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State of the Arts in Canada - 2017
Simon Brault

January 31, 2017

Winnipeg New Music Festival
January 28, 2017


Good evening. It’s a pleasure to be here on the opening night of the Winnipeg New Music festival.

I want to thank the festival organizers for inviting me – and for creating such an inspiring program.

The Canada Council for the Arts is very proud to support this festival. It embodies all that is stimulating and innovative in the arts today: conversations and explorations between art disciplines. Mash-ups of the traditions and world views of Indigenous peoples and new Canadians. The merging and fusion of analog and digital. Exchanges between Canadian artists and their peers from all over the world.

So it’s an honour for me to be here in the midst of such talent and creativity to speak on that infinitely fascinating question: the state of the arts in Canada.

Especially in 2017.

This year, not only do we mark Canada’s 150th, the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra celebrates its 70th anniversary. Congratulations!

It’s also the 60th anniversary of the Canada Council for the Arts. And I’m happy to say that right from its very first year, in 1957, the Council funded the WSO, which, at the time, was one of only a handful of arts organizations in Canada.

Fast forward to last year when, with the help of Council funding, some 2,200 organizations and 2,000 artists brought the arts to Canadians in over 1,900 communities large and small.

We know the scope and impact of our funding will grow with the federal government’s commitment to double the Council’s budget over 5 years.

Our country has never before seen this scale of investment in the arts sector in such a short period of time. We are determined to be sure its impact is transformative and sustained. To be sure it makes a difference in the future state of the arts here and abroad – and in the lives of more and more Canadians.

When the budget increase was announced in March, we wanted to get new funds out to the artistic community as soon as possible to build a legacy that will last for years to come.

So we launched a one-time program called New Chapter to mark the 150th anniversary of Confederation. This program will fund arts projects that are exceptional in nature, both for their creators and for the public.

For example, one of the projects from the first round of the competition will result in the world première of the first staged performances of Claude Vivier’s Musique de la Fin, by Toronto’s Soundstreams. This production will be performed in Toronto, Vancouver and Montréal. I know you’re all looking forward to the WSO’s performance of Vivier’s work on Tuesday evening.

I hope you’ll be able to enjoy the Soundstreams production in the future.


The state of the arts – now and in the future

This evening, as we reflect on the current state of the arts in Canada, I can tell you it’s a question that has been very much front of mind for me. This question has shaped all of our work over the past two years at the Council. It has forced us to reflect on our relevance in a changing environment. And it has been driving our work to better support the arts sector now and into the future.

The federal government’s reinvestment in the arts came as the Canada Council had already begun a large-scale transformation to respond to profound changes in our 21st century society – and the impact of these changes on cultural habits and interactions with the arts.

Digital technologies, globalization, changing demographics, sustainability… These preoccupations have forever altered the way that artists conceive, produce and share their work – and the ways that the public engages with their work. I think you, in the music sector, can appreciate this more than anyone…

Yet, where there are challenges, there is also opportunity. If our era can be defined globally as one of instability and divisiveness… and I believe it is, we need the power of the arts more than ever. We need the arts to bring us together. To offer paths to innovative solutions to the issues of the day. To provide a space for conversation, critical thinking, empathy and new perspectives.

The great composer Murray Schafer said famously [I quote]:

Is the soundscape of the world an indeterminate composition over which we have no control? Or are we, its composers and performers, responsible for giving it form and beauty?

I believe artists do shape our understanding and experience of the world. And as a public funder, the Canada Council is serious about working to ensure the arts are engaged, recognized and consulted for this precious and irreplaceable role.



One of the key issues affecting the state of the arts in our country is diversity, and by extension inclusiveness.

Canada reflects the world. It has the highest rate of immigration in the developed world. It’s rich in Indigenous cultures, ethnic and linguistic diversity.

In the public arena, Canadians celebrate diversity. But we can’t deny the evidence and experience that shows systemic discrimination and cultural barriers are still embedded in Canadian society. Unfortunately, this includes the arts sector and public institutions.

There are many examples of excellent work in the arts sector to address inequities: One is the Regent Park School of Music, which gives children from a disadvantaged neighbourhood in Toronto the chance to learn to play an instrument and ignite a passion for music.

Another example is the Vancouver Intercultural Symphony Orchestra. It was one of over 40 organizations to take part in the Canada Council’s Welcome to the Arts Initiative. Through this, new refugee families from Syria took part in concerts and special programming.

