Simon Brault – Canada Council Annual Public Meeting

Speech given by Simon Brault, Director and CEO
Canada Council for the Arts
Annual Public Meeting
150 Elgin Street
January 20, 2015 

Good morning/afternoon,

I hope, like me, you enjoyed this video. To see the full version, check out a film festival near you. This film is likely to be shown at several festivals across the country.

On this occasion last year, as my second five-year term as Vice-Chair was coming to an end, I was sure that I was attending my last annual public meeting of the Canada Council for the Arts.

Well, I was wrong! Here I am, back again – this time, as the Director and Chief Executive Officer of the Council.

And I am absolutely delighted to be here. Since June 26, when I took on this role, I’ve felt buoyed by energy in a way that Hélène Dorion described best in her most recent essay, Recommencements – and I quote:

 ‘We resist so strongly the invitation to renewal, even though new beginnings define us the way a wave defines the ocean.’

As a matter of fact, this invitation to renewal is the starting point for my work at the helm of the Canada Council for the Arts. We are entering the final phase of the 2011-2016 Strategic Plan. We are considering a host of creative possibilities to mark the 150th anniversary of Canada. And we are beginning an ambitious project to reconfigure and modernize our programs of grants to artists and arts organizations, with the end of the first phase planned in time for our 60th anniversary in 2017.

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Introduction: looking back at 2013-2014

First, I’d like to take you on a brief tour of what we accomplished in 2013-2014.

In the enviable context of stable government funding and thanks to our limited but strategic movement of funds, we were able to: increase access to national and international markets for artists; devote more attention to up-and-coming companies and emerging practices; pave the way for improved access to our programs for Aboriginal artists; support culturally-diverse artists to flourish and shine; and innovate by designing new funding approaches for disabled and Deaf artists.

We’ve made significant progress in public engagement in the arts, including in the time-honoured way of leading by example. With the move to 150 Elgin Street we’ve dramatically increased our street presence. Hundreds of visitors have already joined us in this space to hear musicians play on precious instruments from the Musical Instrument Bank, celebrate International Jazz Day with UNESCO, visit Art Bank exhibits in the Âjagemô gallery and attend public readings by the 14 winning authors of the Governor General’s Literary Awards.

Our workspace is now a place where artists, their work and citizens can come together. And when I say artists and citizens, I mean the entire Canadian population in its full cultural, ethnic linguistic and regional diversity, beginning with the rich presence of Aboriginal communities. This sends a strong signal. I’d like to share a recent statement made by the Chair of Arts Council England, Sir Peter Bazalgette[i], which I think is right on the mark when we talk about the Council’s engagement with its public and with diversity. He says, and I quote: “When we invest public money in arts and culture it must be for the benefit of all the public.” He continues, drawing on a very pertinent quote by Indhu Rubasingham of Tricycle Theatre: “If you don’t represent your community, how is your work authentic? And if you don’t engage with the taxpayers, why should they fund you?”

Of course, we can always argue that art doesn’t need to justify itself. It can exist by and for itself. History has proven this. However, while art itself needs no justification to exist, public funding of art, in a democratic society, must be explained, justified, debated and defended. Its direct and indirect impacts on cultural rights, social development, education, economic vitality, international outreach, identities, health and more cannot be ignored in this public discussion. Along with public funding comes public considerations and responsibilities.

In the past year we have been very active on the international scene, accompanying and supporting delegations of Canadian artists in the Asia-Pacific region and Shanghai. These flourishing markets are important and many artists want access to them. We committed to doubling our international grants to reach $10 million by March 31, 2015. This has allowed us to fund artists to take part in a greater number of tours, artists’ residencies and participation in biennales and arts fairs. It has increased the outreach of our creators and performers on the world’s stages.

These are just a few examples of the achievements that marked the year 2013-2014, and to find out more, I invite you to consult our annual report online. The report on the activities of the Canadian Commission for UNESCO also provides a survey of the impact of this network whose work that we are proud to coordinate. The Commission invites government representatives and experts to join forces to promote the values and programs of UNESCO, and in so doing, contribute to a future characterized by peace, equity and sustainability.

