Oh Canada! Our Friends Need Help

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With mind-boggling Cabinet appoints clogging the headlines, there’s barely been time to consider what impact a Trump administration might have on arts and culture in the U.S. But something is brewing to the north that suggests that regardless of who heads the government, the well-being of artists who work for positive social change is at risk. Our friends in Canada need help. Please read on and respond.

Last spring, Canadian arts groups were optimistic if cautious about newly elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s promise to invest nearly $1.9 CAD in arts and culture funding, doubling the budget of the Canada Council for the Arts (the equivalent of the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts, but much larger). The Council’s current budget is about $139 million USD, and by 2021, it will double. Though Canada’s population is one-ninth of the U.S.’s, with an NEA budget currently at $148 million USDC, the Canada Council’s per capita funding today is eight times the NEA’s.

Good news for Canadians, right?

Well, it depends how they spend the money. And the way they are planning to spend it is alarming to Canadians involved in community-engaged arts practice – the rich, collaborative work of artists committed to social and environmental justice who place their gifts at the service of community.

For years, the Canada Council maintained a funding portal called Artists and Community Collaboration Program (ACCP), supporting this work. Since learning of their new budget allocation, the Council has adopted an entirely new funding structure that eliminates this as an acknowledged field of practice, cramming all their funding into six streams, none of which reflects the value of Canada’s robust community-engaged arts field. If you search the Council’s website for references to “community-engaged arts,” you will no longer find any. My friends and colleagues in Canada feel their work is being disappeared, and I think they are right.

This has been going on for months, with letters, meetings, consultations that have failed to budge the Council one bit. Back in October, I wrote to Canada Council head Simon Brault to protest. I’d met him a couple of years earlier, when we both spoke at the Staging Sustainability conference in Toronto. Here are a few lines:

I would like you to know that along with many U.S.-based colleagues involved in community-engaged/art for social change, I am alarmed at the impact the Canada Council’s incipient New Funding Model will have on the well-being of this field. The fact that there is no designated heading for what was formerly supported through the Artists and Communities Collaborative Program and similar initiatives is disturbing, as it fails to give this work its proper place in the Canadian cultural landscape as a distinct field of practice and study with a unique character.
Treating community-engaged art as a subset of other disciplines in The Canada Council’s New Funding Model (i.e., requiring applicants to designate a primary Artistic Field of Practice, such as dance or music, and then compete with conventional one-discipline non-collaborative projects) makes a strong cultural policy statement implicitly belittling this important arts practice. It also makes very little practical sense in a world in which so many artists have all but abandoned the conventional arts discipline categories for an infinitely richer freedom to create.

I got a form letter in return from Claude Schryer, Senior Strategic advisor, Arts Granting Programs Division, coolly blowing off these concerns. Nearly identical form letters were received by many others. Schryer said the Council’s new funding model was not based on disciplines, but on the fields of practice, a distinction without a difference, since whatever you call these categories, they fail to treat community cultural development work as its own field with its own values, aims, approaches, and skills, but relegate it to a subset of something else.

What’s wrong with that? Consider how a theater that co-creates with community members will fare competing for grants with a red-carpet theater company. The latter will be judged on reviews, box-office receipts, video clips of performance, resumes of theater personnel, and so on. But the authenticating criteria for community-engaged work are participatory and reciprocal: not only what people thought of the final performance (this type of work is almost never reviewed by theater critics), but how they felt as co-creators, whether their voices were heard and aims realized, and how both the product and process resonated with the larger community.

As Judith Marcuse, founder and co-director of the International Center of Art for Social Change put it, “In all six categories, every mention of ‘engaging community’ frames community members as potential audience members. Successful community engagement is uniformly defined as projects that will generate diverse public enthusiasm for being ‘arts-consumers’ appreciating the work of professional ‘arts-providers.'” She and colleagues have been researching this work across Canada (I’m honored to be an advisor to the ASC! Project), and conclude that there are more than “200 organizations and many more independent artists working in the field of community-engaged arts/arts for social change.”

Apples and oranges doesn’t really do it justice.

When Canadian community-engaged artists say they fear their field will rendered unsupported and invisible through the intransigent policy decision, I don’t think they’re exaggerating. As Dr. Eugene van Erven, Artistic Director of the International Community Arts Festival and an internationally celebrated leader in the field, wrote to the Council:

Community and participatory arts is rapidly gaining in importance all over the world, where the social turn in the arts is proving insistent and unstoppable. Government policy and training programmes in our institutions of higher learning need to relate to it, because it is a reality and because it makes sense for the world of tomorrow that we are all trying to build for future generations. It is a process in which art and culture play a crucial role, particularly the ecologically, ethically and cross-culturally sensitive practices we label community or participatory art…. I have always regarded Canada to be at the international forefront of community-engaged art. It would be a great shame if through this thoughtless policy decision, the enormous credit and value of what hundreds of artists and organizations have built up over many decades will be erased.

Our friends in Canada are asking colleagues at home and abroad to write as I have done to support three requests:

That community-engaged arts be included as its own, unique field of practice: positioned legitimately alongside all other arts practices defined by the Council and not “subsumed” in other fields.

That criteria, defined in consultation with the sector, be created for assessment of grant proposals and that experienced artists, recognized by their peers in the field, carry out that assessment.

That community-engaged art/art for social change be positioned as a unique and legitimate form of art practice on the Council’s website, both in text and video content.

I think it’s very likely we are going to need our neighbors help in the near future, if you need another incentive to take part. Canada is showing us how the critical, insurgent, mobilizing power of community-engaged art and art for social change are a threat even to a nominally liberal administration (note that even as he trumpeted massive new arts culture funding, Trudeau approved yet another new pipeline from the Alberta tar sands to the port in British Columbia, triggering what will surely be the first of many protests).

Email letters should be addressed to Simon Brault, director@canadacouncil.ca, and cc’d to:

Claude.Schryer@canadacouncil.ca (Schryer, Claude), sylvie.martineau-cloutier@canadacouncil.ca (Martineau-Cloutier, Sylvie), Jacques.Vezina@canadacouncil.ca (Vézina, Jacques), caroline.lussier@canadacouncil.ca (Lussier, Caroline), Gerri.Trimble@canadacouncil.ca (Trimble, Gerri), lys.stevens@canadacouncil.ca (Stevens, Lys), sebastien.goupil@unesco.ca (Goupil, Sébastien), genevieve.vallerand@canadacouncil.ca (Vallerand, Geneviève), Joanne.Larocque-Poirier@canadacouncil.ca (Larocque-Poirier, Joanne), mireille.allaire@canadacouncil.ca (Allaire, Mireille), judith@jmprojects.ca (Judith Marcuse)

Canadian musician Neil Young looks to a time when “promises made stop gathering dust on the shelf” in “Show Me.”

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