Transforming the Canada Council for the Arts: Scaling up our impact for all Canadians

Transforming the Canada Council for the Arts:
Scaling up our impact for all Canadians


Thank you, Guy, for that warm introduction.


I’m delighted to be here today in such esteemed company. It’s always a pleasure to speak on the subject I’m most passionate about: the arts in Canada.

Obviously, I wrote my speech before the horrific terrorist attacks that hit at the heart of Beirut and Paris. My speech – as you’ll hear – speaks of hope, the future and optimism.


I re-read the speech last night at the end of a day in which we brought together 300 people at noon in the Canada Council’s Âjagemô gallery. An event where our new Minister of Canadian Heritage, Mélanie Joly, spoke with gravity, dignity and clarity, appealing to both emotions and reason. I realized that there was no need to change my speech.


I realized that there are many responses to these barbaric attacks - military, security, humanitarian, economic, diplomatic, educational, open, closed, united and ongoing. But the response should also include arts and cultural dimensions.


In fact, once again, we saw it immediately: musicians, illustrators and poets intervened using every available means - including, of course, social media - so that we could express our mourning, our tears, our calls for solidarity; in short, our immense humanity attacked by individuals who want to impose darkness on our light. Yesterday, France's president said 'We are not engaged in a war of civilizations, for these assassins represent no civilization.' I believe he is right.


And so, here is what I want to speak to you about today.


As I was preparing for this event, I was struck by the serendipity of the occasion.


Guy, as head of Library and Archives Canada, your work helps us to explore the past to bring meaning to our present.


At the same time, a new exhibition at the Canada Council’s building on 150 Elgin St, explores the idea of time from an Indigenous point of view. The exhibition, called Temporal Re-imaginings, presents time as round, open, and malleable, seamlessly circling our past, present and future.


And so, here I am today, at the Rideau Club, an institution with a long and rich history that is actively engaged in current day issues. I’m representing another institution with its own proud history -- the Canada Council for the Arts – that is enacting a profound transformation.


One that is very much future oriented, driven by value commitments and a true spirit of anticipation.

And with me, is someone who joined us very recently as chair of the Canada Council’s Board, Pierre Lassonde, from Toronto.


Pierre has a deep appreciation and love of art – and as serendipity would have it, an exhibition of works from his own private collection has just opened at the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec in Quebec City.


We are indeed fortunate to have such an engaged and experienced leader at the helm of our Board. Pierre would say that “timing is everything.” Having spent thirty years in the world of theatre, I want to add that “casting is everything!”


Honouring tradition, while innovating

But Pierre is right about the importance of timing – when opportunity arises, we must seize it. When I think about how the past and the future shift and inform one another, I think of the need to understand history. And at the same time I think of the need to take a long view and to look to the horizon, anticipating and defining our direction with discernment and determination, in order to progress and stay relevant. I think we need to understand the motivations of the pioneers of our organizations to avoid being “orphans of the past.” We need to learn from the past so that we too can become pioneers of a promising future.


Established institutions can be slightly intimidating for newcomers. I certainly felt that when I first arrived at the Canada Council.


Initially, when I joined the Board of Directors as Vice-Chair – in what would become two terms, or 10 years of service. Then again when I accepted the position of Director and CEO some 16 months ago.


As many of you know, the Canada Council has a deep institutional history. It was formed as a recommendation of the Massey Commission in the post-World War II era.


At that time, there was a strong sense that Canada had something unique to offer its citizens and the world – artistic expression and creative solutions to the issues of the times.


That era marked a true milestone for the arts and science. The creation of the Canada Council was a bold move that paid great dividends.


Since then, Canada’s artistic scene has blossomed and thrived.


It would be impossible to imagine our unique and rich cultural landscape without Margaret Atwood, Rebecca Belmore, Leonard Cohen, Alice Munro, Thomas King, Michel Tremblay, Karen Kain, Robert Lepage, Atom Egoyan or the Cirque du Soleil.


All of these artists received Canada Council grants at pivotal moments in their quest for excellence.


Similarly, many of the great names in today’s Canadian art scene have, or are receiving Council funding. Take for example: A Tribe Called Red, Patrick DeWitt, Tanya Tagaq, Denis Villeneuve, and Yannick Nézet-Séguin.


So I came to Council impressed by its achievements. Determined to scale up its impact. And optimistic about its great potential into the future.



Optimism and momentum for the arts

Optimism has been proven to be a very powerful tool in creating a climate of transformation. We’ve all seen from last month’s federal election what a tremendous source of mobilization optimism can be.


And at this point in our history, I believe our optimism is well founded.


Let’s consider the big picture.


Since the beginning of the millennium, the conversation about the role of the arts has changed dramatically. Locally, globally, even nationally.


Just three weeks ago I gave a keynote presentation to hundreds of municipal cultural planners from across Canada who gathered at the Creative Cities Network Summit in Kelowna, B.C.


I was struck by the level of discussion and the quality of experiences shared by those participating in the event. They are all working at the local level, grappling with the same issues that we, at the Council, have observed at the national level.



These are issues like: How to address and leverage the possibilities of digital technologies (and I’ll speak to that in more detail shortly). How to encourage sharing of cultural knowledge between generations. How to strengthen cultural institutions and make them more resilient.


How to foster new business models that breed more experimentation and innovation. Not to mention a whole range of issues related to engaging the public and building audiences!


Discussions around strategies for cultural development are no longer the prerogative of nations and governments. More and more, these discussions are taking place at the local level, in cities and towns of all sizes. This is a relatively new and most encouraging development.


One of the catalysts for this movement was the international conversation about creative cities and the link between artistic and cultural activities and urban regeneration initiated by people like Richard Florida and Charles Landry.


This conversation has developed further and in more global circles with a growing consensus that culture must be an integral part of planning for sustainability and human development – alongside social, environmental and economic dimensions.


You may have heard that UNESCO, including the Canadian Commission for UNESCO, which operates within the Canada Council, has made it its mission to remind its member nations of this. It has stated: “Placing culture at the heart of development policy constitutes an essential investment in the world’s future. It is a pre-condition to successful globalization processes that take into account the principles of cultural diversity.”


Cultural diplomacy

Here in Canada, with the election of the new government, the idea of cultural diplomacy is re-surfacing – and that’s excellent news.


Any effective cultural diplomacy strategy must be based on an authentic sharing of ideas, values, traditions and other aspects of culture. This will reinforce any effort to identify and strengthen relationships – including commercial --enhance cooperation or promote major values and interests that are meaningful for our country. And at the heart of these cultural exchanges, we find the arts – the powerful and meaningful voice and presence of artists and their works.


The Canada Council understands this and is definitely willing and ready to contribute to the strengthening of our cultural influence, increasing sustainability of our cultural sector and industries, and augmenting our cultural exports.


And at the same time, now when many warn that Canada has a significant innovation gap that threatens our ability to compete globally. Government and business leaders are also realizing that art is an incubator of creativity – and that creativity is a path to Canadian prosperity.


The commitment of our government to re-invest significantly in the arts and the creative industries is a confirmation of that vision.

So all this to say… momentum is building.

All this to say… it’s little wonder that I’m optimistic about the future of the arts. And optimistic about the potential for the Council to realize its role in nurturing this future – along with many other partners.



Change and challenges

I am an optimist but my optimism is grounded in reality.

As science fiction author, Philip K. Dick, wrote, "Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away." We have to remember that when we try to understand ourselves by observing the world around us.


Looking around us, we see that at the same time as the momentum I’ve described has been building, society has been hit by huge challenges that have of course affected the arts.

I don’t think I need to explain to anyone in this room the tsunami of change that has deluged our society since the sixties: demographic shifts, globalization, digital technologies and changing cultural behaviors and attitudes.

These changes are affecting us at the most personal levels… as individuals and as a society.