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Increasing the impact of the Canada Council for the benefit of all Canadians

For close to sixty years, the Canada Council for the Arts has been true to its mandate to promote the study and enjoyment of the arts and the production of works of art. The Canada Council is an organization that is highly respected by all stakeholders. Since I took up my current position, my contacts here in Ottawa and around the country have voiced and volunteered their appreciation of our work in terms of our exemplary governance and accountability, credible management of the peer evaluation process, unquestionable expertise in all artistic disciplines, and timely program delivery.

I should also point out that the Council’s funding was not cut when the government undertook its across-the-board deficit reduction exercise. Globally, the Canada Council today is one of the few national organizations for public funding of the arts whose resources, mandate and powers have not been restricted over the past six years. While it is entirely normal to be pleased about this and to thank the Canadian government, we must above all make use of this strategic advantage to maximize the impact of our grants and interventions across the country, and on the international stage. Objectively, Canada today is one of the countries best equipped to take advantage of the economic, social, community, personal, democratic and diplomatic benefits of the artistic creation it encourages through the work of the Council.

Over the past six months, I’ve repeatedly reiterated my conviction that the Council cannot simply keep on doing the same thing with the same means, or even with greater means, if it wants to remain relevant in the 21st century.

We have to adopt and assume an attitude of anticipation. We must affirm our commitment to innovate in response to the rapidly expanding technological and societal changes of the times. This is crucial, because while the digital revolution transforms the relations citizens have between themselves, it has an even greater effect on their relationships with informational, artistic, cultural and symbolic content, and with all of the practical aspects of everyday life. Further – and this is worth noting – if we look at the amount of time spent on line, Canadians are the biggest Internet users in the world.

‘Promoting the production of works of art’ is no easy task at a time when the glut of available content has reached proportions that would have been unimaginable a mere five years ago, and when ways of engaging with the arts are changing so radically. We have to streamline and focus our actions, and show that we continue to be relevant to artists, the general public, policy makers and all our present and potential partners.

Of course, our fundamental principles and values must be maintained. These are our reasons for being and what make us unique. They are what anchor the government’s requirements and Canadian citizens’ expectations of the Canada Council for the Arts. These include:

  • our commitment to artistic excellence and the best way of sharing it with society,
  • our recognition of professionalism and our determination to improve the working conditions and remuneration of artists,
  • our profound conviction that peer assessment is the best system for attributing public funds to advance the arts,
  • our exemplary official languages policies and our respect for the languages, stories, traditions and contemporary artistic practices of Aboriginal peoples,
  • our commitment to promoting inclusion and diversity and thus to affirming autonomous decision-making with respect to government.

All of these principles and values must be maintained. Having said this, however, we have to constantly improve the way we identify, measure, describe and communicate the impacts of our investments in a world where interrelations are growing so exponentially that we can barely quantify them. The scale and complexity of the task are daunting, but will not hold us back. The Council is determined to expand and demonstrate its impact, including by thoroughly re-examining the 142 grant programs it currently manages to significantly simplify them and reduce their numbers. 

Like many other arts councils here in Canada and around the world, we need to simplify our administrative and decision-making processes so that artists and organizations can devote more of their creativity and energy to their art practices and interactions with the public, and less trying to wade through the maze of an excessive number of programs. We will take up the rallying cry of our colleagues at the Australia Council for the Arts: ‘More sweat and tears in the art forms than in the application form.’ 

Along the same lines, the use of new digital solutions at the Council will allow us to optimize the fundamental work of peer committees and give our officers more time to advise, support and guide artists and arts organizations, and to play a more active and formative role in the arts community.

The initial phase of this vast plan to rework and reconfigure our grants programs and to set up a new computerized system for managing our relationship with our clients began four months ago, and it should take at least another eighteen months of hard work before it is finished. But this first phase will culminate in nothing less than an entirely new funding model that will steer the course of the Canada Council and influence the practice and outreach of the arts both in our communities and on the international scene for years to come. 

Our aim is to arm the Council with less than ten major national, non-disciplinary programs that cover all fields of artistic practice and its outreach in Canada and the world, and that take into account the specific issues of current arts disciplines and emerging art forms.

We also want to turn a corner in the history of the Council and possibly, even, in the history of the country, by creating a specific program for Aboriginal arts while inviting First Nations, Métis and Inuit artists to take advantage of all our other programs if they want to as well. The Council’s Aboriginal Arts Office is leading the development of this program, with the support of our Policy and Evaluation sections.

