Context Brief: Culturally Diverse Arts (arts of racialized artists)

We have prepared a series of context briefs that contain key information and resources about emerging, minoritized and less-understood arts communities and practices. Our intention is to foster greater understanding, and help ensure that internal and peer committees are equipped to make informed recommendations.

Each Context Brief is a living document and is updated from time to time to evolve with the ongoing dialogue about the topic.


Definition of “culturally diverse”

The Canada Council defines “culturally diverse” (racialized) artists as those of African, Asian, Latin American, Middle Eastern and mixed racial descent. While this umbrella term is convenient in grouping populations that collectively face systemic racism, it is important to recognize that each of these cultural groups is distinct and composed of diverse sub-groups, encompassing myriad languages, histories, aesthetics and cultural expressions.

Culturally diverse organizations include:

  • culturally specific groups, which are focused on the artistic practices or expressions of a particular ethno-cultural community; and
  • intercultural groups, which incorporate multiple cultures and art forms.

The so-called universality of art and the varying notions of excellence

Many believe that art is universal. While it is true that great art can sometimes have universal resonance, the creation and reception of art is, in fact, highly specific and based on particular cultural norms, histories, belief systems, ideals of beauty, linguistic contexts and aesthetic values. In fact, many culturally diverse art forms and works include aesthetic features that do not conform to Western idioms.

Examples include the focus on polyrhythm and polycentrism in African dance and the use of the non-Occidental pentatonic scale in Chinese music. In some cases, the aesthetics of Western and non-Western art forms are diametrically opposed. On the one hand, classical ballet favours lithe, athletic body types, pointed toes, the illusion of lightness or flight and significant physical contact between dancers covering large spaces. On the other hand, Bharatanatyam, a highly disciplined classical dance form from South India, is characterized by a wide range of body types, flexed or flattened feet, a solid, earth-centred stance, limited physical contact between dancers, subtle gestures of the hands and eyes and a more compact use of space.

When we assess culturally diverse artists’ work, it is critical to recognize that:

  • artistic works are received differently by individuals of different cultural and aesthetic backgrounds;
  • definitions of artistic merit are fluid and subjective; and
  • notions of excellence vary among cultures, traditions, genres and sty

Multiple systemic barriers

Although there is greater sensitivity around diverse cultural practices today than in the past, culturally diverse artists continue to experience various systemic and attitudinal barriers within the Canadian arts sector. Stereotyping, exoticization, tokenism and exclusion are ongoing concerns.

Despite years of professional practice, artists often find themselves labeled as “community,” “ethnic” or “minority,” and work that falls within a traditional or folk rubric is frequently undervalued when compared with either contemporary work or work based on classical Western forms. Linguistic barriers can also be an issue for newcomer and immigrant artists whose first language is not English or French. This affects the artists’ ability to write grant proposals and advocate for themselves within the Canadian arts sector.

Cultural appropriation is also an ongoing concern, with various mainstream artists and arts organizations “borrowing” the cultural forms, aesthetics or iconography of culturally diverse communities―but removing them from their social, political and cultural roots, failing to give credit to the sources of this work and sometimes limiting racialized artists’ access and opportunity to tell their own stories.

Issues and analysis

Key challenges facing culturally diverse artists and arts organizations

Since the early 2000s, changing Canadian demographics have contributed to the rapid growth of culturally diverse artistic expression, arts organizations and companies, and audiences across the country. Culturally diverse artists in all disciplines have also benefited from greater public and critical appreciation for their work.

Despite positive developments and more access to funding, there remains a lack of infrastructure in the greater arts milieu to support training, creation, production and dissemination of culturally specific and inter-cultural art forms and works. In addition, because much of this work stems from non-European aesthetics, artistic disciplines and worldviews, norms by which the majority compares, views and assesses art may not apply. Therefore, peers must look outside of European-based art canons to find appropriate measures with which to evaluate work.

Training dominated by Eurocentric forms

Formal training opportunities that are culturally sensitive and include diverse artistic practices as part of the core curriculum are limited in Canada. In this country, pre-professional training institutions and university arts programs are still dominated by Eurocentric art forms and aesthetics.

Culturally diverse arts organizations are thus increasingly engaged in a wide spectrum of knowledge-transfer activities, including mentorships, apprenticeships, workshops, labs and specialized courses. Also, many culturally diverse arts organizations must recruit, cultivate and train their own artists because most training institutions do not offer instruction in culturally specific art forms, and artists schooled and experienced in these forms are not readily available.

Performing-arts groups, in particular, frequently start their own schools to nurture the next generation of artist-practitioners working in particular cultural forms (e.g. classical Indian music and dance, Chinese opera, African dance). Additionally, these groups may invite foreign guest artists to enhance their pool of performers, mentors and creators, and enrich their repertoires.

Limited income and availability to work

Although being poorly and inadequately paid for artistic work is a universal concern for Canadian artists, census-based data has shown that culturally diverse artists make less income from their artistic practices than their non-culturally diverse peers.