Among all the many changes that have transformed our society, let me focus for a moment on the rapidly growing impact of digital technologies.


Even just 10 years ago, social media was non-existent and the iPhone was still a rumour.


Today, the internet has brought the world to our fingertips in ways that we all experience in our everyday lives.


According to 2015 statistics from the International Telecommunications Union, there are more than 7 billion mobile subscriptions worldwide. That’s an exponential leap from 738 million in 2000.


3.2 billion people worldwide use the Internet. Two billion of these live in developing countries.


The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development estimated the value of global business-to-consumer e-commerce at 1.2 trillion dollars in 2013. Meanwhile, in less than a decade, iTunes has sold more than 25 billion songs.


More than 800,000 new websites are launched every day, and 90% of the facts online are less than 2 years old.


And where is Canada in this picture? We are leading the way. Canada is, indeed, a digital nation.


According to the 2014 comScore Report, 87 per cent of the households in Canada are connected to the internet. That ranks second out of the G8 countries.


Each month, Canadians visit on average close to 4,000 web pages and spend 41 hours online. We watch an average of 300 online videos per month -- more than any other G8 nation.


Last week I read reports that Facebook’s revenues leapt 41 percent from a year ago to $4.5 billion. The vast majority was from advertising, and in the past quarter, mobile ads accounted for 78 percent of those revenues!


Yes, Canadians are among the world’s most engaged and savvy online users.


Canadians’ undeniable appetite for the digital has repercussions that reach beyond economics. The values of our dominant text-based culture have been fixity, individualism, linearity, ownership, authorship, and expert critique.

Now these values are being challenged and sometimes abruptly replaced by an emergent networked culture. This culture’s values include iteration, community, sharing, access, relationships, de-materialization and instantaneity. These values that are not just different from those that we have known. Very often, they are directly opposed to them.


This challenges institutions of all kinds to quickly, courageously and effectively adapt to remain relevant and responsive to these new and unfamiliar – yet increasingly dominant – social norms.


In the arts and culture sphere, this digital revolution I’ve described manifests in many ways. The photographic arts have been radically remade. Gaming is a creative idiom that now employs more artists than the mainstream film industry. There have been huge upheavals in the recording and publishing industries. New forms of networked art making and distribution have become wildly popular.


Audiences that were once passive now expect collaboration, participation and co-creation. The 4th wall separating artists and audiences is cracking and crumbling.


I think you can see just how much impact the pace and scale of these changes is having on the way we produce, distribute and consume the arts.

This demands that artists, arts organizations, cultural industries and governments (including Canada Council) find ways to adapt to this new digital ecosystem and remain relevant to a wider public.


And beyond simply adapting, how can we thrive? How can we seize the opportunity presented by these technologies?

The amount of cultural offerings we have access to is growing exponentially. But what is the quality of these offerings? Are they original and imaginative? Do they reflect our many identities? They are only as good as the soil that cultivates them. I believe it’s more important than ever that we nurture this soil and be sure that it’s authentically fertile.

This earthy metaphor to describe a virtual reality is introduced by Astra Taylor in her riveting book The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age.

She writes: “We are toiling shared soil in the hopes that our labour bears fruit. It’s up to all of us whether this soil is enriched or depleted, whether it nurtures diverse and vital produce or allows predictable crops to take root and run rampant…”


Astra argues – and I agree – that it’s easier than ever to create and share work. But that quality work still takes time. Time to be researched, conceived and developed. And even the most digitally oriented artists, still need strong support in the “real” world.

Astra writes: “Creators never emerge fully formed from the ether. They are buttressed by an array of plinths and braces. These include family and friends, patrons and publics. And institutions that include universities, foundations, community centres, publishers, distributors, libraries, bookstores, rock venues and cinemas as well as the ad hoc networks that comprise scenes and subcultures, digital and analog.”


So all this suggests to me that our ever-changing digital, global reality poses a world of possibilities… and a world of challenges.