The current distribution of funding envelopes by arts disciplines and specialized areas of intervention (publishing, Aboriginal arts, equity, etc.) will be the starting point for the new funding model. Nobody will lose any funding because of this new model. The intention is not to modify the actual allocations of funding or to destabilize arts organizations. It is to create a new baseline to fund Council's priorities with new investments by the government. 

Obviously, for the next several months, the work-in-progress will primarily take place internally. However, it will be informed by the observations, analyses and findings of the many recent consultations the Council has undertaken with the arts communities. Many of these observations and findings pointed to a need for us to renew our interventions. We will be guided by the deliberations of peer committees who continue to evaluate proposals and analyze the state of the disciplines and fields of practice, while proposing improvements to existing programs. The exercise also draws on the vast experience and expertise of all of the directors, administrators and employees of the Arts Disciplines Division (dance, theatre, media arts, music, writing and publishing and visual arts) and the offices of Aboriginal Arts, Equity, Inter-Arts and Audience and Market Development. As well, it mobilizes our employees in Arts Services, Research and Evaluation, Communications and Information Technology.

This is a high priority project for the management and board of the Canada Council. It is key to the renewed leadership we must practice so that the arts sector can successfully rise to the technological, demographic, financial, historical and sociological challenges shaping a future whose waves we will navigate for the benefit of all Canadians. I invite you all to participate fully in the exchanges and conversations that will take place as we move forward on this promising initiative.   

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Promoting arts appreciation today and for the future:
challenges and opportunities 

I have just spoken to you at length about what’s at the top of our to-do list right now, and it’s obvious that it aligns with the part of our mandate that deals with support to research, creation and production, as well as with support for organizations and national and international outreach for works of art.

But I would like to end this presentation by looking at another, inseparable, part of our mandate, and that is the promotion, study and appreciation of the arts in Canadian society. For this is where the democratic legitimacy of our work is reinforced. And this is where we must scale up the impact of our decisions and the work of the thousands of artists and arts organizations we fund each year.

Earlier, I spoke about the ongoing renovation of our grant programs. The Council is also optimizing the other programs it administers that give Canadians more access to art in their daily lives, and that give Canada a greater influence on the world scene. I am thinking in particular here of the Art Bank, the many prizes and awards for excellence  that we administer and promote, often in partnership with other bodies, the Canadian Commission for UNESCO, the Musical Instrument Bank and the Public Lending Right Program. These all allow the Canada Council to engage with the general public on the subjects of the arts and the values we champion.

We know that we need to be increasingly present, informed and engaged in regional, national and international conversations aimed at improving the human condition by tackling important development issues. 

As the Chair of our Board never ceases to remind us, if we want the enormous contributions made by the arts to be recognized, we need to have a seat at the table where the decisions shaping the future are being made

This seat at the table is not a given – it must be earned. Sometimes, we have to invite ourselves in and politely insist on being given a chair. And when we are invited, we must contribute by offering a perspective that resonates and that is informed by the constant exchanges we have with the artists of this country. By giving proof of this relevance and generosity, we will be invited more and more often to take a seat at the table, and the Canada Council will be given more responsibilities, and the means to carry them out, for the greater good of society.

The Canada Council for the Arts is a facilitator and catalyst for artistic creation and cultural innovation that targets, evaluates and cultivates excellence at the national level for the benefit of hundreds of communities and all Canadians. The Council is one of the foremost platforms that Canada has for stimulating the individual and collective creativity of its diverse citizenry and for encouraging innovation in myriad realms of social and economic development. Its interventions have tangible and lasting repercussions on the domestic and international fronts, and this needs to be more widely recognized and highlighted.

Over the coming years, with the unwavering support of the Canadian government, we want to increase and enhance the presence of Canadian artists here and throughout the world. We want to improve the working and living conditions of our artists. We want all citizens to have more access to the potential for socialization, emancipation, creation and innovation that comes by being exposed to artistic excellence. We also want to give better support to Aboriginal creators for the artistic growth they aspire to for their people, knowing that they have inherited an incomparable cultural and spiritual wealth that Canada must acknowledge and embrace.

In closing, I would like to quote the poet Paul Valéry, who said, ‘The future is like everything else – it’s not what it used to be.’ And I would add that this is a good thing!



[i] Excerpt of a speech by Sir Peter Bazalgette, Arts Council and the Creative Case for Diversity, Sadler’s Wells, December 8, 2014.