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The Arts beyond Borders—Beginning with the Americas

November 16, 2018

A presentation by Simon Brault at ArtsLink Assembly 2018

My name is Simon Brault. I am the director and CEO of the Canada Council for the Arts—Canada’s public arts funder. And I am delighted to be here today and take part in this conversation. I would like to give a quick overview of the Canada Council to give you a better idea of the current Canadian context. The Canada Council champions and invests in artistic excellence through grants, services, prizes and payments to Canadian artists and arts organizations.

We’re in a unique position in the world: while public arts funders in many countries have had their budgets flat line, 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.

With an increase to 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 and to find inclusive solutions to the issues of our time.

That’s why the Canada Council for the Arts organized the Americas Cultural Summit last May in Ottawa, an event that brought together nearly 200 artists, eminent thinkers and leaders in public arts and culture funding across the Americas to come together and discuss this awesome power.

And this fall I’ve been travelling in the UK, France and Mexico to continue the conversation we started at the Summit and to build momentum by widening the Summit’s reach. By collaborating with one another and forging a shared leadership, I believe we can more strongly ensure the arts and artists are included in the major global projects of our time that will shape the development of humanity and the future of our world.  

Arts, inclusion and social cohesion

No matter where I go in the world to discuss the transformative power of the arts, the major challenges confronting our various cities and countries are similar and deeply interconnected. These include increasing social isolation, identity-based clashes, and—ultimately—a growing deficit of social cohesion. 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 the existing resources fall short.

In this quest for viable solutions to create happier, healthier, more secure and more prosperous societies, however, 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.

The Arts Welcome Refugees

When I speak of the power of the arts, I’m reminded of how the arts community in Canada came together to welcome the over 40,000 refugees who arrived in Canada in recent years.

In December of 2015, the Canada Council for the Arts partnered with Sun Life Financial and put out a call to offer support to arts organizations that wished to provide free access to refugees to a performance, exhibition or arts event in their communities.

More than 70 organizations across Canada responded.

One of these was Vancouver’s Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival, a not-for-profit, professional Shakespeare Festival that presents its plays every summer on the waterfront in Vancouver’s Vanier Park.

In the summer of 2016, Bard on the Beach prepared to welcome an audience of Syrian refugees to a production of The Merry Wives of Windsor. Before the performance, they prepared a plot summary written in Arabic to make it easier for the Syrian families to understand. They also sought advice from the refugee service organization that accompanied the Syrians, Immigrant Services Society of BC, and their response was generous: the organization prearranged the connection between the Festival and the refugees, and sent members of its team to the performance so that the refugees would recognize a few familiar faces in the audience.

During intermission, members of the audience went out of their way to welcome the newcomers, speaking to them and meeting their children. The Syrian families loved the experience—for most of them, it was unlike anything they had ever seen.

This initiative exemplifies the great potentiality of the arts to play a role in building greater social cohesion—though, of course, it required a timely, coordinated response from several different players, including arts organizations across Canada, not-for-profits in the immigration sector, and a private financial organization.

This kind of coordinated activity isn’t easy at first; but as we in the arts increasingly demonstrate our leadership in responding to the emerging issues in our world, I am confident it will become a more fluid process as more and more people look to us to forge the path ahead.

Beyond Inclusion

Of course, if we truly want to play a stronger leadership role in addressing the emerging issues in our world, we need to think very carefully about how the arts reflect the diversity of that world.

I am thinking of an important idea that was introduced by the disability studies academic Eliza Chandler at the Americas Cultural Summit. Eliza noted how there is a lot of discussion in the arts around the inclusion of marginalized peoples—but that if they are being included in institutions or practices that continue racist, colonial, ableist or other exclusionary practices, then progress is not truly being made.

Eliza spoke on how she was inspired by the efforts of Indigenous artists and arts organizations in Canada in advocating to the mainstream—whether they be arts funders, leaders in arts organizations, producers or presenters—of the importance to move beyond inclusion and make space for others to lead the way.

Indeed, at the Canada Council, we continue to engage in important conversations for how we can make space for marginalized groups to lead the way in the arts—including Indigenous peoples, as well as those from diverse cultural backgrounds, or the Deaf and disability communities. Similarly, we look for ways to encourage an arts sector that reflects gender parity.

Cultural Appropriation

While I am both proud and excited about the work being undertaken in Canada to make space for Indigenous and other historically marginalized artists, I don’t want to give the false impression that the divides between peoples in Canada have been entirely healed through the arts.

Notably, the country continues to engage in a broad conversation about cultural appropriation—largely in connection to Indigenous representation in the performing arts. The Canada Council for the Arts is committed to respecting and honouring the rights of First Nations, Inuit and Metis peoples to cultural sovereignty. At the same time, there has been much confusion in the wider arts ecology about what this means: artists in the mainstream have expressed concerns about the freedom of artistic expression.

Through this moment, I am hopeful that our country can continue to have a dynamic dialogue—and I’m confident that through this dialogue it is possible to uphold respect for both cultural sovereignty and freedom of cultural expression. Having this kind of dialogue, however, is not easy and it requires patience, thoughtfulness, and an open mind as well as an open heart.  

Bringing Arts and Culture to New Tables

Having said all this, it’s important to remember that the arts should not be instrumentalised by those of us funding, producing, or presenting artistic works. Artists need independence to explore the issues and ideas that matter to them. Instead, the point for us—as funders, programmers or presenters—is to provide them with the support and space they need to autonomously direct these conversations.

We do, however, have an important role to play in advocating to leaders in other sectors—beyond arts and culture—about the power of the arts. In order to do this, we have to be bold in terms of who we approach with our message. We cannot merely discuss the value of the arts amongst ourselves.

This was made apparent to me during the Americas Cultural Summit in a presentation by UN Special Rapporteur Karima Bennoune: she emphasized that “cultural rights are human rights.”

The human rights agenda is just one example of where we might bring the arts more strongly to the table—and there are many, many more areas we need to consider. As we uncover these new opportunities, I think we’ll be surprised that we didn’t think of them sooner! The arts belong in almost any conversation that has to do with making our society more cohesive.

The Power of International Collaboration

Lastly, I think it’s imperative that those of us in the arts work together—above and beyond the borders that divide us. We may be smaller players in our respective countries, but together we’re a critical mass that can get the attention of key decision makers around world.

This was the idea behind the Americas Cultural Summit, where we brought together 169 delegates from 33 countries across the Americas. Together, we drafted a Call to Action, with a view to:

  • promote the value of arts and culture in public life;
  • advance cultural rights;
  • foster inclusive societies;
  • embrace exchanges between peoples in the Americas;
  • acknowledge the rights of Indigenous peoples; and
  • cultivate the diversity of cultural expressions.

In an era of strengthened borders, increasing nationalism and isolationism, this collective statement signals the unique position of the arts: we’re ready to work together—above and beyond our borders—to have a real impact in the world.

It is an affirming, optimistic way of looking at the world today—and why shouldn’t we take this approach? All of us here already have a deep understanding of the power of the arts. Now is the moment for us to unite in a commitment to unleash this power throughout our respective societies and around the world.

See the video of the discussion at ArtsLink: