Simon Brault – A vision for a culturally empowered future

Speaking notes for Simon Brault, Director and CEO
Canada Council for the Arts
40th International Conference on Social Theory, Politics and the Arts
School of Political Studies, University of Ottawa
October 10, 2014 


I’m very happy to be here with you at the University of Ottawa, and I am grateful for your invitation.

Ladies and gentlemen - professors, students, elected officials, policy makers, activists and artists. It is an honour to be here speaking with all of you today.

Indeed it is a particular pleasure for me to address this group at this time, because in my new role as Director and CEO of the Canada Council for the Arts it is my duty to think and to act at the intersection of social theory, politics and the arts. And, happily, this is an intersection where I not only feel comfortable, but where I actually feel excited and inspired. I believe that now more than ever this intersection is of vital relevance to Canadians and to the world, and I am privileged to be in a position where I can play a specific – and hopefully impactful – role in shaping its future.

Yet while the intersection of social theory, politics and the arts is very much my professional home, a zone where I have been actively and enthusiastically engaged for the past two decades, I do not claim to be master of it. For it is a very busy thoroughfare, crisscrossed by countless initiatives, hypotheses and ideologies, and littered with both admirable attempts at transformation and the wrecks of almost as many failures. And it is for this very reason that research is so fundamental to navigating this intersection, and why the ongoing intellectual work that is being presented and debated at this conference is so important—to better understand our challenges, to learn from both our successes and failures and to reveal new possibilities for meaningful action.

In this talk, I hope to be able to present you with a snapshot of my own trajectory as a champion for the arts, one rooted in my lifelong commitment to civil society, yet one that now sees me – somewhat to my surprise – operating from within the civil service. And while my values and goals have not changed in my new role, I do find myself facing a new set of challenges in attempting to realize my vision for a culturally empowered future informed by illuminating and insightful research. I will share some of those challenges with you as well.

Theory has always been of great interest to me. I love ideas, and concepts and I love learning. But I am also a practical man, that is to say a man engaged in practice, which I also love. So for me, the opportunity to combine theory and practice, especially for the benefit of artists and communities, has always been a goal and – when I’ve managed to do it – a great thrill.

I might go so far as to say that while theory and practice each have their indisputable merits, ultimately neither can achieve fulfillment without the other. Theories must be tested in practice and practices must be informed by deep reflection and analysis. I agree with the French philosopher Edgar Morin, who said “Complex thinking leads to complex action.”

Morin maintains that complex thinking encompasses the three modes of thinking: critical, creative and responsible. Critical thinking is tied to context. Creative thinking tends to be results-driven and is self-transcending (synthetic). Responsible thinking presupposes a dialogue, an opening onto the other and to divergence, and a desire for transformation.

I have always tried to approach questions concerning the presence of art and culture in our society through a complex thinking process with its critical, creative and responsible components. I have often had the opportunity to share my observations and conclusions with professional cultural groups and to engage in complex action, a form of action that refuses the simplistic, the dogmatic and irreconcilable differences, while also refusing to settle for lukewarm agreements that never last.

Five years ago I wrote a book called (in English) No Culture, No Future. This book was, for me, a blending of theory and practice. It was my attempt to reflect upon, document and analyze an enormous amount of projects and collaborative work in which I played a key role.

These projects and work centred around the quest for a raw approach to cultural policy in the city of Montreal – my hometown. It included a wide range of innovative interventions, including extraordinary conferences that brought together artists, arts organizations and cultural stakeholders from every walk of life to hammer out real objectives and feasible strategies to enhance the role of arts and culture in the city. It included the creation of an influential new organization, Culture Montreal, with an ambitious collaborative mandate which continues to thrive and expand its scope today, engaging in successful cross-cultural initiatives of many different kinds. It was a fascinating and rewarding experience to see in this process, our collective progress from ideas to discourse to action to organization to movement to civic innovation.  

I am not a scholar, nor a professional researcher, and so I make no claims about the methodological rigour of my reporting on these events, other than to say that I tried in my essay to present the story of these collective efforts and the challenges we faced as transparently and as informatively as possible. I tried to provide a framework – informed by a great deal of theoretical reading I did along the way – some of it quite possibly written by individuals sitting in this room – for understanding what had happened, and why, so that lessons could be learned and applied elsewhere.

For me, the fundamental lesson was that those who believe in the power of the arts need to invoke – and support with persuasive evidence wherever possible – a much broader discussion on the role of arts and culture in society, than we have typically done in the past. We need to engage a much wider range of stakeholders and social leaders to act in new ways, particularly in our increasingly dominant urban contexts, where changes of all kinds are already taking place at a rapid rate.

We need to be more ambitious, to claim more of our legitimate place in society. For without the arts, without a rich cultural fabric, our economic and sociological achievements will be unfulfilled. Yet all too often we give up our central position to these narrow discourses and their experts. Whereas instead we must have the courage to say: no culture, no future – the courage to insist that it is imagination, nurtured by the arts and by culture that gives meaning to human life and to society.

Of course, as we all know, the popular dichotomy between economics and arts and culture is both false and dangerous. In the 21st century more than ever before, arts and culture are key drivers. Similarly, social crises such as poverty, crime and unemployment are in many ways the direct and indirect results of a failure to invest in cultural resources and training; investments that would be tiny compared to the cost of treating, housing, supporting, policing, incarcerating and attempting to rehabilitate damaged individuals and damaged communities.

