An inspired future for the arts - Canadian Arts Summit 2015

Speaking notes for Simon Brault
Canadian Arts Summit (An inspired future for the arts)
Friday, April 10, 2015

Thank you.

It’s a pleasure to be here with you this evening amongst fellow leaders in the arts.

I was delighted to learn of the theme of the summit: An inspired future for the arts. It is both a commitment and a statement of optimism and responsibility.  An affirmation of hope and readiness to embrace our role today in shaping tomorrow.  A role that asks that we find the way forward by consolidating our strengths, sharing knowledge and values, and innovating in an enlightened and courageous way.

Albert Camus wrote that “Real generosity towards the future lies in giving all to the present.” I can certainly attest to the generosity of the arts community – the hard work, the spirit of collaboration, and the passionate and informed conversations we’re all engaged in – today and every day.  

The theme of an inspired future for the arts supports and reinforces our own vision at the Canada Council. It’s the foundation for all our work. Especially now as we undergo a profound and necessary transformation to scale up our impact on the professional arts, and by extension, on Canadian society.  

This evening, I’d like to share our experiences at the Canada Council as an organization transforming itself. I do this for two reasons:

First, in the interest of transparency, since our work affects so many of you in the room, both directly and indirectly. Second, to add to the critical conversation we’re all having to shape the future of the arts, including public funding of the arts. I’ll briefly describe the changes we’re making, why we’re making them now, and the importance of sustaining momentum for re-invention. Because we know sustaining momentum long enough to implement change can be the most difficult phase. And as my friend and colleague, the late Joseph Rotman said: “A vision is only as good as its implementation”.

Speaking of Joe, I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge here the pivotal role he played in charting the direction we’re taking at the Canada Council. As many of you know, Joe passed away in January. He was an astute businessman who left the private sector at age 60 to devote himself to public policy..

Joe was a generous man in terms of philanthropy, and in his gifts of time and help to others. But perhaps his greatest legacy to the Canada Council, and by extension the national cultural landscape, was to encourage the Council to see itself as more than just a funding agency. He and I were firm in our belief that our “clients” are not artists but Canadians.

We shared the conviction that for the Council to remain a vibrant, relevant organization into the future, we need to reconnect with our original mandate to not only support the arts, but to also champion them.

Joe Rotman encouraged and supported my work to outline and lead the Council’s current transformation. On behalf of all of us at the Council, I would like to once again sincerely recognize this Chair and his role in plotting the Council’s path forward. 

Announcing the new funding model

At the Council’s Annual Public Meeting in January, I announced that we were working on a new funding model, which we will launch in time for our 60th anniversary celebrations in 2017.

The feedback following this announcement was very positive. It was endorsed by Shelly Glover, the Minister of Canadian Heritage in her remarks at the event. And it received favourable media interest. In the following days and weeks I conducted numerous interviews with the mainstream and arts media.  

For those of you who may not be familiar with this news, I’ll take a moment to review the highlights.

The basis of the new funding model is fewer and clearer programs and simplified processes. I recently read an article that advised “before you think innovation, think simplification.” And I agree wholeheartedly. It’s easier to be nimble and creatively adapt to change when you eliminate the many layers of complicated rules and procedures inherited from a long institutional history.

The major change is to significantly reduce the number of grant programs from 142 to less than ten national programs. These programs will cover all fields of professional arts practice. They will address the major issues specific to both existing arts disciplines and emerging art forms, while adhering to the Council’s fundamental values and commitments.

Current funding envelopes – in terms of discipline and multi-year commitments - will be the starting point for the new funding model. In other words, everyone currently eligible for our programs will continue to be eligible for the new programs.

It is not about shifting money but about shifting our attention from precisely prescribing the way we support the arts to enabling the artists and the arts organizations to conduct their quest for excellence and maximize impact on their own terms.    

It's no longer just about delivering certain grants to a client group that fit the constraints of our many programs. Rather, it’s about adapting our support to the realities, skills, potential and ambitions articulated by artists, collectives and organizations.

We are also reducing the heaviness of many of our administrative and decision-making processes so that artists and organizations can devote more of their creativity and energy to their art and less trying to conform to the very precise requirements of our programs or to navigate the “mysterious” workings of our systems.

Lighter processes will also free up Council staff from repetitive and less meaningful tasks, techniques and procedures. This will allow them to better contribute their knowledge, intelligence and commitment to the arts. Program officers will have more time to fully understand, advise, support and guide artists and arts organizations and build on the qualitative work done by peer committees. 

It will also help us to better articulate a national approach to the development of the arts in Canada and their international outreach.

Since the APM, we’ve significantly advanced the design of the new programs. We’ll be ready to officially announce them in just a few weeks from now. In the meantime, I can tell you about two programs that focus on the broad priorities of Aboriginal arts and international market access.

The Council has had an Aboriginal Arts office with dedicated programs for twenty years now. We’re currently evaluating these programs and already seeing tremendous results from this support. But we see that we can do better. This is a pivotal time in history when the relationship between Aboriginal Peoples of this land and the Canadian state has been called the defining issue of our times. It’s a time when it’s recognized that Indigenous arts hold tremendous potential to change the tide in relations between non-Aboriginal and Aboriginal Peoples for a common future.

Aboriginal artists will of course be eligible to our other programs. However, this dedicated program will take a unique, self-determined approach.

This means it will be guided by Aboriginal artists’ values and worldviews, administered by staff of Aboriginal heritage, assessed by Aboriginal arts professionals and its impacts reported on in an Aboriginal cultural and artistic context.

One of the other programs we will launch has an international focus. We believe that the presence of Canadian arts on the international scene is critical to the artistic and financial success of our artists and arts organizations. We need to have our artists represented in global networks, collaborations and exchanges. These can only enrich their practices and perspectives here at home. And they ensure Canada is even more recognized worldwide for its creativity, excellence, diversity and innovation.

The Council has just completed a three-year strategic investment in international market access. As a matter of fact, we have doubled our investments internationally from 5 to 10 million dollars.  Our activities over this period have yielded great results and have given us new insights about what artists and arts organizations need to be successful in the international arena. We’re excited to take our international activities to the next level through a new focused program.

Aside from the changes within our funding model, there is another transformative wave running throughout all of our activities: public engagement in the arts. This is a key part of our mandate as a public funder of the arts. It is what reinforces the democratic legitimacy of our work.

Those of you who know me know that I believe public engagement is much more than ticket sales and creating a market for the arts. It’s about making the arts part of the everyday lives of all Canadians, whatever their origin, ability or level of participation.

I feel strongly that as a country – as a world society – we must embrace the values of cultural democracy. This means authentic participation, real exchange, deep and significant engagement with the arts in its most diverse, highest, freest and richest manifestations. In other words, as we re-imagine our future, we have to fully empower every Canadian. Every citizen must have the opportunity to see, hear, experience, participate in the expressions of the culture – or cultures – that define them.

Just a few weeks ago I was a guest speaker at an international conference in Bilbao, Spain to advance Agenda 21 for Culture. For those of you not familiar with it, Agenda 21 is a call – more like a movement – to ensure that culture is considered, at the local and regional levels, in all discussions, policies and initiatives related to sustainability and human development. This movement is gathering momentum and a growing number of citizens are asking: How can we decide what type of world we want to live in, what we need to preserve, without the imagination and creativity of our artists? This is a powerful statement and one we need to reiterate as we work to demonstrate the value of the arts today and into the future.

At the Canada Council we will continue to advance public engagement. We will optimize those non-granting programs that give Canadians more access to art in their daily lives and give Canada a greater influence on the world scene. This includes the Art Bank, our many prizes and awards for excellence, the Canadian Commission for UNESCO, the Musical Instrument Bank and the Public Lending Right Program.

We will continue to put public engagement at the forefront in all our conversations within and beyond the arts sector. As part of this work, we are now speaking more directly and boldly about the value of the arts and the impact of public funding of the arts on individuals and communities. We are increasingly reaching out and making ourselves present on social media and other platforms where Canadians gather.

We are providing clear statements about the economic and social benefits of the arts that we hope can be picked up and made viral.

We want to convince people that art is serious business -- for individuals and for society, for the present and for our future. We want people to access the unlimited, renewable resource that is all around us: the ability to create, dream, imagine and re-invent our future. In Canada, 671,000 cultural workers, including 140,000 professional artists, energize our social, human and economic development. Culture’s contribution to the GDP is close to $50 billion. We want Canadians to understand that investing in creativity is the path to our prosperity.

Why transform now?

As you know, I was Vice-Chair of the Board of the Council for ten years – a role that is now being performed brilliantly by our colleague Nathalie Bondil. During my time in this position, it gradually became obvious to me that we could not remain relevant in the 21st century by merely continuing to do the same thing, with the same means. Or even with greater means, for that matter. And when I was given the role of Director and CEO, the Board also gave me the mandate to move forward with a major reorganization – one that had often been discussed but was never realized.

We’ve approached this as a remarkable opportunity to reconfigure our core activities to suit our own priorities and our strategic ambitions. Not as a reaction to budget cuts or policy decrees from the government of the day. 

For us, it’s a way to bring the issue of public funding of the arts to the forefront in a way that is positive, visionary and future-oriented. This can only strengthen our case for stable and enhanced funding. This renewal and the impact we anticipate will give us more credibility to make ourselves – the arts – part of the key conversations on the future of our country.

The New Funding Model gives us a chance to reach out to the growing sectors of the arts community less well served by our current model – for example, young artists, diverse artists, those working in remote regions. Artists who are disadvantaged from accessing funding – not because of the quality of their work but because they haven’t figured out how to navigate our processes and programs. Artists who understand only too well the impact of budget austerity in the arts community since they are its latest victims.  

Above all, by changing now – by being proactive now – we are the masters of our re-organization, our re-invention. We can leverage our current position as a trusted, relevant organization to reinvent ourselves in a way that honours our history, values and expertise. And in a way that heralds a new era in public support of the arts in Canada.

Contrast this position of strength with the experience of many of our colleagues internationally. In recent years several fellow arts councils worldwide were forced to change due to financial and political pressures. They didn’t have the luxury of reflective change. In many cases they were severely marginalized, drastically cut and downgraded. This is not our reality. This will not be our fate.

Sustaining the Momentum

I hope it’s obvious from my remarks that our new programs, our transformation, isn’t first and foremost about money. It’s about aspirations, ideas and vision. But it is anchored in the conviction that with these aspirations, ideas and visions firmly in place, we are in a better position to make the case to the people and the government of Canada for greater responsibilities in delivering public services that reflect our values. And for stronger financial support to the artists of this country.  

At this point and time, now that we’ve launched this process of change, the challenge is to sustain the momentum. But we are determined to do so. Momentum is strong within the organization and has been building since day one of my mandate. I am delighted with how the leadership and staff of the Council have engaged the transformation and with their drive to carry it out.

Since we announced the outlines of our plans at the APM, we’ve been working at full steam to meet our deadlines. First, to announce the names and some details about the programs in June 2015, second, to deliver the new funding model by the end of 2016.

We’ve been mapping out current programs against new ones to ensure no one is lost in the shuffle and in a way that maintains funding envelopes to disciplines.  We are developing a digital strategy to support our new funding model and to measure its impacts. This strategy will also help us create a space where the public, artists and other stakeholders can meet to create, share and discuss the arts.

We are also reviewing our peer assessment process to renew it, strengthen it and make it even more incontestable. We want to optimize the expertise and insight of these fellow artists and arts professionals in disciplines across the county. Peer assessment committees should be spending more time evaluating the quality of applications and trends across the country and across disciplines, and less time talking about money.

Earlier I mentioned that the response to our planned changes have been very positive to date.  It’s clear that the arts community understands the need for change and applauds our determination to make it happen on our own terms. The feedback we’ve received falls under what I would say are three categories: concerns, expectations and hope.

To sustain our momentum for change we need to listen to these responses. We need to address them as we build the road forward.

We are responding to concerns by reassuring artists and arts organizations that the new funding model will respect the values and principles that they so appreciate in the Council, such as equity and peer assessment. And while I believe that we must deal with concerns head on and with honesty, we should not let them consume our energy and focus. To maintain momentum, it’s important to give as much or more attention to the expressions of expectations and hope.

The expectations for Council are many. I see this as a positive sign of the community’s engagement in our vision and confidence that the Council can deliver. And although it is impossible to meet every expectation shared with us, they deserve careful attention. They are invaluable and often hold ideas for potential innovations that we hadn’t yet considered.

Finally, I have been tremendously encouraged by the response of hope. As I mentioned at the opening of my remarks, hope is the underlying impetus to our changes. Hope is what we need to nurture in ourselves and in those around us. It is the precondition to sustain our momentum.

This is where I encourage us all to sustain our collective momentum for innovation and change.

We are all looking for solutions to similar issues. We are all introducing innovations to reach new audiences, to embrace diversity and to build community around the arts. We are all adjusting to new technologies and new ways of creating, producing and presenting art. In effect, we are all part of a larger project to reinvent ourselves… to remain relevant and resilient without abandoning our fundamental values and principles.  

It is my hope that the Council can continue to count on your support as we carry out this cultural and structural change in a way that is real, shared, positive, sustainable, measurable and dynamic. I invite you all to continue conversations here and beyond this room about how we can best work together in our respective roles for an inspired future for the arts. I believe the dream of an inspired future for the arts is a beautiful one – a dream that we have well within our grasp.