National Gallery of Canada

Art, Canada and the World

June 13, 2017

Speech by Simon Brault at Canada 150 Art for the Nation Summit
National Gallery of Canada
June 13th at 10:45 am

Good morning.

It’s a pleasure to be here and to share this panel with such talented artists.

Last year around this time, Barack Obama was in Ottawa for his last state visit as President. I had the incredible privilege of hearing him speak in the House of Commons. That day, he famously said: “the world needs more Canada.”

Just last week on his first visit to Montreal he said that the “appeal of isolationism and populism, is understandable as people look for certainty in uncertain times.” But that the world cannot stand still and must work together to advance the change needed to address the global issues of the time.

In doing so, there’s obviously a role for Canada’s leadership – our values and culture. And who better to express, provoke critique and inspire than artists?

In a recent interview with ExportWise magazine, I referenced the benefits of arts and culture – not only directly in terms of cultural exports. But in terms of a “halo effect” in promoting and extending our cultural influence.  Encouraging exchange and reciprocity on a much grander scale – across many areas of development.

Artistic creation is often an expression of the values of our country, including free expression, cultural democracy, and other issues that concern Canadians and our global society.

As the Director and CEO of Canada’s national public arts funder, I’m keenly aware of the Canada Council’s responsibility to benefit Canadians. In fact, this has been the impetus behind the transformation taking place at the Council to scale up the impact of the arts.

But I want to be clear that when I talk about the social impact of the arts, it’s not about the instrumentalization of the arts. Or about the arts puppeting a State message. After all, I think public diplomacy needs the arts more than the arts needs public diplomacy.

Rather, it’s recognizing that the arts come from the people. They are the voice of the people. Their transformative power is key to our progress.

Artistic creation is often an expression of the values of our country, including free expression, cultural democracy, and other issues that concern Canadians and our global society.

Cultural leadership at the 150th

The arts sector’s response to the 150th anniversary of Confederation is a perfect example of this. Artists aren’t simply treating the occasion as a patriotic milestone. Rather, they are taking the opportunity to reflect on our troubled past, and to propose a way forward, now, for a more promising future.

One recent, concrete example is the Canada Council Art Bank’s exhibition, Punctured Landscapes, now on view at the Art Museum of the America’s in Washington.

It’s not an easy exhibition. It’s not a postcard depiction of Canada. Rather, it confronts how our country has grappled with colonialism, sexual abuse, environmental damage, terrorism, and exclusion.

The exhibition opening was attended by diplomats, politicians and representatives of civil society from the 35 countries. It was obvious from my conversations there that they appreciated this thorough examination of our country’s cultural landscape at a key point in our history.

This deep reflection is needed and valued more than ever in global conversations about the issues of our times. And I have great faith in the powerful work of artists to inform and shape these conversations. Artists like Edward Burtynsky, whose work forces us to confront the impact of our lifestyles on the environment. Artists like Geoffrey Farmer, whose most recent work excavating personal tragedies resonates with our current conversation about identities and reconciliation. 

That’s why the Canada Council has made it a commitment to boost the international presence of the arts of Canada. We’ve backed this commitment with new investments that will double our funding in this area to 2021.  We also aim to maximize our impact through partnerships with others, like the National Gallery, notably for the Venice Biennale.

This spring, I had the opportunity to speak about the arts in Canada at a number of high-profile international events. Most notably I represented Canada as a cultural expert at the very first Cultural Summit of the G7 in Florence.  

At this event, it became clear to me that Canada's current international reputation and influence have less to do with the scale of our economy. And more to do with a culture and society based on principles of openness, inclusion and diversity.

Whether we were discussing the growing relevance of artistic creation in the digital era. Or the impact of identity politics and tensions in undermining some of the world’s largest democracies. Or Canada’s own challenge of decolonization and reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples…
I was able to draw on conversations happening within our art sector to contribute and build bridges with the other G7 countries.

From that meeting, I can certainly attest that the feeling that the world needs more Canada – and specifically the art of Canada – is alive and well.

It’s imperative that Canada maintains this leadership role.  To truly fulfill the potential of this role, we need leadership at all levels and across all sectors. More than ever, Canada needs to be a strong, credible voice on the world stage.  And we need to continue to support artists to explore, develop, express and share their insights and creativity to amplify this voice.

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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