While the Canadian Arts Coalition’s Arts Day on Parliament Hill was no doubt a highlight of last week’s activities, there were also several other arts and culture sector happenings in the nation’s capital over the past week. On November 1st, directors of Canada’s national arts service organizations gathered at the invitation of the Canada Council for the Arts to discuss how they can effectively collaborate for the betterment of the sector. This initiative is in its fifth year and over time the partnership between representative associations and the Council is strengthening.
As the Metcalf Arts Policy Fellow, I had the opportunity to be in the room as an observer. The conversations were meant to be candid and informal, and so I won’t venture to give a full account of the day. However, it is worth noting some key points made by Canada Council Director Robert Sirman in his opening address. He offered context about the current economic and political environment as it relates to the Council and its work through a more global lens, comparing our situation with other similar nations around the world.
Two years after the economic recession hit, countries are now taking economic recovery and starting to make public their decisions on how to address deficits. Nearly every developed nation is taking a small ‘c’ conservative approach to budgeting. Spending is being restrained and governments are starting to reveal more detail about which sectors will be most affected. Sirman noted that the Council’s sister organizations in other countries are both anticipating and experiencing budget cuts – in some cases minimal, and in other cases, game changing. In particular, Arts Council England is currently engaged in an exercise to cut nearly 30% of its budget. It has been directed by government to cut 15% of its direct services to the public (grants) as well as 50% of its administration costs (over and above the 21% staff cut it made the year prior). Of the 30 European countries associated with the International Federation of Arts Councils and Cultural Agencies – IFACCA (of which Council is a founding member), none are expecting status quo and most have already experienced cuts.
Canada’s healthier economic position (relatively speaking) seems to have staved off major budget slashes, protecting the budget of the Canada Council and other arts and culture appropriations. However, Sirman advises that it is necessary to understand the global environment in order to put into perspective Canada’s position on cultural investment. And, moving forward, we need to start building a case for increased investment, so that when governments are ready to spend again, our sector is strongly positioned.Fast forward to November 2. The Canadian Conference of the Arts (CCA), who this year is celebrating their 65th anniversary, hosted its national policy conference ‘Artists Powering the Creative Economy’ at the National Arts Centre. The evening prior to the conference kick off, three important figures in the cultural sector, Joyce Zemans (my first professor of cultural policy!), Françoise Sullivan, Robert Jekyll and Maurice Forget were honoured at the CCA’s awards gala. Acclaimed actor and director Paul Gross offered a keynote address at the event, which was hosted by CCA National Director Alain Pineau and Board President Kathleen Sharpe. Congratulations to the deserving honourees! The conference launched with a panel discussion about the role of the artist in the creative economy. We heard perspectives from Jian Ghomeshi, Gaétan Morency and Kevin Stolarick and had a chance to discuss amongst ourselves the ideas that they put forward for our consideration. This topic itself seemed to be a challenge for the room, as it frames the artist primarily as an economic contributor or catalyst for economic return – an argument that has had considerable air time in recent political debate – though among members of the sector, doesn’t sufficiently capture the contribution or even the raison d’être of the artist in society.
After lunch I had the distinct pleasure of moderating the ‘Emerging Thinkers Speed Talks’ session. I was joined by four up-and-coming talents in the sector, Kwende Kefentse, Alex Rogalski, Janet Naclia and Devon Ostrom, who spoke on topics that ranged from YouTube filmmakers to rural arts engagement. They were each given exactly 5 minutes to present their ideas with an auto-advance slide show presentation format modeled after the well-known online TED talks. (TED.com). The ensuing discussion was lively and touched on areas such as the role and relevance of the institution, cultivating individual professional value and keeping pace with an ever-changing consumer environment.
Admittedly, I did not attend day 2 of the CCA conference, but rather partook in the keynote address and opening activities at the joint board meeting of the Performing Arts Alliance – PAA (Opera.ca, Canadian Dance Assembly, Canadian Arts Presenters Association, Professional Association of Canadian Theatres and Orchestras Canada). The Performing Arts Alliance has been actively collaborating on advocacy activities over the last two years and has continued to seek ways in which to improve the effectiveness of their individual organizations by working together. As an effort to cultivate collaboration among the volunteer leadership within their organizations, the PAA brought together members of their respective boards of directors to engage in a day of professional development and collaborative planning.Performing arts leader Ben Cameron of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation in New York gave the keynote address. (You can find his TED talk here.) Ben is a notable speaker who has contributed significantly to the thinking of arts organizations and their pursuit to navigate change. His presentation focused on where our contemporary challenges lie and how arts organizations adapt to the new ‘now’. He noted four key challenges that were not challenges 10, 20 or 30 years ago (like chronic issues of under funding and impoverished artists). They are: A broken business model (the traditional non-profit charity), an impending generational transfer of leadership, the erosion of audiences in every field and the impact of technology on the live performing arts.
He wisely noted that in times of change, our instinct is to compete, not collaborate, and he offered helpful examples and suggestions on how we can adapt by working together. I enjoyed a quote he referenced by the late US President Abraham Lincoln “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. As our case is new, so must we think anew and act anew.”
A recording of his presentation is being edited and will be available online shortly along with the full text of his speech.
After a week of stimulating activities and idea-provoking conversations, I’m charged up with thoughts of collaboration. Given our circumstances, the increasing pace of change, the environmental factors beyond our control, our survival and vitality depends on our ability to find common cause and look forward together.
In the spirit of exchange, I’d love to hear about interesting ideas for collaboration or effective collaborations that are already happening out there in the field. Please comment!