Night view of the Earth from space, with many points of light

Leveraging synergy to better promote the arts on the world stage

November 15, 2018

A presentation by Simon Brault at the 2018 CINARS Biennale

Thank you very much for inviting me here today to discuss the Canada Council for the Arts’ international strategy with you. I’d like to start off by saying that I will not be providing details about the Council’s arts funding programs that support the outreach of Canadian artists around the world in keeping with the commitments and investments described in the Council’s 2016-21 Strategic Plan. The Council’s program officers will do this after my presentation.

My presentation today is part of a series of discussions I have been participating in this fall that address three specific issues: the mobility of Canadian artists, the international dissemination of their work, and cultural diplomacy. I have already had the opportunity to discuss these same issues in France, England, Mexico and Canada with various arts leaders (directors, artists and my counterparts from other arts funding agencies) as well as with ambassadors and business people.

The Canada Council’s 2016-21 Strategic Plan states in part:  

“The intrinsic value of creating and sharing art can be complemented by public policy goals. Investing in the arts contributes to economic development, exports, job creation, social well-being and community-building – all measurable goals of a democratic society. And, particularly important in the 21st century economy, the arts nurture innovation. Ultimately, governments fund the arts to build a creative, compassionate, resilient and prosperous society where people can express themselves fully and freely. To achieve this, citizens need to be able to participate fully and authentically in culture, heritage and the arts. Public arts funding is not based simply on short-term financial needs—even though these are obviously important; it is about building the society in which we want to live.”

I will now share with you the Canada Council’s vision for how to put arts and culture front and centre on the international stage.

International strategy: cultural spaces

The deployment of the Canada Council’s international strategy is facilitated by speedy decision-making and implementation, a decidedly collaborative approach, and an importance placed on the real impact of investments in the outreach of Canadian artistic and literary creation in various contexts.

Three elements underpin the Council’s international strategy: our grant programs and other funding initiatives; our international framework; and our vision. Our grant programs make concrete investments to strengthen the international presence and influence of Canadian artists and arts organizations, while our other funding initiatives complement our grant programs and extend our sphere of impact through partnerships. The international framework gives us perspective on our actions, enables us to adjust as needed, and essentially serves as our organizational compass. The third element—the vision underlying the Council’s entire international approach—is what I will now tell you about.

This vision:

  • expresses the aspirations and public accountability inherent in the Council’s role;
  • supports the free and diverse expression of the various voices that support democracy, human development and democratic renewal;
  • is based on cultural rights, democracy, citizenship and diplomacy;
  • reflects the reality of ordinary citizens in Canada and around the world;
  • nurtures a diversity of cultural expressions;
  • recognizes the cultural sovereignty of Indigenous peoples, respects the self-determination of the First Nations, Inuit and Métis, and supports the dissemination of their arts and culture;
  • encourages collaboration, partnering and reciprocal cultural exchanges.

This vision is crucial because it gives our local, national and international interlocutors a better grasp of the Canada Council’s international role, especially its complexity. The Council’s international role is multi-directional and multi-polar: it is designed to produce reciprocal exchanges based on collaboration and cooperation. We aim to work in a concerted and complementary way at both the national and international levels to create opportunities or spaces that bring together the various players (including the private sector, Indigenous peoples, and all levels of government, among others). We do so while continuing to be actively involved with influential international networks such as the International Society for Performing Arts, UNESCO, CEC ArtsLink, IFACCA (the International Federation of Arts Councils and Culture Agencies) and the CITF (Commission internationale du théâtre français). We also sign bilateral and multilateral cooperation agreements with national ministries or funding agencies in countries like Mexico. In fact, I’ve just returned from Mexico where Canada will be honoured at the famous Cervantino international festival in the city of Guanajuato in 2019, and I can assure you that our approach will engage our partners from across Canada.

Cultural diplomacy

Our vision of international arts and culture is based on human development that draws on full-fledged cultural citizenship, and this vision is reflected in all our programs and initiatives. For example, we recently hosted the Americas Cultural Summit to promote cultural citizenship continent-wide. We have shared this vision in various forums where we have discussed cultural diplomacy in particular. As I recently stated on various podiums in Europe and Mexico:

Cultural diplomacy changes, adapts, contracts and expands in response to circumstantial events like political regime change. Fortunately, it never disappears entirely because it draws on time-honoured traditions and because culture will remain a central aspect of people’s lives—even under the most dire circumstances. At the same time, we must acknowledge that it continues to be a challenge to evaluate the tangible impacts of cultural diplomacy in terms of their utility and relative importance. It is obviously easier to compile data about commercial exports than to measure the circulation of ideas and values, and assess their impact on furthering cultural understanding and preventing major conflicts, including terrorism.

