Harsh Commentary on Arts Advocacy in Saskatchewan

This post is a series of outtakes and rants that I wrote in tandem with my article “SAA focuses on funding cuts to the arts: Meeting comes up short on strategy” in May 2007 for the June 2007 issue of the CARFAC Saskatchewan Visual Artists newsletter. I had gone to the meeting organized by the SAA (Saskatchewan Arts Alliance) on assignment from my editor, to report on the outcome of the plan “to develop a strategy for improving the dismal state of provincial funding for artists, arts organizations, cultural industries and heritage.” Thinking about the meeting and what was discussed caused me no end of irritation for two weeks, until I finally decided to write everything down. Then I edited. Below is the stuff that didn’t make it past my politeness filters, in all its pugilistic glory. The article that I submitted to my editor is posted here. You might want to read it first, for reference.

I didn’t see the discussion as having been terribly effective in achieving the stated goals of the meeting. It was more of a bitch-and-brainstorm session than a constructive strategic meeting. As such I have no concrete strategy to report on because none was decided upon.

In my opinion the SAA needs to develop a set of desired outcomes rather than spend energy on reactive strategies to the chronic underfunding of the sector. In this way the desired outcomes will drive the strategy. At the meeting I talked about finding champions within government who could carry our torch without dropping it, of developing a culture of conspicuous consumerism of arts and culture as has been done in Britain, of adopting strategies from other sectors where lobbying is successful, of the uphill battle in trying to gain credibility in a demographic which is suspicious of “high culture” to begin with: peasants and protestants.

I found that there was a generation gap in the participants at the meeting. As a 36-year-old, I was one of the youngest attendees at the meeting, and the only reason I went was because CARFAC asked me to write an article about it. If there isn’t interest in these issues from my generation, how is the SAA agenda going to be carried once the existing players retire?

I got the impression that for many of the people at the meeting—primarily arts administrators—there is a sense of entitlement that the government taps should keep flowing, and that established players should continue to be funded at levels to keep up with inflation, and with increases to leverage experience into further market penetration. While I agree with this in principle, in light of the inflation-adjusted shrinkage of the pot of government money available to the sector, this attitude leaves little or no room for emerging organizations to line up at the trough. There also seems to be an assumption that government funding is a right rather than a privilege. But I see the current funding climate as—to a certain extent—rewarding failure more often than it rewards success. Organizations that manage to find ways of making ends meet through non-government sources are often weaned off the government teat while those that continue to demonstrate their lack of commercial viability are rewarded with continued funds. I’m not sure what the solution to this is. [Note that since writing the original draft of this rant in May—but before posting it to this site—I’ve since softened my rhetoric about the system “rewarding failure.” A number of people have convinced me that the system would more accurately be described as “creating dependence.”]

Now, there is a difference between the fiscal reality of the cultural sector, and public perception of same. But I think part of the problem with optics of the situation is the fact that so much of the funded activity has no context within the lives of people outside of the sector. There is a perceived sense of elitism, where many organizations appear to be getting government money to cater to a very limited set of sectoral insiders. I think it behooves arts organizations to think about the general public more often, and to embrace programming that will be popular and accessible without compromising integrity.

In terms of funding, I think simply increasing the amount of money given to the Saskatchewan Arts Board to distribute as has been done for years is not necessarily the best strategy in terms of public perception. Rather than doing “more of the same,” I think it’s valuable to consider alternative funding strategies. Rather than the sector creating elaborate numbers-laden reports and charts to prove the economic benefits of funding cultural activity, perhaps it’s time to recognize that there are other ways to create economic activity than the “give-and-grant” system. While there’s a recognition that the business model in which the artist creates non-commercial work is valid and should continue to be funded, the current model seems to penalize those artists who are more entrepreneurial. Perhaps we need to start some sort of venture-capital fund or microfinance loan program within the sector. That way artists who have commercially viable projects—but lack the seed capital—can finance projects on an as-needed basis rather than within the current grant system.

One thought on “Harsh Commentary on Arts Advocacy in Saskatchewan

  1. I have recently seen that many youth working in audio, video, new media, and performance are not in any hurry to get involved with arts organizations that appear to represent another generation. This is a really serious problem that needs to be addressed. The energy of youth is powerful and they are the ones that grow up and run things. If they aren’t shown that these organizations are designed to support their practices and give voice to their concerns, I fear that the longevity of these institutions might be at risk in several ways.

    One suggestion I have is for organizations such as CARFAC and the SAA to reach out to youth in particular by holding some sort of forum where young artists from *diverse* communities and art practices can discuss the role of arts organizations in the art practices of youth. Ask youth what concerns they have. Find out why young people don’t attend these events often unless they are invited. Take them seriously. I think a campaign to reach out to youth is in order, but it will only work if the organizations in question really understand what artistic practices are growing in importance with youth without sidestepping the complex issues surrounding their practices (e.g. copyright/copyleft issues, digital distribution, or the perception of elitism or bureaucracy).

    Arts organizations in Canada are quite critical to the support and cultivation of a professional arts culture in Canada but I believe that they can only succeed by reaching out more to youth – especially those involved in new artistic practices that are not so well-represented by many of the current institutions.

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