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Determined to Increase the Impact of the Arts on Society

January 17, 2017

Speech by Simon Brault
Annual public meeting 17 January 2017

Wow! Bravo and a thousand thanks to the three of you for that outstanding performance! And thanks many thanks to Cris for bringing such excellent performers with you.

Your presence here today will continue to inspire us. In fact, Cris, although you may not even realize it, you’ve been inspiring us quite a bit over the past year.

For example, a few months ago, when the team working on our annual report proposed that we use a photo of you for the cover, I immediately agreed. That famous photo of you standing in the snow in front of a wall of graffiti, with your sticker-covered cello case says so much about your music and your journey. And it’s a perfect fit with so many of the aspirations and observations that are currently shaping our work at the Council:

  • The blurring of the boundaries between the arts disciplines;
  • The will to invite art into the heart of the historic process of truth and reconciliation;
  • A commitment to diversity in all its forms; and,
  • Above all, a driving, constant, original and personal quest for excellence. A quest that speaks to your growing audience both here at home, and around the world.

This past September I also had the chance to share the stage with you at the Prismatic Festival in Halifax. There, for the first time, I presented the Council’s detailed plans for greater investments in the creation and sharing of Indigenous art, diversity, emerging artists and the new generation.

That evening, your performance responded to my speech, giving it life and resonance.

Today, in spite of your busy schedule, you have done us the honour of breathing added soul and vitality into this annual meeting. A meeting that, as Pierre mentioned also marks the launch of the 60th anniversary of the Canada Council for the Arts. We want to celebrate this anniversary as we pay tribute to a proud past and look ahead to our future with great anticipation, and a deep sense of responsibility.

To paraphrase Albert Camus, the best way to prepare for the future is to give all we have to the present.

Giving all to the present to shape our future is precisely what we’ve done in the past year. And everything I speak about today was made possible by the Council employees. Together they brought their expertise, perspectives, intelligence and hard work to develop the new funding model that will launch this spring. This will lead to an historic and lasting reinvestment in the creation, nurturing, sharing and outreach of the arts and literature in Canada and in the world.

Looking back at 2016

Today we can affirm that the Council is no longer what it was. But it will always remain what it was created for and what it has become, over the past six decades – as essential as it is respected.

Let me explain.

We remain committed to our mandate to support and promote the arts. What does change, however, is the application of that mandate in a society in the midst of profound transformation.

To remain relevant, we have to be able to transform, persevere and maintain our course when necessary.

The year marked a decisive turning point in the transformation that was announced at the beginning of my appointment as Director and CEO. We took on an ambitious and pragmatic strategic plan. We completed the six programs of our new funding model. And we launched the grant portal that will make it simpler to interact with the Council. As promised, the portal opened on December 1, and to date close to 7000 people have already registered in it.

Numbers always fuel the imagination, because they give us an idea of the scale of what’s happening. The response has been strong and positive – not just for the launch of the portal, but also throughout the year for each of our initiatives. The Council has the wind in its sails. We feel it. Others tell us they feel it. And we live it on a daily basis.

Naturally, the announcement of the progressive doubling of our budget over five years in last March’s federal budget accelerated our operations – both internally and in terms of national and international outreach.

In April, we published our new strategic plan. The design of our new funding model was well underway, and we were ready to plan how we would invest these additional funding in order to meet structuring, measurable goals for the future of the arts and for the benefit of Canadians.

Let’s take a minute to look at these investments.

We are anxious to see how the artistic community takes hold of this unprecedented occasion in arts funding – one that makes Canada unique on the world stage right now.

2017: the beginning of a new chapter

We recently saw just how eager and ambitious the arts community is to rise to the occasion – with the tremendous update on our New Chapter program, created to mark the 150th anniversary of Confederation.

As you know, we had to act very quickly to design this program, since the federal budget was at the end of March and we wanted to invest the first portion of the new funds in the 2016-2017 fiscal year.

So we decided to create an ad hoc program that would only fund arts projects that were exceptional in nature, both for their creators and for the public. On April 1, 2017, the funds devoted to this ad hoc program will once again become more broadly available so that Council can begin investing permanently in its six new programs and the Strategic Fund for the arts in a digital world.

The community’s response to the New Chapter was extraordinary – it took our breath away!

The proposals we received totalled more than $440 million! To give you an idea of what that represents: it’s more than all the projects funded by the Council over the past 8 years!

We received 2,225 applications, 552 of them in the first competition where we attributed about 25 % of our grant budget of $33.4 million.

52 projects will receive grants ranging from 50K to 375K following the evaluations of peer assessment committees.

This represents a success rate of barely 10%, which is much lower than usual. We believe this situation should remain exceptional, since our budget envelope will gradually increase until it has doubled over the next four years, and the volume of applications will also be spread out over time.

You’ll be hearing a lot of talk about New Chapter as the funded projects begin to take shape. We will collaborate closely with the artists and organizations selected so that we can share their work with Canadians.

In fact, we couldn’t resist the temptation to contact some of the first recipients of these new grants so that we could share their reactions with you. Since these were recorded live, we haven’t had the time to translate them, but there’s a mixture of French and English here.