Of course, these possibilities and challenges go way beyond the purview of the Canada Council even if we are more committed than ever to address them with our thousands of funded artists and arts organizations across this vast land.

A number of researchers and think tanks have joined to call on Canada to renew its social architecture to keep pace with the changes of the past decades. This means, in part, renewing the cultural component of our social architecture.

Nothing less!


I can assure you that the Canada Council is moving ahead to seize these opportunities however we can. With ambition. With courage. With imagination. With rigor. With anticipation. And with optimism.


National landscape

As I mentioned earlier, when the Canada Council was created in 1957, the cultural offerings of this country were meager. Now there’s abundance. Now there’s diversity, with artists and audiences shaped by a vast range of cultural influences.

Given this, the Council’s focus needs to shift away from simply increasing the supply of art produced. Instead it must shift towards ensuring our artists and arts organizations can really thrive. It must focus on giving Canadians access to a diversity of voices. It must show all sectors of society what a powerful, driving force the arts can be.


This is about fully embracing our responsibility as a federal agency – an agency that is responsible for public support for the creation and sharing of professional art.

I know that the expectations of us are very high. They are not just expectations from government. They are from the arts community. And they are from our teams at the Council – an expectation to ensure we are relevant to artists and all Canadians.


This deep sense of accountability and expectation is at the foundation of our decision to transform. It is at the foundation of our work to ensure we are flexible and able to scale up our impact to make the most of funding opportunities whenever they arise.


To achieve this, we needed to start by putting in place new frameworks to define what being a funding agency in the 21st century means.

We needed to determine the parameters for being sharply relevant and truly impactful for artists and for society. We needed to be able to see clearly where we are succeeding and where we will need to focus more efforts to make a difference.

And we needed to do this work from an informed standpoint. For us this meant listening closely to the arts community and other stakeholders through a series of formal consultations and the regular, ongoing, close contact we have with our clients across the country.


We heard from artists and arts organizations that they want to explore deeper and more meaningful ways of engaging with the public.

We heard that they want to advance their artistic practices through research and opportunities to innovate and collaborate with new, and sometimes unexpected partners.


We learned that artists are looking for more support to adapt and adopt new technologies. And they are looking for more access to valuable international markets.


We’ve noticed that new organizational models have emerged, and others are about to emerge.


We also learned that Deaf and disability arts have become important forms of expression with their own unique practices and growing and engaged audiences. They could be nurtured and expanded further.

We learned that we could do more to make young artists and culturally diverse artists able to access our programs.

We also came to the conclusion that we could better support Aboriginal arts. And not just in terms of issues around reconciliation.


But with a heightened consciousness, that we didn’t have 60 years ago, of the deliberate attempts throughout our country’s history to eradicate the culture and language of First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples.


This is a pivotal moment in history when the relationship between Aboriginal Peoples of this land and the Canadian state has been called the defining issue of our times.

So, I am immensely proud that, in the context of our new funding model – which I’ll speak to shortly -- we were able to announce the creation of a new Aboriginal program several months before the publication of the TRC report.


This dedicated program is called Creating, Knowing and Sharing – Supporting the arts and culture of First Nations, Inuit and Metis peoples in Canada. It 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.

This program can both inform and be informed by national and global movements for Indigenous rights. I believe strongly that it will have a great impact at the community level – especially in Aboriginal communities where the healing power of the arts and cultural identity is well documented.






New Funding Model

This new program is part of our New Funding Model – which is the starting point for the Council’s transformation.


The major change is a significant reduction in the number of granting programs from 147 to six. These six programs will cover all regions and all fields of professional arts practices.


To be clear, the New Funding Model is not an exercise in shifting money. It’s about clarifying expectations, exploring promising new territories and demonstrating results.



It’s about shifting our attention away from prescribing HOW the arts should be made. And shifting it toward enabling the artists and the arts organizations to conduct their own quest for excellence and to maximize their impact on society on their own terms. 


