Simon Brault speaks at the 7th World Summit on Arts & Culture in Malta

At the crossroads:
Cultural Leadership in the 21st Century

October 19, 2016

At the crossroads? Cultural Leadership in the 21st Century
7th World Summit on Arts and Culture

Panel : What are the key drivers of change and who are today's leaders?

I’m thrilled to be sharing the stage with such committed and engaged artists and arts professionals. Because most of the time, it is the artists who are at the frontlines of change.

They are dreaming it, living it, driving it, helping the rest of us navigate it.  As funders, we’re here to support their art – and their work to engage the public in change.

Because when we talk about leadership in terms of driving change, no one can do it alone. We need shared leadership – across all sectors, all practices, at every level, with all citizens.

And I would argue that we need this collective leadership now more than ever. Our world is changing at record speed, creating stresses and fissures across society.

We need the cohesive power of the arts. We need its creativity, its empathy, its capacity to help us imagine a better future. Now is not the time for us to be fearful. Now is a time for bold leadership.

Simon Brault speaks at the 7th World Summit on Arts & Culture in Malta
Simon Brault, 7th World Summit on Arts and Culture

Recently I read an interview with Achille Mbembe, the celebrated philosopher and intellectual who is originally from Cameroon and is now living in France. He was speaking on the state of cultural conflict around the world. He said:

We have to open the doors and windows. We need a bit of air in these tense and stuffy times. This era is putting us to sleep while preventing us from dreaming. We have to give dreams and poetry a chance. We have to find new ways to fight – this time on a truly global scale.

For me this quote is a call to action for leadership at all levels. It speaks to the urgency for big visions and bold actions to help the arts to breathe new life into discussions about the issues of our era.

Background on the Canada Council

I’m very passionate about this topic. It’s one I’ve been living and breathing throughout my career – especially in the past two and half years as CEO of the Canada Council.

For those who aren’t familiar with the Canada Council, let me take a moment to tell you about it. The Council was established in 1957, in the post-World War II years. It was a time when Canada was establishing its identity - as separate from its roots as a British colony, separate from the powerful influence of the US to the south.

There was a strong sense that Canada had something unique to offer the world and that its cultural presence could be strengthened with federal support. The Council was created as a federal agency that operates at arm's-length from the government. This means we receive annual funding from government, which we administer without political interference.

This doesn’t mean that we’re not accountable. On the contrary, it means that we are accountable to all citizens of Canada. Because we’re investing public funds we must be transparent and relevant. We have to strike a balance between taking risks and demonstrating impact.

Of course, Canada and the world, have significantly changed in the 60 years since the Council was formed. And although the Council had tried to keep pace with numerous small, ad-hoc, organic adjustments over time, these are no longer enough.  It became clear that our funding programs weren’t meeting the evolving needs of artists and the concerns of the public - We knew we had to do better.

We had to ask ourselves some difficult questions: How could we continue to be relevant and best serve artists and the public? How could we meet the urgent need to reflect and speak to today’s Canada in all its diversity? And how could we bring the arts to the bigger conversations of the day?

Digital technologies, changing demographics and mass migration, sustainability, Indigenous rights, social cohesion, cultural rights, civic engagement – these are all issues that we’re addressing as a society in Canada. They are all issues where the arts can drive change.

Canada Council’s Transformation

Two years ago, we began a large-scale transformation to respond to these questions. It’s a transformation in our organizational structure, our funding model, and above all, our vision.

We decided our vision needed to be ambitious. It had to stay focused on artistic excellence andembrace our social responsibilities as a publicly-funded agency. Our vision is to have the art seen as a driver for change in our society – with artists and arts organizations playing a key role.

I’ll give a few examples of how we’ve transformed and how this supports shared leadership for change:


We’ve transformed our funding model/grant programs to make our funding more accessible to a wider range of artists and arts organizations. We want to welcome those who have been working outside of the boundaries of what we’ve traditionally funded. This includes:

Groups that have been marginalized - for example young artists and artists from culturally diverse and deaf and disability arts communities.