But there’s still much work to be done to reach out to those who have felt excluded from accessing the arts– either as artists or publics. The Canada Council is committed to continuing to lead this essential work.

For us, equity is a principle and process. One that promotes fair conditions for all to fully participate in society. This doesn’t necessarily mean treating individuals or groups in the same way. It means treating them fairly.

At the Canada Council, our Equity office develops policies to ensure we uphold this value in all of our work.

We do this because implementing equity is not just important for a healthy arts ecology, it’s a concrete way of upholding principles of social justice, human rights and dignity of all people. It’s key to ensuring sustainable development for future generations.

We know that many groups face barriers in society. At this time, the Council is prioritizing artists and arts organizations that receive targeted funds and initiatives from the following communities:

  • Indigenous;
  • Culturally diverse;
  • Deaf and disability; and
  • Official Language Minorities.

In the future, based on research, we may also include groups that experience inequity due to their age/youth, their socio-economic status, their gender, sexual identity, or the region where they live.

The great ambition for the Council in the next decade will be to maximize – beyond perceived tokenism and despite societal inequalities – the incredible potential of Canada’s diverse artists. We want to embrace a notion of excellence that includes multiple perspectives, aesthetics and worldviews.

We know we can’t lead change alone. So we’re calling on the arts community to share in this leadership role to ensure a more sustained impact.

We’ve made a deliberate choice to integrate robust equity strategies and mechanisms within our New Funding Model.

This means major arts organizations will have to show that they are relevant to their local communities - both through their artistic programming and their organizational make-up.

This will give more jobs and creative opportunities to minoritized arts professionals. But it also benefits the organizations – it signals potential artistic innovation, viability and greater public impact. It opens doors to youth and to intergenerational conversations and collaborations that can help arts institutions re-invent and revitalize themselves.

Advancing diversity is also an opportunity for the arts sector to build a society that is more inclusive. 
It can forge a shared vision of citizenship. Counter fragmentation and disenfranchisement. Give Canada a stronger voice on the world stage - an influence on issues far beyond the arts. It can give us all a refreshed sense of pride and unity that transcends identities and borders.

In 2017, I can think of no greater goal for the arts sector which ties in with another issue defining the state of the arts…


Indigenous arts/reconciliation

Another top concern for all Canadians in 2017 is reconciliation.

This is a pivotal time in history when the relationship between Indigenous Peoples and the Canadian state needs to shift radically towards a genuine decolonization.

We know that Indigenous arts hold tremendous potential to change the tide in this relationship for a common future for all Canadians.

We’ve seen a remarkable flourishing of the arts in First Nations, Inuit, and Métis communities. Look at the success of music artists like Juno-nominee and cellist, Cris Derksen, who recently performed at the Council’s Annual Public Meeting.

Or throat singer Tanya Tagaq who represented Canada at the Classical Next showcase funded by the Council; and here at this festival… composers Elliott Britton and Andrew Balfour, and throat singer Tiffany Ayalik.

As a public arts funder, the Canada Council is conscious – in a way we weren’t 60 years ago, and even quite recently – of the deliberate attempts throughout our country’s history to eradicate the cultures and languages of First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples.

Recognizing the existence of a cultural genocide in our own country can only lead to bold decisions about arts funding and support.

We’ve asked ourselves: How can we turn this around? How can arts funding contribute to a cultural renaissance in the nations that survived this period and are now reclaiming their full self-determination?

We have an obligation and a responsibility to act; to transform the Council to better support Indigenous artists and communities on their own terms; to invite the arts to fulfill a significant role in a journey of conciliation and decolonization.

For the Council, this meant creating a new and truly innovative program called Creating, Knowing, Sharing. It will be guided by Indigenous artists’ values and worldviews, and administered by staff of Indigenous heritage.

And we’re backing it up with real investments. We will almost triple our funding of Indigenous arts over the next five years.


Arts Abroad

Another trend that is defining Canadian society and by extension the arts, is Canada’s presence and influence in the world.

Bringing Canadian art to international markets has always been important with our small population spread over a huge territory. But beyond that, international exchanges allow ideas to flow freely, for creativity to take flight.

This reciprocity and the possibility of international co-productions benefits art practices and society as a whole. Events like this festival connect artists and audiences with talent from home and around the world. They lead to new exchanges and exciting collaborations.

More than that, they build cross-cultural understanding between peoples and develop global cultural citizenship.