It’s not about making applicants squeeze themselves into the constraints of our programs. Rather, it’s about us offering programs that address their realities, and nurture their skills, potential and ambitions.


And as an organization, the Council doesn’t just want to fund innovation coming from the arts professionals. We want to walk the talk.

We want to be innovative ourselves – in our organizational structures and our processes. We want to lighten up the bureaucratic work so that we can focus more on understanding and advising intelligently the arts community.


Aside from the changes within our funding model, there are other transformative waves running throughout all of the Council’s activities. These waves speak to our vision to see the arts take on a bigger role in society. 


One of these is waves is equity -- because artistic and cultural expression and participation are keys to countering discrimination and alienation.


Another transformative wave at the Council – one very close to my heart: public engagement in the arts.



Public engagement in the arts is much more than increasing ticket sales and creating a market for the arts. Public engagement is about making the arts part of the everyday lives of all Canadians, whatever their origin, ability or level of participation.


We will embed equity and public engagement in all of our programs and in all aspects of the Council.


For me, it comes down to embracing the values of cultural democracy. This means authentic participation, real exchange, deep and significant engagement with the arts. Every citizen must have the opportunity to see, hear, experience, participate in the expressions of the culture – or cultures – that define them.


When our citizens are actively engaged in cultural life, they are likely to be engaged, in a positive way, in all of civic life.


As fellow leaders…

As you can see our transformation builds on a strong past to move forward with a clear vision to the future. This brings me back to my opening remarks about the serendipity of shifting time, and a conversation I had soon after I took on the role of Director and CEO.


The conversation was with David Silcox – who is one of Canada’s best-known arts leaders and was one of the Council’s first arts officers in the sixties.


David was telling me about how many of the Council’s big decisions of the day were made by a few people after work, over a drink, at the Chateau Laurier.

I’m sure you have or know of similar stories from the past in your organizations and departments.


Of course leading a government agency is much different now. And for good reason.


We have more layers of approvals and checks and balances. More collaborative approaches. More accountability. We are guided by a board of directors acting as informed and committed trustees. We are surrounded by intelligent, experienced and skilled people who are there to advise on all the potential risks.


But perhaps the greatest risk is that innovation can quickly be smothered in all of these sophisticated machines built to maintain continuity and predictability.


Perhaps the greatest challenge working in today’s climate is to stay focused on the horizon. Properly assess all the risks. And still, fearlessly, tackle change.


I can appreciate the feeling that David and all of the cultural leaders of the 1960s must have had. A feeling that they were pioneers in leading a change.


Because what most excites me as a leader about this time.


What excites me about this transformation at Council, is knowing that my team and I are making these changes, not just for change’s sake. We are making changes with clear aspirations, ideas and vision.


And what energy comes with knowing that with these aspirations, ideas and visions firmly in place, we are in a better position to give meaningful financial support to the artists and arts organizations of this country.


How inspiring to know that through this change, we can better make the case to the people and the government of Canada for greater responsibilities in delivering public values.

And how empowering to realize that in proactively carrying out this change, we are the masters of our re-organization, our re-invention.


Our transformation at Council gives us the opportunity to talk about arts funding in a way that is positive, visionary and future-oriented – for the benefits of all. It gives us more credibility to make ourselves – the arts – part of the key conversations on the future of Canada.


And I’m hoping I can count on you to join us in that conversation.


You are here because you have a keen interest in the Canada Council, cultural policy, making the country a better place for all Canadians.


And as you carry out your work and exert your considerable influence in your respective fields, I invite you to reflect on the role of the arts.


I urge you to give art a seat at your tables – wherever decisions about our future are taking place. I call on you to encourage others in your circle to do the same.


You, as members of the Rideau Club have just celebrated a 150th anniversary – a huge milestone in this respected institution’s history.

Now, Canada is preparing to celebrate its 150th anniversary – a huge milestone in our country’s identity in the 21st century.

And as we prepare to celebrate, I believe Canadians are more than ever hungry for big ideas. For vision. For optimism.


Thank you!