What is the cost of building and staffing a cultural centre or an arts-based high school versus the cost of building and staffing a prison or paying entire lifetimes of welfare? What is the cost of investing in culture versus investing in punishment? The argument for public support for the arts is too often limited to micro-economic measures, such as the familiar statistic about the triple return on every dollar invested in the arts. I believe we should be making a case for public arts funding based on macro-economics, one that looks at wider social patterns and the profound cost to society of cultural neglect. In a very real sense for Canada and Canadians, no culture, no future is not just a slogan, it is a reality.

We must also admit that our future – at least for those of us in this room whose hair – like mine, has begun to change colour – (just a little!) – we must admit that the future does not really belong to us. The future belongs most of all to our young people, to our children and grandchildren. And it is our job to make room for them, to make room for their future, and for their culture.

This is not always easy to do. Especially when their culture – shaped by a very sudden and very unexpected technological revolution – is so different from ours; especially when we have fought so hard for our own cultural achievements and institutions, when we have worked so hard to understand historical trajectories that seem to have suddenly lost their way in the 21st century. It is very difficult indeed. And yet we must meet this challenge and rethink our approach to cultural policymaking in light of the social changes we are experiencing.

Perhaps the entire concept of cultural policy is already outdated and we need to discover and embrace new ways of imagining our future altogether. Perhaps the intersection of social theory, politics and the arts as we have mapped it is as outdated as a printed map in the era of Google Street View and Google Earth. I think we should be open to every possibility.

As the Director of the National Theatre School for over 20 years, which was my job prior to starting my new job at the Canada Council, I was deeply invested in supporting and guiding young artists spreading their wings. Now that I am at the Canada Council, where our mandate is to support professional artists and where our structure supports mostly traditional artistic disciplines, I see a great need to reach out to and make room for young artists for whom traditional disciplinary silos make less sense, for whom distinctions between professional and amateur are less and less clear, for whom art and business and technology and education and personal identities are all increasingly mashed up. We need to support these young artists as they invent new art forms, new business models and new distribution models for their work.

I previously mentioned the challenges I face as the incoming CEO of the Canada Council. This is one of them, and a very important one. We must recognize that the notions of supporting the next wave of talented artists on their own terms and of investing in a culturally empowered future are closely related.

Walt Whitman said, “To have great poets you need great audiences.” Investing in audiences is also a key to our future, even if audiences are changing. Due to the power of our exploding social networks, traditional relationships between audiences and artists have started to evolve in profound ways, especially as ‘engagement’ becomes the new norm, rather than mere spectatorship and cultural consumption. In fact, roles and relationships are being reordered to favor engagement in every walk of life, including relationships between consumers and businesses, citizens and governments, between individuals and communities of all kinds. And we must adapt our understanding and our actions to these new social norms.

Increasingly, this means recognizing that the fourth wall is merely an option, and that more and more artists are choosing to interact directly with their audiences. Indeed in many cases audiences are becoming part of artist’s artistic work by contributing to it, remixing it, commenting on it, funding it, sharing it. Coming to terms with and building on ‘engagement’ as a new social imperative is – is in my opinion – another significant challenge as I step into my new role.

I believe that in your roles as researchers, you too must be facing some of these same challenges.  Not only are definitions and categories evolving rapidly, but the analytical tools being used to gather and process data in every field are evolving even faster. Today, researchers are crunching enormous numbers instantaneously, making sense of big data through scripts and widgets, automatically pulling needles of insight from haystacks of data:  financial, demographic, industrial, scientific. Around the world, research and development departments are turning those metrics into vast profits and counter-intuitive efficiencies. Where are our comparable insights into what is happening at the intersection of social theory, politics and the arts? Do we have them? I am certainly looking for them and I very much hope that today – or tomorrow – you will help provide them.

We need to better understand what works and why.  This is another challenge I look forward to tackling to the best of my ability at the Canada Council. We collect a great deal of data each year, from tens of thousands of artists, and although our Research department has done an excellent job over the years of parsing that data with the tools available, we too need to adapt to the new tools that have changed the face of research. We need to make more of our data available so others can sift through it for answers; we need to visualize our data more imaginatively and more usefully; and we need to report back to Canadians more consistently and more powerfully about the extraordinary impact of our work, which reaches millions of Canadians annually in thousands of communities.

We understand that today, in the age of digital networks, hypotheses can emerge and be tested with remarkable speed, informed by the distributed insights, expertise and energy of innumerable individuals. That is how complex open-source applications get built and deployed in a fraction of the time it would take for a large firm to build them. Questions are asked, approaches debated, solutions tested and refined, all within remarkably short periods of time in the online sphere. Our research must do the same, invite the same degree of engagement and the participation of an equally potent collective intelligence.

But how? How do we address the downside of all this rapid-fire analysis – that signifies  time lost for critical reflection, and for carefully considered progress towards a well-defined goal? Above all how do we constructively reconcile these two approaches and build bridges between them rather than walls?

I understand that these are challenging questions. And I don’t claim to have answers. I believe these are the right questions. And I am convinced that the best answers will be those that are bold, that are inclusive and that proactively make room for others who are equally committed to building a more inspired, a more creative and a more meaningful world, no matter how different their tools, concepts or approaches may be from ours.

As I look ahead to my five-year term at the Canada Council for the arts, these are the challenges that I believe will define my leadership and my tenure. I hope that at the end of those five years I will feel that important answers to these questions have been developed, shared and – to some significant degree – adopted. I know that getting there will be a collective journey, a journey with one foot in the past and one in the future, one hand in theory and the other in practice. And I very much look forward to that collaboration, both internally, working with the staff of the council, and externally, working with you – with professors, students, elected officials, policy makers, activists and artists, all of us trying to build a better future at the intersection of social theory, politics and the arts.

Thank you very much.