Simon Brault, Annual Public Assembly 2018

Moving ahead together

January 23, 2018

Speech – APA 2018
Simon Brault – January 23, 2018, 5 pm
Moving ahead together

Thank you Pierre. I would like also to thank all the Board members who have been so passionately and skilfully guiding our huge effort to deliver on the Council's strategic commitments. And this at a time of rapid transformation and adaptation to emerging realities, and a historically high level of reinvestment in the creative capacity and renown of Canada's artists and arts organizations.

I know that I am speaking for all my colleagues at Council when I say to the Board that your constant engagement and support motivate us to excel.

Accomplishments in 2016-2017: New Chapter

For a number of years now, we have been holding our annual public meeting in January, nine months after our fiscal year-end. We do this so that we can report not only on our accomplishments during the year ended on 31 March, but also on what has been happening since then.

The 2016-2017 year was the first in the deployment of our five-year strategic plan called Shaping a New Future.

As it happens, the five years of the plan coincide precisely with the period during which our budget will be doubled incrementally, with the total amount of grants we award to artists, writers and arts organizations increasing from $150 million in 2015 to $310 million in 2021.

The plan sets out a series of measurable commitments towards an artistic renaissance firmly based on a daring quest for artistic and literary advances; on clear affirmation of Indigenous creation; on diversity in all its forms and expressions; on inclusiveness, entrenchment and impact of the arts in communities across Canada; on greater international exposure; and on enhanced mastery of all the potentialities of the digital revolution.

The plan also guides our additional investments in support not only of new artistic and literary voices – to reflect the concerns and aspirations of a rapidly changing society – but also of more experienced voices among the artists and organizations that Council has helped consistently over the years.

The 2016-2017 year at Council began in a state of crisis, with a touch of euphoria, because on 22 March 2016, the Department of Finance tabled its momentous budget announcing an injection of $1.9 billion for the cultural sector – because "Investing in the Canadian cultural sector helps to create jobs, strengthens the economy and ensures that the unique Canadian perspective is shared with the world."

As soon as we received authorization, we invested the initial funds allocated to us in the arts sector under a special one-time program called New Chapter, created on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of Confederation, with a budget of $35 million wholly devoted to supporting exceptional artistic creation projects on a scale that would otherwise have been beyond our capacity.

I had told the artists and arts organizations to think big, and their response was incredible. We received 2,226 project proposals, requesting a total of more than $400 million – over 10 times the available budget!

And yet, there were those who still said that it would be impossible to follow through with projects on this scale and quality in such a short time!

The $35 million ended up financing 201 projects. Many new applicants answered the call, and 14% of them received a grant for the first time.

In terms of both the money involved and the fact that it was awarded in a very short period of time, New Chapter proved to be one of the most important artistic creation and innovation initiatives ever implemented by Council or by any other similar entity in Canada. The arts projects that received grants represent a legacy that will continue to be explored, appreciated and transmitted for years to come. New Chapter is already suggesting that we are on the cusp of the next major creative cycle in which the arts will become an everyday part of life in Canada, in part because new forms of collaboration were developed and we allowed ourselves to work differently on several fronts and on a larger scale. By including all forms of art and literature, a number of historical conventions and certitudes were challenged; and new perspectives on our lives and on our collective, personal and identity aspirations came to the fore. In short, a re-enchantment with the world became the order of the day.

I would now like to take a few minutes to screen a video made by Propeller Dance, an organization that received a New Chapter grant. I should point out that it has nothing to do with the creative project currently underway as a result of this special grant. We selected an excerpt from previous work by the organization, which focuses on arts and disability, a field we will highlight at the launch of the Constructed Identities exhibition that follows this gathering. The video, called Circuit, features a choreography by Shara Weaver, with music by Larry Graves. The principal dancers are Sami Elkoit and Sylvain Bouchard (in a wheelchair).

Brilliant. I would also suggest that you have a look at our 2016-2017 Annual Report, and the "Stats and Stories" section of our website, for more information about the powerful impact of our programs.

Initial core funding grants for organizations: expectations and results

I would now like to review the circumstances in the spring of 2016 that led to the creation of the New Chapter program. Needless to say, our only option at the time was to invest in projects, even though we were well aware that the need to provide major core grants to organizations had become critical. Falling back on some form of mathematical formula to disperse all the new funds that had been allocated was out of the question. It was essential for us to honour the historic vote of confidence received from the government by remaining faithful to the objectives and philosophy of the New Funding Model announced prior to the federal budget, and respecting the specific financial commitments of our strategic plan and the gradual doubling of our budget over five years. The financial commitments announced in December 2016 were to:

  • award 88.5% of the additional funds in the form of grants, payments and prizes to artists and arts organizations;
  • increase the total funds allocated to core grants by 55%, and project grants by 224%, in order to evenly distribute resources on a fifty-fifty basis to core and project funding;
  • triple our support to Indigenous arts;
  • double our investments in international support to enhance our global presence in the arts;
  • invest $88.5 million in the Digital Strategy Fund;
  • award 25% of the additional funds to new recipients.