Cultural and financial realities also mean that culturally diverse artists are more often employed during the week in non-artistic jobs and can devote only part-time evening and weekend hours to their artistic projects. This can result in longer creation and production cycles and limit culturally diverse artists’ professional-development opportunities. Culturally diverse artists may not, for instance, be as readily available to participate in extended artistic residencies or workshops as other artists. Conceived to be accessible to those with limited income, some of their projects may also appear smaller in scale. Therefore, their resumes may not reflect as varied and robust training and as professional work experiences as others.

Continued barriers to funding and infrastructure for organizations

In recent years, the Canada Council and various provincial and municipal funding agencies have deliberately worked to support culturally diverse artists. This has happened in response to the historic and systemic barriers to funding that minoritized applicants have faced. However, it continues to be a challenge for culturally diverse arts organizations and companies to access core, and multi-year support or attain equitable levels of funding within programs. With limited core budget and funding offered on several years, these programs are often difficult for new applicants to access, especially culturally diverse organizations that have typically entered the funding stream significantly later than their European-Canadian counterparts.

As more recent recipients of core funding, culturally diverse arts organizations often lack infrastructure in the form of human and financial resources, facilities, and administrative, marketing and fundraising capacity. Building this capacity is essential to meeting the needs of culturally diverse artists and arts organizations and ensuring their long-term sustainability. At this stage, project and operating budgets from these groups may reflect greater dependency on public funding and more reliance on volunteer or in-kind services than those of mainstream peers.

Significant challenges for dissemination

Since the early 2010s, work by culturally diverse artists has increasingly appeared on Canadian stages and screens, in Canadian galleries and on Canadian publishers’ lists. This is largely due to the talent and resourcefulness of artists from these communities, but has also happened in response to growing demand from the Canadian public, and increased sensitivity around issues of equity and diversity within the arts sector as a whole.

Notwithstanding this momentum, culturally diverse artists continue to experience greater challenges disseminating their work than their non-culturally diverse peers. Contributing factors include a lack of knowledge and sometimes interest among “mainstream” Canadian presenters, curators, programmers and publishers about culturally diverse art forms and practices – and a limited number of culturally diverse arts professionals in decision-making roles within Canadian arts institutions.

Here is how the dissemination issue plays out across various artistic practices:

  • In dance, few presenters regularly showcase work rooted in non-Western dance tradition
  • In theatre, presenters may limit their culturally diverse content to one work per season.
  • In the music scene, world and folk music festivals have played an important role in nurturing culturally diverse talent, yet artists of colour still report limited access to recording and “mainstage” performance opportunities.
  • In visual and media arts, culturally diverse artists have seen an increase in exhibition opportunities and curatorial and critical discourse of their work, but equitable access to Canadian galleries, museums, festivals and broadcasting has not yet been achieved.
  • In writing, culturally diverse writers have gained visibility within publishing circles and the Canadian readership (increasingly garnering major literary awards such as the Governor General’s Literary Award, the Scotiabank Giller Prize and Canada Reads). However, emerging and newcomer writers still face substantial hurdles to publication, due in part to a lack of magazines and journals publishing culturally diverse writers’ fiction and poetry, and the untimely demise of many culturally specific publications over the last two decades.

In response to these limitations, culturally diverse artists are often obliged to:

  • self-present their work
  • take advantage of alternative performance or exhibition opportunities in non-traditional venues and settings
  • develop new digital platforms for their work
  • pioneer their own festivals or presentations and touring networks to reach and develop their audiences

International dissemination

On an international scale, culturally diverse artists are also exploring new territory by connecting Canada to growing markets in East Asia, South Asia, South and Central America, Africa and the Middle East.

However, presenting or exhibiting in non-traditional spaces and less affluent regions, where the emphasis is frequently on cultural rather than monetary exchange, often results in lower self-generated income for culturally diverse artists and arts organizations. Peers may also erroneously perceive these presentations as less “professional” than those in more conventional spaces because they pay lower artist fees. Fully understanding the context of less economically developed countries and validating dissemination in a variety of settings is thus essential.

The Council’s equity considerations for culturally diverse arts

What is equity?

Equity is a principle and process that promotes fair conditions for all persons to fully participate in society. It recognizes that while all people have the right to be treated equally, not all individuals experience equal access to resources, opportunities or benefits. Achieving equity does not necessarily mean treating individuals or groups in the same way, but may require the use of specific measures to ensure fairness.

Focus on equity at Council

Ensuring equitable access to its programs and services is a core value of the Canada Council. It is a longstanding commitment dating back to 1991, when the Council established the Equity Office to improve access for Canadian artists from Indigenous and culturally diverse communities.

With the 2016 publication of its new strategic plan, Shaping a New Future, 2016–21, Council reiterated its focus on equity as one of its ongoing commitments. Equity principles and practices have also been integrated into Council’s Funding Model, with specific diversity-focused criteria included in most core funding programs.

In recognition of the significant challenges and systemic barriers that culturally diverse artists, groups and arts organizations face, the Council recognizes culturally diverse applicants among the equity-seeking groups for which it has developed specific definitions, policies and mechanisms, as identified in the Council’s Equity Policy.