Like you, I look forward to seeing these projects unfold throughout Canada and the world.

In about three months, we will be announcing the results of the second and final competition under New Chapter.

Looking to tomorrow

Speaking about the future, I want to talk about one of the four major commitments of our strategic plan – supporting the arts in a digital world.

As you saw earlier in the investments video, the Council plans to invest $88.5 M directly into the arts sector over five years. This will significantly increase the scope, sharing and outreach of artistic creation through digital technologies.

Digital technologies are now at centre stage in Canada and around the world. The consultations on Canadian content in a digital world, led by Minister Mélanie Joly, have created a lot of buzz and ignited hopes, debates and huge expectations.

Obviously, while preserving its independence, the Council will make sure it is acting in sync and in synergy with Canadian Heritage and the other federal, provincial and local agencies that intervene on the digital front in economic or industrial strategies, targeted plans, regional initiatives and initiatives linked to smart cities. We will also take into account the disparities of scale and resources that are very much part of the reality in Canada.

The Council recognizes that the arts sector in Canada has benefited from any specific, significant or sustained investments to help it adapt and transition to our digital reality.

We must take action now to ensure that art is not drowned in a flood of conveniently formatted information and cultural content. It’s often quoted that since 2010, humanity now produces as much information in two days as it did since the invention of writing 5300 years ago.

We must take action now so that art and arts organizations can continue to access that prize whose value is increasing exponentially in the digital age: the attention and engagement of audiences.

We have to take action, because we are witnessing the breakdown of the funding models of cultural industries. We’re seeing the growing poverty of creators, the marginalization – even the elimination – of intermediaries. The competition is greater than ever to capture audiences whose habits of cultural consumption dictate the supply of content.

At the same time, we are witnessing remarkable breakthroughs that allow artists and their work to reach audiences who used to be inaccessible. New opportunities to build communities of engagement that range from extremely local to extremely global.

Digital technology is fascinating and frightening. As much for its boundless potential for communication and sharing as for the disillusionment caused by giant corporations that seek to control it. It throws everything we are familiar with into question.

Digital technology modifies and remodels the way we live, work, create and consume; it affects our social and human interactions, our access to information, dissemination, education, and values.

However, what we do know, from the studies and surveys we’ve consulted and commissioned, is that Canada’s arts sector is struggling to claim its place in digital society. Because it lacks the knowledge, expertise, resources, and an adequate transformation of its organizational models and working methods.

That’s why our approach to supporting arts in the digital world aims to:

  • One: Support arts professionals so they can better understand the challenges, issues and opportunities in digital society; develop and enrich a strategic digital philosophy and increase their ability to translate it into useful and effective actions;
  • Two: Increase the sharing of artistic and literary creation and access to works, enhance the quality of users’ artistic experience and broaden the participation and cultural engagement of Canadian citizens; and
  • Finally, our approach aims to support the transformation of arts organizations and their operational methods so that they are in a better position to meet the challenges and seize the opportunties of development and growth offered by digital technologies.

This fall, we plan to begin funding concrete projects that will have significant results for a sector, a region or a network of organizations. But before we start, we want to do a final validation of our hypotheses, calibrate our forecasts and fine-tune the details of the Strategic Fund for the Arts in a Digital World.

We don’t want to miss our mark.

So that’s why, this March we will hold a national summit on the arts in a digital world. And in keeping with digital thinking, the summit will be anything but conventional.

What we have in mind is an enormous workshop that will bring together more than 250 people selected and invited by the Council – the way we do for peer committees – to represent the plurality of disciplines and arts practices, the variety of organizational models and scales, and the diversity and regional distribution of the community. At least one quarter of the participants will be digital natives.

Digital philosophers and experts in digital technologies will be on hand to contribute to various workshops and develop concrete approaches and innovative projects that could be supported by our Fund for the arts in a digital world.

Naturally, we will disseminate and share the outcomes of the summit, live and off-line, so that as many people as possible can benefit from them.

This will be followed by a national tour this fall to explain the fund in in more detail and to invite submissions.

Obviously, the Council itself has to lead by example. We will continue our own transformation by practicing the five fundamental characteristics of the digital culture, which are: openness and sharing; focusing on the needs and experience of users (or in our case, citizens); co-creation; simplicity; and flexibility.

Digital culture proceeds through trial and error (ideally, less error) and accepts that user feedback and corrections are part of the design process.

Digital culture is, first and foremost, a matter of transforming relations between human beings, and only then a question of technological choices. It is a culture of accepting the risks, errors and imperfections that are inevitable in any iterative process.

The Council is committed to accompanying the sector. And we are also committed to continuing to learn, experiment, innovate, adjust and grow WITH the sector and in constant interaction with citizens. Digital reality is a challenge that brings us together. Advances and success are only possible in a spirit of cooperation and shared leadership.

This spirit of shared leadership is what drives us as we embark upon our 60th anniversary.

And from here on in, the future of things is looking incredibly exciting!

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

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