What we are talking about here is the potential contribution of artistic and literary creation to the deployment of cultural diplomacy initiatives and, more broadly, to the human interactions that are the very foundation of exchanges of all kinds between peoples, nations and countries. This does not mean using artistic creation to serve special interests. Cultural diplomacy means acknowledging that the arts can create space for discussion and mediation. And the Canada Council would like to create more of this space by increasing its direct and indirect participation in initiatives connected to cultural diplomacy, either those coordinated with Global Affairs Canada and Canadian Heritage or those arranged directly with foreign embassies in Ottawa or with Canadian embassies and other Canadian diplomatic missions abroad. When the Canada Council supports Canadian artists or arts organizations at international fairs, festivals or other platforms like the Venice Biennale, the Edinburgh Festival, the Frankfurt Book Fair, WOMEX, CINARS, the ENARTES international performing arts gatherings, world music fairs and so on, it does so, as in the case of its grant programs, based on the relevance, impact, feasibility and artistic merit of the proposed projects. In fact, through its grants the Canada Council invests most of its international funding. In 2017-18, our various programs invested a total of $20.7 million in international initiatives, twice as much as the amount invested in 2016-17. The first data of the Arts Abroad program show the international participation of Canadian artists, groups and arts organizations consisted of 1,670 artistic activities in 105 countries on all continents.

Canadian artists and arts organizations present works that reflect our diverse values and the remarkable expressions of our Indigenous peoples. In this context, arts and culture must renew, support and pursue a conversation about the kind of civilization we wish to see, both here at home and in the global community of which we are an integral part.

To envisage such a transformation in daily life around the world, we must clearly acknowledge and advocate values that unite and define us as a global society. However, this exercise is not as easy as one might believe: it is not based on a simple profession of faith, but rather on an informed, enlightened and deliberate decision. We need to address key features of the contemporary landscape by redefining relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Canada and elsewhere. We must pay attention to the aspirations of today’s youth and to social movements like #MeToo, Black Lives Matter and Occupy, all of which illustrate how we are often confined to unjust, oppressive and obsolete systems. 

As French authors Jean-François Fogel and Bruno Patio put it in their book La condition numérique: “A world constructed from the familiar is a world where there is nothing to be learned…” and “the ultimate and plausible ambition of a search engine is to show us the question we want to ask before we ask it.” While these two remarks highlight a particular aspect of our digital reality, they are equally applicable to other systems that invite us to blindly uphold a comfortable yet alienating status quo.

Cultural rights, democracy and citizenship

Whence the need for an international vision. And, given the common nature of our work in supporting the arts (through funding or presenting), I would like to make the important distinction that this vision of the arts does not imply using artists for other purposes than art. On the contrary, artists often represent divergent voices that are critical of our realities and express concerns that politicians often dare not voice, but which resonate with their audiences both within and outside their own countries. They are voices of a free expression, the guarantor of democracy and its renewal.

However, a word of caution is appropriate here because the notion of soft power so often expressed in international forums needs to be viewed with caution and circumspection. Soft power must not become just another bargaining chip, a new allegory that facilitates unfair transactions. Although soft power clearly entails economic and political dimensions, it should not be reduced to simply a means of achieving short-term outcomes. For this reason, I prefer to advocate for an international vision—one based on cultural rights, democracy and diplomacy, as well as on the pursuit of cultural exchanges. It is a vision firmly grounded in the reality of citizens, whether Canadian or of other countries.

The Canada Council currently offers programs that reflect this vision as well as the matching funds required to expand its international interventions. The question then becomes whether there are any additional avenues to explore towards eliminating the boundaries and silos that have all too often dictated our interventions and whose removal will improve the coordination and impact of our efforts. The answer is definitely yes, there are. However, we need to move ahead with a clear-eyed sense of the means at our disposal, and we need to do so collaboratively with shared international leadership.

Arts, inclusion and social deficit and social cohesion

I have repeated it on different occasions. The Canada Council is in a unique position in the world: while arts funders in other countries have had their budgets flat-lined, or even experienced reductions, we are able to invest significantly more money in the arts. Between 2016 and 2021, our annual budget will have doubled and reached approximately $360 million.

As I said, with an increase in possibilities for investment in the arts comes a unique responsibility to renew a conversation in Canada—but also around the world—about the power of the arts to transform lives and build a better future for all people.

By reframing this conversation, we also want to ensure that our decisions and actions will not be a repetition of what we’ve been doing for decades. We need to explore new territory as we engage artists and citizens in this conversation.

No matter where I go in the world to pursue the discussion about the transformative power of the arts, the major challenges confronting our various cities and countries are similar and deeply interconnected. These include an increase in social isolation, identity-based clashes, and—ultimately—a growing deficit of social cohesion. This is today’s reality. This manifests in different ways at different levels—from the rise of populism and nativism in the political sphere right down to racist comments in everyday conversations at the street level.

These challenges have been exacerbated by systems that prescribe our behaviors, be they political, economic, nationalistic, organizational and—perhaps above all—algorithm-driven platforms. In this context, decision-making at the highest levels has been plagued with polemical struggles that place winning an ideological battle over finding real solutions for the good of everyone.

This has led to a general sense of disempowerment, resentment and anger, and widely-felt anxiety about what the future might hold. And this sense of disempowerment is only perpetuated as people seek out solutions to the various problems in our world only to discover that existing resources fall short.

However, in this quest for viable solutions to create happier, healthier, safer and more prosperous societies, the arts are often overlooked. There is an irony to this because the arts have the incredible capacity to bring diverse peoples together, to foster communication among them, and to encourage their collective exploration of ideas and human experiences rather than offering prescriptive or reactive solutions.

Now is the moment to think beyond the interests contained within the borders of our countries, the interests of our particular socio-economic or identity-based circles. Now is the moment to reach out to one another—across everything that divides us—so that we can work together to create communities.

I believe that our vision of the arts and culture at the international level presupposes the commitment of each and every one of us to collaborate beyond our borders, beyond our interests.