New and emerging arts practices and disciplines – such as digital arts and contemporary circus arts. And we’ve built in flexibility so that we can continue to adapt to an ever-changing environment with new priorities, practices, trends, business models, etc.

We’re calling on the organizations we fund to also be more open and to better reflect the communities they serve - this is in the criteria for their funding. It’s part of the shared leadership and shared responsibility.

This also includes reaching out to diverse publics - citizens who have felt excluded from accessing the arts in traditional ways.

I want to stress here that this is more than an exercise in audience building/boosting ticket sales. It comes from a commitment to give greater opportunity for people of all backgrounds, represented across many diasporas, to have a voice, to be empowered. To become engaged citizens – fellow leaders – for a better future through the arts.

Indigenous Arts

Another main pillar in the Council’s transformation, and another example of shared leadership, is our new approach to supporting Indigenous arts.

Globally, there is a movement to recognize Indigenous self-determination. In Canada, the issue of reconciliation between Indigenous peoples and non-Indigenous people is at the forefront of public discourse. (Federal Truth and Reconciliation Commission recently released its report on the tragic legacy of abuse and cultural genocide in Canada’s Indian residential schools that operated for much of the 20th century).

At the same time, the role of the arts in building reconciliation is well documented.

At the Council, we’ve been working for some time now to transform our approach to funding Indigenous arts. To address it as an issue of nationhood.

It’s not the Council’s role to lead cultural self-determination but we have an obligation and a responsibility to support Indigenous artists and communities to lead it, on their own terms.

The main way we’ll do this is through an Indigenous arts program, we are calling Creating, Knowing, Sharing. It is informed by the notion of self-determination and self-governance. This means it will be guided by Indigenous artists’ values and worldviews, administered by staff of Indigenous heritage.

Our goal is for the arts to truly fulfill its significant role in a journey of conciliation and decolonization.

Boost the international profile of Canadian art and artists

One last example of our transformation and the power of shared leadership that I’ll mention is our new international approach -- especially relevant for our conversation today.

Historically, we supported Canadian artists to reach international markets, primarily as a way to boost their financial and artistic success. Obviously, we still care about this - it’s important, especially in a country like Canada with such a small and scattered population.

But now, we’re thinking bigger.

We’re thinking of the larger societal benefits of international engagement. How it can encourage reciprocity and exchange of ideas, build cross-cultural understanding, and develop cultural citizenship on a global scale.

We want our international funding to reinforce our other priorities around inclusivity and Indigenous arts, for example.

We’ve created a specific program for all of our international grants, which we’re calling Arts Abroad.

We’ve created a Partnership and International Coordination Office so that we can be highly strategic in our interventions and have more impact by working with other international organizations within and beyond the arts sector.

We’re also maximizing the networks of the Canadian Commission for UNESCO, which is part of the Council. This network of networks brings together experts from all sectors of society to build peaceful, equitable and sustainable futures.

We share many strong areas of synergy including Canada’s support of the Convention of the Diversity of Cultural Expression.

This is an international agreement that we can all leverage and rally behind. It speaks to the importance of international exchange in the arts sector, the role of artistic expression in promoting human rights and freedoms, and the vital role of the arts in sustainable development.

The link between the arts and sustainability comes through clearly in Agenda 2030 – which outlines the UN Sustainable Development Goals. It recognizes that culture, creativity and cultural diversity are key to solving our sustainable development challenges – and imagining the future we want to protect.

In the spirit of shared leadership we’re looking for ways to share the expertise of the leaders of our arts sector and learn from leaders in other countries.

For example, the Council promotes young Canadian leaders through programs like the Salzburg Global Forum for Young Cultural Innovators, and through the fellowship program of the International Society of Performing Arts

In November, I’ll be in Buenos Aires to speak about cross-sectoral partnership at an international seminar on public and private investments in culture, hosted by the Argentina National Endowment for the Arts.

And of course, the IFACCA network is an important platform to promote international exchange between emerging and established leaders in our respective countries. It offers us an opportunity to optimize our own shared leadership as arts funders. I look forward to discussing this more with you.

