Features  Art’s curtain call

Last August, while the majority of McGill’s student population was likely lazing through the final days of summer, Canada’s arts community was gearing up for a fight. Earlier in the month, artists and arts organizations nationwide had been blindsided by the Harper Government’s announcement of new cuts to federal arts funding programs, bringing the total amount of arts funding cut in 2008 to $45 million. Arts advocacy groups were quick to call for the reversal of this decision, and artists and their supporters began a wave of protests in cities across Canada. When the dust settled, Canadian artists were left to confront a troubling question: in what ways would these cuts affect their ability to pursue their craft?

While several federally-administered programs were affected by the budget cuts, the complete elimination of both PromArt and Trade Routes, programs designed to advance Canadian culture abroad, threatens the nation’s artists most. PromArt, overseen by the department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada, offered grants to be used toward international touring to Canadian artists and arts organizations. Trade Routes, a Canadian Heritage program, was designed to promote the export of Canadian cultural goods to the international marketplace. Both these functions are crucial for the survival of Canada’s artists; the country’s relatively small population places a limit on the size of the domestic audience. In a 2006 statement, Canadian Heritage said outright that “Canada’s cultural enterprises must look increasingly to world markets in order to remain viable and competitive.”

For the arts community, any cuts to funding have the potential to be disastrous. It’s no secret that artists typically live what Alanna Thain, a professor of Cultural Studies at McGill, calls a “hand-to-mouth existence.” Though Stephen Harper seems to think that Canada’s artists spend their time hob-knobbing at “rich galas,” the truth is that an artist living in Canada makes, on average, $23,000 a year, and half of Quebec’s artists live on less than that amount – meaning that nearly half fall below the poverty line.

“When you have to cobble together funding from a variety of sources, even small grants and small amounts of money can make the difference between being able to pursue your career or not,” says Thain. “We already have artists who have to work part-time or full-time to support their art.” She notes that the government doesn’t seem to understand that art is a viable career in and of itself: artists are labourers, and though society often conjures an image of the artist as dreamer, the fact is that just as auto-workers produce cars or farmers tend cows that produce milk, artists commit hours of work to produce the cultural material that is consumed by the public.

The funding that came from PromArt and Trade Routes had a huge impact on the ability of arts groups and individuals to tour, and was also largely responsible for supporting their general functioning. PromArt awarded 312 grants in 2006-2007, and according to a study prepared by the Conférence Internationale des Arts de la Scène (CINARS), the average organization that received funding from PromArt that year was awarded about $26,000. This may seem like a relatively small sum, but for many organizations, losing this money can set off a train leading to more losses; the average PromArt grant can enable artists to bring in more than five times its original value in revenue. Grants facilitate travel overseas, and, by extension, a company’s performances, an author’s literary tour, or a painter’s exhibition. All these are a major source of revenue and publicity for artists. A $26,000 grant can make it possible for a company or individual to raise well over $100,000. That money can, in turn, be reinvested to support one’s further artistic endeavors. Thus, the loss of this government funding has wide-ranging consequences, not only for touring but also for ensuring the long-term viability of an artist’s career.

While all artistic disciplines will feel the cuts’ impacts, Thain explains that performing artists will likely suffer most from the disappearance of PromArt and Trade Routes. “Performing arts companies have a particular set of challenges, because their infrastructure needs are so great,” she says. “Filmmakers can send their films to a festival, for instance, and not physically go along – dance companies or theatre groups cannot do that.”

Indeed, following last August’s announcement, performing arts groups have been canceling tours left and right. In a recent survey of past PromArt and Trade Routes beneficiaries, CINARS found that 80 per cent of respondents had international tours planned for the 2008-2009 year, but 92 per cent of those believe that the elimination of PromArt and Trade Routes funding has threatened the feasibility of the international engagements. While is it possible that larger organizations may be able to operate tours at a deficit in the short term, CINARS notes that “it is inconceivable for many companies to carry out a tour that will incur a loss, to absorb the costs, or to renegotiate a higher fee; these companies will instead be forced to cancel tours.”

The recent experiences of artists and arts organizations themselves confirm the study’s findings. “I’ve had to abandon certain ideas and projects, because I know there won’t be the funds to support them,” explains Margie Gillis, an internationally-acclaimed contemporary dancer from Montreal. Similarly, the Blue Metropolis Foundation, a Montreal-based non-profit that promotes cross-cultural exchange through reading and writing, has been forced to drastically scale back its operations this year, including its annual literary festival. Blue Metropolis general manager Michelle Sylvestre says that the organization is choosing to sacrifice quantity in order to retain quality, a conservative strategy designed to ensure the foundation’s long-term survival. Even the Theatre of Early Music, a group that, according to director Daniel Taylor, is “supported primarily by private donations,” worries that future lack of public funding will affect their operations.

When coupled with the current economic crunch, the effects of the PromArt and Trade Routes cuts are even more severe. Artists mention the desire to turn to the private sector to fill the gap left by federal cuts, but, as Sylvestre notes, “this year is really hard. The private side is reluctant to contribute now because of the financial situation.” Taylor adds that securing private funding is “a particularly difficult challenge for the younger, smaller groups. It’s hardly a level playing field since the oldest groups seem to know just which doors to knock on, and many have already received promises of multi-year funding through PR contracts with major companies.” Gillis highlights another facet to the difficulty in finding private donors, saying that the recent funding cuts “make it harder for us to go into the private sector and get help, because the private sector has just been told by the government that [arts groups] are not worthy of support. So our job, in convincing, becomes harder.”