At Council we’ve made it a commitment to boost the international presence of Canadian artists abroad. It’s a commitment backed by a doubling of our investments in this area over five years. The funding will be delivered through a specific program, called Arts Abroad. Our new Partnership and International Coordination Office will ensure we are highly strategic in our interventions and have more impact by working with other international organizations within and beyond the arts sector.



Perhaps the single greatest disruptor, challenge and opportunity to define our society – and the state of the arts in the 21st century - is digital technology. I want to spend a few minutes speaking about this because it is a major focus for the Council this year.

The digital revolution has had a tremendous impact on the arts. Traditional art forms are being remade, while new forms of networked art making and distribution are evolving. There have been huge upheavals in the recording and publishing industries. Audiences that were once passive now expect active and direct collaboration, participation and co-creation. The 4th wall separating artists and audiences is cracking and crumbling.

This demands that artists, arts organizations, cultural industries and governments find ways to adapt to this new digital society 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?

And while the amount of cultural offerings we have access to is growing exponentially, what is the quality of these offerings? Are they original and imaginative? Do they reflect our many identities?

The digital age offers limitless possibilities for sharing content, but there lacks a structure and system to incubate to develop and support outstanding artistic creation.

How can we ensure that our digital culture empowers us and authentically represents who we are and who we aspire to be as a society?

You will have likely heard about the Federal government's consultations on Canadian content in a digital world, led by Minister Mélanie Joly. These have created a lot of buzz and ignited hopes, debates and huge expectations.

Obviously, the Council will make sure it is acting in sync and in synergy with Canadian Heritage and the other federal, provincial and local agencies with interests that intersect with digital. We will also take into account the disparities of scale and resources that are very much part of the reality in Canada.

But in the meantime, we have to act quickly and decisively now before the arts sector falls too far behind.

In a few months, the Canada Council will launch a Strategic Fund for the Arts in a Digital World. This fund will represent an investment of $88.5 million over the next five years.

We know that Canada’s arts sector is struggling to claim its place in digital society. But it lacks the knowledge, expertise, resources – and sometimes the capacity – to transform its organizational models and working methods.

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

  1. Support arts professionals so they can better understand the challenges, issues and opportunities in digital society. We want to develop and enrich a strategic digital philosophy and increase the arts sectors’ ability to make it actionable;
  2. We want to increase the sharing of artistic creation and access to works, enhance the quality of users’ artistic experience and broaden the participation and cultural engagement of Canadian citizens; and
  3. Finally, we want to support arts organizations to transform so that they can better meet the challenges and seize the immense opportunities that digital has to offer.

With the launch of this fund, we’ll be supporting 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 our funding.

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. You can follow this journey on our website or on our social media channels.

Digital culture is a good seque to my final point about the state of the arts – which is the need to ensure that creation, creativity and innovation remain at the heart of our cultural life – if not at the centre of the experience of being Canadian.

As Idriss Aberkane, a neurotechnology researcher at the École centrale de Paris points out:

[translation] When the Googles, Apples, Facebooks, Amazons, Alibabas, Samsungs and Microsofts of this world handle more data in a single day than academia does in 10 years, it is not data that we lack but rather those things that computers cannot produce – ideas, concepts and the many forms of imagination.

I want to say very clearly that with our changing world, the changing state of the arts, the Council has had to reinvent itself and breathe new life into its mandate. But we remain firmly committed to supporting creation, innovation and the patient and relentless quest for artistic excellence.

To also be successful in that quest, artists need time to master their art, explore further and further, rehearse, try, fail, adjust and perform. They need to be properly supported, encouraged, and remunerated to do so.

Creation is, and will always be, the heart of our arts ecology. And its vibrancy is what will ultimately define the state of the arts in Canada.  This includes funding and recognizing innovative new compositions like the work of Cassandra Miller who recently won the Council’s Jules-Léger Prize for the second time, and whose work will be performed here on Friday evening.

And in 2017, as we reflect on our various anniversaries, I believe that valuing creation is the way that we can both maintain the best of the past, while shaping the future.

Despite all the complexity and challenges that the arts face now, I have a great deal of optimism -- especially for music.

It’s an art form that, as Leonard Cohen said, is our emotional life. For as long as humans have gathered, celebrated, chanted, sung, beat a drum, music has been a powerful expression of our individual spirit and our collective consciousness. Music has shown an infinite capacity for renewal and resilience – and that, in 2017, is something we can all celebrate.

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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