The expectations of the 1,150 organizations with which Council maintains ongoing relations were of course very high, if not overly optimistic, and perhaps even unreasonable. And I can readily understand that this should be the case because I myself, for 25 years, directed an institution that was constantly chasing after inadequate public funding just to keep going.

The combined applications for core grants that we received came to an amount well beyond our available funds. And to date, we have received approximately 20% of the total budget increase promised by the government, as expected.

Given that we wanted to reinvest in all of our core funding programs at the same time, the virtually simultaneous administration of numerous competitions required such complex logistics that Council was pushed to the very limit.

We had to rethink or modify absolutely everything, without the time needed to test, do trial runs, and become proficient in the new systems: deadlines, guidelines, reassignment of staff to new teams, etc.

We also repeatedly encountered information-technology and other technological challenges and obstacles of various kinds, and a number of communication issues, both internal and external.

Even if we were recently able to release the results of the competitions to all the organizations, it was only because of the expertise, dedication, tenacity and professionalism of all our staff, who never threw in the towel and remained determined to meet the legitimate expectations of the artists and organizations seeking our support

We were also fortunate in being able to rely on the patience, understanding and solidarity of the arts community throughout this perilous transition and – on behalf of myself and all our staff – I would like to express our deeply felt thanks to all the artists, managers, and volunteer board members.

It is of course perfectly clear that we could never have made all these decisions in such a short period of time without mobilizing the hundreds of artists, writers, publishers and cultural professionals who so generously agreed to sit on our peer assessment committees.

These committees, which are central to the granting process, handled the essential task of assessing the merits of the applications to Council. Believe me when I say that it is an extremely demanding task.

Not only do the peers have to understand, interpret and contextualize the objectives and criteria of our programs, and be aware of developments and issues in their respective fields, they must also contribute to in-depth, genuine, rigorous, well-informed and subtle discussions to analyse the intentions of the organizations and judge the relative merits and impacts of their artistic approaches, plans and projects. By comparing applications, the committees are required to rank them in order of merit, and Council is required to comply with this final ranking in allocating grants, with due regard of course to established budgets and strategic priorities.

Peer assessment means that qualitative decisions are made by professionals from the arts community. These assessments, which determine the vast majority of our financial decisions, are not made by Council staff. Peer assessment is anything but a "top-down" approach.

The Canada Council can take pride in being one of the few organizations in the entire world to use peer assessment as a method for determining where its investments go, including its core grants.

Of course no system is perfect, and I would distrust anyone who might claim to have an infallible recipe for optimally distributing public funds to artists and organizations dedicated to artistic creation and dissemination.

Even though some people may be unhappy, and they have the right to be, with the outcomes of certain peer assessments, I believe that there is still a broad consensus in the arts community that the existing system is one of the fairest and most thorough, even though it remains eminently perfectible.

We will shortly be publishing the list of core grant recipients. A brief analysis of the results will reveal that there has been a positive transformation in the arts and culture landscape, including the following:

  • a landscape in which the most highly-rated Indigenous organizations now receive significant additional resources;
  • a landscape in which eagerly anticipated increases have breathed new life into the most highly-rated culturally-diverse organizations;
  • a landscape in which the most successful organizations in minority-language communities have had their core grants increased significantly;
  • a landscape in which highly-rated disability arts, contemporary circus and digital arts organizations can shine as they receive core funding for the first timecontemporary circus and digital arts practices;
  • a landscape in which the organizations run by our top creators, our most highly-rated literary publishers and our most innovative service organizations, institutions and catalysts, whose work and proposals have drawn attention, will now be in a better position to carry out their mandates on behalf of artists and cultural workers, and most importantly, benefit their fellow citizens.

But this artistic landscape is not carved in stone. It is dynamic. It will continue to evolve, for the better. Those organizations that may be disappointed with the results of the first wave of reinvestment should remember that it is only the first wave. They can try again by working to improve their applications. And additional funds will be available, because we are only in the second year of the gradual doubling of our budget.

At present, we still have to allocate approximately 25% of our annual arts-funding budget, which will take the form of project grants, including the $10 million of the Digital Strategy Fund, which is also open to organizations.

In the fall, we will be publishing the complete results for the first year of the New Funding Model, and everyone will have full access to the data: distribution by region, artistic discipline, type of applicant, etc. We will then determine where we stand in terms of all the strategic commitments mentioned earlier.

Overview of progress to date

As you know, in March 2017 we held The Arts in a Digital World Summit in Montreal. We invited experts in many different fields, from various parts of the country and the world, to join us to discuss digital issues and the arts in the 21st century. We took part in the discussions, but we mainly listened to what participants had to say.

