, modifying and adapting schedules and rates, and getting even more involved in their community, the artists and organizations we support have been experimenting and making the kinds of progress about which the rest of the community deserves to be better informed.

The issue of public engagement in the art is also being taken on by various sectors (education, health, social services, governments and communities) and creating a huge incubator for approaches that can reaffirm the social relevance of the arts and stimulate attendance and participation in the practice of every discipline.

Cultural mediation has also been expanding, particularly in Quebec, and it is a promising avenue because it includes diverse social practices, reaches out to the public wherever they may be (in schools, hospitals, offices, neighbourhoods) and is being practised by professional artists.

At the civic level, projects like Champ des possibles in Montreal, in which people from a particular neighbourhood transformed a field on which an abandoned train marshalling yard had formerly been located into a park after convincing the city to take over the land. It all began with the determination of an artist to turn it into a creative space for citizens. This kind of project, which is similar to the High Line initiative in New York, will likely be repeated, and every time it does, art becomes a key component in terms of mobilization and success.

Orchestras have also been active within their communities. Drawing inspiration from the Venezuelan El Sistema model, orchestras in Edmonton, Hamilton, New Brunswick, Kitchener-Waterloo, Prince George and Winnipeg have been providing instruments and lessons to disadvantaged children and getting them to play in an orchestra. The results are amazing.

Recently, the media discussed the beneficial effects of the arts on people with neurological disorders, and there are many examples of art-health partnerships. These include Les Grands Ballets Canadiens in Montreal and its National Dance Therapy Centre which was established in collaboration with four major university hospitals.

My hope is that initiatives like these will continue to multiply.

Once again, the message is not that the Council is changing direction, but that it recognizes that the world is changing.

We are deepening our understanding of the phenomenon of public engagement so that we can share what we learn, support the professional arts milieu and contribute to the important conversation about culture and human development that is now underway in Canada and around the world.

In February, representatives from the literary milieu and industry, in response to our invitation, will be taking part in a national forum on the transformations currently taking place in the world of book publishing (access, reading habits and the democratization of publishing). To stimulate discussion, we will also be inviting people from the arts community to share their cultural participation experiences on our website.

We will also be conducting prospective studies on the repercussions of demographic and technological changes on public behaviour towards the arts.

What’s next

Cultural product consumption and the search for varied cultural experiences are on the rise. But access to art is not yet a given.

We need to rigorously support what is best in current artistic creation in all arts disciplines because the market only does so randomly, based on profitability and popularity. Our role is to encourage the pursuit of excellence because we defend the permanence of a space for freedom, research, creation, experimentation and expression that is essential to furthering the great democratic values of our country.

There is an urgent need to develop and renew public engagement with art on a broader scale. By committing to excelling in pursuance of our mandate, we would be renewing our determination to work together with the arts milieu, governments, municipalities and everyone who works in the education, health and business sectors, as well as in other areas, to further enhance the human, social and economic benefits to the art sector and ensure that they play a key role in individual and collective development.

Current circumstances are both uncertain and full of possibilities. We must learn to consider perspectives that we have never before envisaged. In spite of the sense of urgency, we need to act with caution, because being overly hasty would not give us the time required for the sophisticated thinking needed to ensure that our actions are appropriate.

I believe that what I have just said accurately reflects the mindset of my colleagues on the Canada Council’s Board of directors, and of the management team and all Council staff, as well as how we envisage our ongoing work on public engagement in the arts. Many of the people we deal with also feel the same way. We are therefore optimistic about the future.

Thank you.

[i] Sir Peter Bazalgette and Alan Davey. “The arts have to be proactive, innovative and bold”, Towards Plan A: A new political economy for the arts and culture, report, RSA Action and Research Centre, Londres, UK, 2013.