Gillis’s comments highlight another, less self-evident consequence of paring down federal money for the arts: that is, the way in which a withdrawal of government funds signifies the government’s disdain for the nation’s cultural workers. In cutting funding, “the government is devaluing the arts,” Gillis says, noting that the derogatory manner in which the Conservative leadership has spoken about the arts in recent months, especially during last fall’s Parliamentary election, only adds to the feeling that the arts community has been abandoned.

“To accuse a population that has no real income and is subsidizing its own contribution to society of taking advantage of the general population is insulting. It’s insulting to the people who’ve spent years advancing the field, and it’s insulting to society in general,” Gillis says. “It’s a question of what our society is choosing to value, what seeds we’re watering. This government is refusing to recognize the incredibly important contribution to society that art makes.”

Thain believes that this attitude is widespread among artists at the moment. “It’s been months now since the cuts were announced, and there is still a lot of ongoing activism around the question, which suggests to me that artists don’t feel any support from the government. I don’t get any sense that artists have confidence in this government at all.”

What comes to the surface when speaking with arts groups and individuals about the loss of federal funding is that, in cutting off vital monetary support, they feel that the government is actively working to take away their voices. In a fragile industry that often must struggle to stay afloat, even during the sunniest of economic times, it’s not a misguided fear. The truth is that a lack of funding often means an inability to pursue artistic expression.

“I think that the question of censorship needs to be part of the debate,” Thain states, “especially when you look at these cuts in light of past actions that this government has taken, like Bill C-10.” The bill, which aimed to limit funding to arts productions considered to be inappropriate, died when the federal election was called last fall.

Indeed, as information began to circulate and leaked government memos were uncovered, it became increasingly difficult to avoid the idea that the Harper government had cut arts funding due to the perception that the wrong kind of Canadians were profiting from it. A now-infamous Conservative Party document disclosed to the press expressed concern that PromArt and Trade Routes beneficiaries like the band Holy Fuck, broadcaster Avi Lewis, and left-wing columnist Gwynne Dyer were “not exactly the foot that most Canadians would want to see put forward.”

“The idea of policing values does seem to be at the heart of this,” Thain says. “Harper framed his original justification of the cuts by saying that ordinary people weren’t interested in the arts. Well, who are these ordinary people? It is a de facto mode of censorship when people are not given opportunities to pursue modes of expression.” Gillis makes an extreme statement of concurrence. “To have a government where you control what your people are saying, and where you cut the throats of those who are weaker than you are, that’s moving toward a fascist regime,” she says.

Perhaps more frightening, however, is the long-term impact that decreased funding for the arts could have on the Canadian arts community as a whole, and on the country’s cultural literacy. “We’re coming out of a period where Canada has emerged onto the world arts scene, due in part to the spread of popular groups like Cirque du Soleil,” says Thain. “The literary scene has exploded, film directors have been able to work successfully at home in Canada rather than moving to Hollywood. When there’s no long – or even medium-term – sense of security about arts funding, what happens is that these projects disappear, and in time, so do the audiences for them.”

Gillis adds that institutional memory is quick to disappear in artistic fields. “Generations and generations have been building on ideas, but if you take away the support for that, you lose not only your own work but the work of generations before,” she comments. Thain agrees that foundational work in the arts takes years to rebuild. She also notes that “you have to think of all the jobs that are constellated around the arts. Think of this city in the summertime – it’s one festival after another. Art works to draw people into cities, and therefore supports a whole range of other industries.”

The funding drought will also likely lead to shifts in the geographical locations where Canadian artists are working. Lorraine Hebert, the general manager of the Regroupement Québécois de la Danse, an organization that works to defend the rights of professional dancers, notes that “On the international scene, the artistic quality of our companies’ productions is evaluated in comparison to those of other foreign companies, who are often better provided for.” The reality that artists may be better-supported in other place will likely lead to the relocation of Canadian talent, a move that, according to Thain, just makes sense for artists in terms of sustaining fruitful careers. The consequence, though, is that audiences and community support will be degraded and lost.

For Sylvestre, the worry is about the probable loss of important cross-cultural exchange that has stemmed from PromArt- and Trade Routes-financed projects. Speaking about her work with Blue Metropolis, she says, “What the international work does is bring people of different cultures to Montreal and allows them to share their stories with Quebeckers and Canadians. It also allows us to go abroad and open up the doors to our own national literature there. When you’re reading a work by a Latin American writer, for example, you are not only reading a story but you’re learning about how a people group lives, about what they do. That’s a good thing.” Thain echoes the importance of such exchange, but is quick to point out that “If those roots are lost, you also lose the opportunity for cross-cultural fertilizations. Artists can’t interact and be influenced by other cultures, other traditions, other artists that they might otherwise be able to learn about, bring home, and rework.”

For now, artists must wait and see whether the money cut from PromArt and Trade Routes will be channelled back into other arts initiatives. Gillis and Thain think this is unlikely; the federal budget that was released on Tuesday included investments in arts and culture, but made no mention of bolstering funding for the promotion of Canadian culture abroad. And while Minister of Culture James Moore has promised that money cut will be reinvested into different culture programs, Ian Rae, a professor at the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, points out that “It’s worth keeping in mind that when the Conservatives talk about the ‘arts,’ they mean programs funded by the Ministry of Heritage, which also administers sports in Canada. Hence, money for a symphony could be redirected into a luge trial and still count as an ‘arts’ investment.”

“Art is indeed a necessity of the human spirit,” Gillis comments. “Art can give people hope and courage, it can drive them to change their circumstances. You would hope that the leaders of our society would be smart enough to know that and to try and safeguard it.”