And what they had to say was fascinating, inspiring and relevant. I was transfixed by their open-mindedness and original way of approaching the various topics. The Summit was definitely a place for sharing knowledge, ideas, desires and interests. So much so that many participants who did not know one another said they were interested in working together and becoming "ambassadors" for the Digital Strategy Fund.

We decided on a fund rather than a program because it gave us more flexibility. The purpose of the Fund is to speed up the digital transformation of the arts sector in Canada. Last fall, we received over 250 applications for the first competition, and the results will be released over the next few months.

What I really want the Fund to do is encourage the arts community to work differently and collectively – to avoid the competitive mindset according to which success for one means the decline of the other – and to think about the diversity of skills and perspectives as an unparalleled richness in an age of algorithms that often cloisters us. Like you, I can see that there has been rapid progress in the field of artificial intelligence in cities like Montreal and Toronto, and every time leaders in the field are asked about it, they mention things like coordination, and the dizzying speed at which knowledge and discoveries are shared. Surely there are lessons here for our own sector.

Working together is the key

I have travelled around the world enough to see that the future looks rather bright for Canada at the moment. Only a few days ago at a Town Hall in Ontario, our Prime Minister spoke at length about how important artists and the Canada Council are for our communities and the world, because they spread the values that are dear to us – values like inclusiveness, freedom of expression and social justice for all. In my view, it is no accident that the elected head of a G7 country spoke on this topic early in 2018. We are lucky to be living at a time when there is renewed recognition of the civilizing impact of arts and culture, and we need to make the most of it.

In the huge funding ecosystem for the arts and culture, and even the creative economy, the progressive doubling of our budget must allow the Canada Council to remain a leader in providing support, promotion and recognition for artistic and literary creation, and most importantly, in engaging Canadians in the process.

We do our work in a democratic society, and it needs to contribute to the advancement of this society in more ways than one. Our decisions affect the economy, employment, international trade, public diplomacy, the way we live together, dealings between people and communities, the emancipation of individuals, the affirmation of groups and nations whose rights or dignity have been violated, and the ability of those overwhelmed by the noise of the triumphant majorities to make their voices heard. Art is a vehicle for the free dissemination of values, choices, ideas, feelings and emotions. That is what makes it fascinating, attractive, and sometimes threatening for those who have absolute power.

The Canada Council for the Arts cannot remain silent or neutral when the values it truly represents are ignored, suppressed or denied.

That is precisely why, to mention only one example, we recently published a nuanced but firm position on the appropriation of Indigenous culture, a position that was of course not unanimous, even within the cultural communities themselves. But I would like to reiterate that wanting to support Indigenous artistic creation and advocating genuine reconciliation in a country that has finally acknowledged that it systematically practised cultural genocide against Indigenous peoples for almost 100 years, demanded that we have the courage –, or at least the decency – to take a stand against the shameless pillaging of Indigenous cultures.

We chose to change and adapt, but not to censure. Our intention was to give the peer assessors the tools they need for well-informed and sound evaluations.

Once again, in a spirit of addressing the social and ethical dimensions of our mandate, we recently drew up a statement against harassment and in favour of respect in the workplace. Our statement is also very clear and firm: we consider that harassment, sexual misconduct and the abuse of power have no place in the workplace under any circumstances.

We are also conscious that our role is not to act as a substitute for the judicial system by actively policing the organizations and artists to whom we provide funding. We have neither the responsibility nor the skills nor the means to do so.

Yet we have values that we must affirm and uphold. And as we previously announced, we are at present reviewing our granting policies to ensure that they are provided with mechanisms that would allow us to fairly and more effectively deal with situations that could jeopardize the safety or dignity of artists and the public, and that could cast doubt on why and how much we award to a given organization from public funds.

We have decided to look clearly and empathetically at our society – as it is now and will be in the future – from the standpoints of equity, social justice, respect and inclusiveness.

The arts sector will certainly have to engage in other difficult conversations and deal with inevitable major behavioural changes: one has only to look at what is happening in other countries to understand that it is essential to methodically prepare and engage in these conversations in a balanced, nuanced and intelligent manner. The integrity and credibility of our institutions depend on doing so.

Our public arts-funding model is admired around the world and it must continue to keep in step with Canadian society by avoiding serious mistakes and inappropriate shortcuts.

I have often spoken about shared leadership and believe that it is truly applicable to our relationship with society and the arts community as a whole. Dialogue with the community is essential if we are to understand its issues, concerns, expectations and needs. Council must listen to and act upon the feedback it receives so that we can move ahead together.

I would like to end with a quote from the philosopher Henri Bergson, who famously said, "The future is not what is going to happen, but what we make of it." Let's make it together!

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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