How did it go? One of its two top leaders, Jesse Wente (above), the incoming chair, had nothing to say about any of the above-mentioned priorities of his stakeholders or the desperate economic situations artists find themselves in at the moment. Rather, he wanted to talk politics. He articulated what amounts to an alternative strategic plan reflective of his personal political priorities:
This journey has brought us to a moment where inequities should be obvious to all. Where anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism has once again been laid bare for all to see and for all to work against.
This while the world continues to grapple with the ongoing pandemic, which itself has only further exacerbated existing inequalities.
We are at an inflection point, perhaps more than one, and while there is much to navigate, we are nonetheless presented with the opportunity to change, and to do so boldly. The arts are well positioned to lead this change, as it has already started, and artists are always at the forefront of guiding us beyond inflection moments.
For Wente, the pandemic is notable less for its catastrophic economic impact on artists than as an opportunity to score political points. Call it disaster activism.
Unlike Wente, Simon Brault, CEO of the Canada Council, seemed to hear among his stakeholders “a strong desire for increased, predictable, diverse and sustainable funding.” But he, too, was keenest on advancing a political agenda. The council, he said, must “seek to advance diversity, inclusivity and our social responsibilities, namely on the social and climate justice fronts, both within and outside our sector.” The bold type is his, underscoring world-class mission creep.
The first two elements of the council’s evolving strategic plan Brault (below) chose to emphasize were “an increased presence of Indigenous perspectives in all the Council’s activities and policies, while we continue to progress in our own decolonization process, which we want to be consistent and exemplary.”
And, “We will work with the communities most affected by systemic racism in order to address its presence and impact in both the Council and the wider arts sector.”
I don’t have a problem with individual artists or arts organizations making political statements or promoting political values. I do think it’s a problem when a government-sponsored arts funding body gets political. It trips a wire between support for the arts and regulation of the arts and artists. The initial impulse to help is perverted into an impulse to direct. Once the bureaucrats start directing, artists, who quite properly revel in their intellectual and artistic freedom, are reduced to pawns of an official project to shape a political climate.The Canada Council was established as a crown corporation, arms-length from government, precisely to protect it from political interference from government officials (particularly the elected variety), preserving the freedoms of the arts community. The idea was to elevate the arts above politics.It was a nice idea but the downside of that arms-length relationship is that it leaves appointed (unelected) officials such as Messrs. Brault and Wente free of government oversight, unaccountable to the public, and at liberty to pursue their own ambition to subordinate arts to politics.
Everyone who accepts Canada Council money is implicated in the Wente-Brault crusade, whether they like it or not. I suspect that some artists don’t mind because they agree with the Brault-Wente political program. But that’s short-sighted. All this politicking creates an unfortunate precedent for the next government that comes to power. As I’ve written elsewhere, Conservatives will owe it to his supporters to impose their own political agenda on the arts. Have fun advancing law-and-order and pipeline capacity through creative activities.There is no evidence of broad-based support for the Brault-Wente agenda in the council’s own surveys. Less than a quarter of respondents believed systemic discrimination was a significant barrier to making art in Canada, 7% cited “activism, social change, and cultural critique” as a reason that the arts were important to them, and 1% wanted the arts in Canada to play a leadership role on social justice issues.”
Rather, there is good evidence that the stakeholders think the council has lost its way. In response to leading questions of the tell-us-how-good-a-job-we’re-doing variety, a mere 24% said the council has made a significant impact on advancing the arts in Canada. Only 9% said current funding models are working well. Still, there was no suggestion at the public meeting that the council was anything but a runaway success.
A responsive, accountable Canada Council would have noted the desperate economic challenges facing the arts community and focused all of its efforts and messaging this year on bringing relief. Not these dudes. They’ve got well-paid jobs. They’re secure in their filter bubble. Nothing is going to get in the way of their personal political priorities.
Wente and Brault sucked up most of the time at the “public meeting,” allowing only three or four polite, hand-picked questions at the end. It was a parody of accountability that would have made any Fortune 500 company proud.
On they go with their grand strategery. Sure to set back Canadian arts-and-culture for another five years.