Change is a process

For the purposes of this panel it’s just as important to talk about our process of transformation – how we got here:

From the beginning – continuing today, our approach has been to make a dramatic change but to be transparent. Even when we don’t yet know all the answers.

We’ve reassured our grantees that they won’t be left behind, and we’ve been careful to avoid any disruptions in services and granting during the transition. Above all, we want to avoid destabilizing any part of our arts ecology.

We’ve asked the arts sector to continue to be brave – in creating challenging and ambitious work. In looking beyond usual partners to join progressive movements.

We tied our vision to a larger vision of improving the lives of citizens. Because having rational argument to share with politicians and policy makers is important. But ultimately we need to speak to the hearts of citizens. We need to be passionate about our aspirations. We can’t just talk about vision, we have to act. Just look at recent political discourse from Brexit to burkinis, to US presidential campaign. Facts are important, but they can also be overlooked and brushed aside.

To drive change, you need to make the case to citizens. It’s an appeal of fact and passion.

This bold and proactive approach has worked for the Council. We recently benefited from an increase in our funding from the federal government. At a time when many arts funders are experiencing dramatic cuts, our budget will double over 5 years!

An investment of this scale that has never before been seen in the Council’s history. It means we can deepen our investments in the commitment I described earlier. It gives us the means to deliver a real impact through our transformation.

Call to Action

Obviously, not all of us here are starting from the same place. I am very conscious of the privileged position of Canada. Many of the countries represented here have seen their arts budgets slashed. Some have no infrastructure for the arts. Many are working with the realities of war, conflict and poverty.

But I believe we can still learn from each other’s experiences. And together, we can build momentum for change by doing our part to bring the arts to the table where the big issues of the day are being discussed.

What my experience at the Canada Council has taught me is that in this era of constant change, we can no longer wait for the perfect conditions to change. If we do wait, we lose our capacity to lead. We’re reduced to knee-jerk reactions.

Yes, there’s risk in this. But the alternative is to risk having change imposed on us. To risk losing the chance to create our own destiny.

Instead, we must seize opportunities when they arise. Even when we fear we’re not ready.

There’s no secret recipe, no template, no strategy that will guarantee success. Above all, we need to act.

Don’t be afraid to have an ambitious vision. If you’re here today, it’s likely you believe in the power of the arts to shape a better future. Well then, don’t be afraid to say it, in your conversations across all platforms, to all stakeholders.

At the same time as you dream, be realistic about your constraints. Often as arts funders we operate in bureaucracies where there are many processes and people to protect us from making mistakes. But these same things that protect us, can also hinder us from taking action.

When you can’t afford risk… when you can’t move quickly, support those who can. Who are the progressive forces for change in your country? Who can be more nimble? Who can get away with taking risks? Once you find these allies, find ways to support them. Through partnerships, through funding. This is shared leadership.

Don’t be afraid to face adversity – because there will always be adversity. It is no excuse for inaction.

Obviously, this is something I feel very strongly about. We can’t afford not to have strong leadership for the arts. There’s too much at stake.

Many of our artists and arts organizations are taking risks. They are on the front lines of change. They are fearless. And they deserve nothing less from us.

The world needs the arts to have a strong voice. The arts sector depends on it. Our future depends on it. So let’s get started!

Thank you!

Portrait - Simon Brault 2014
Simon Brault, O.C, O.Q.

Director and CEO

Simon Brault is the Director and CEO of the Canada Council for the Arts. Author of No Culture, No Future, a collection of essays on the rise of arts and culture on public agendas, he has participated actively in initiatives such as the Agenda 21C de la culture au Québec. An initiator of Journées de la culture, he was also a founding member and chair of Culture Montréal from 2002 to 2014. In 2015, he received the Quebec CPA Order’s prestigious Outstanding Achievement Award for bringing together “two worlds that were once disparate – the arts and business – an alliance that significantly benefits society at large.” Follow Simon Brault on Twitter: @simon_brault

Publisher : Canada Council for the Arts

Tagged As Speeches