In the year 2051, the 107-year-old Michael Ondaatje is still spritely and the 111-year-old Margaret Atwood doesn't look a day over 80. Between the two of them, the great Canadian writers have won six Booker prizes, 23 Gillers and countless Governor-General's Awards.
All that acclaim has done wonderful things not merely for their egos but also for their health, and neither expects to die any time soon.
Most of their artistic contemporaries are long gone, of course, but Atwood and Ondaatje still enjoy a good funeral from time to time. Just last week, they buried the 103-year-old dramatist George F. Walker, winner of nine Floyd S. Chalmers Awards for new Canadian plays.
If only the late Joan Chalmers hadn't canned those prizes back in 2001, good ol' George would probably still be alive today.
The dancers, directors, conductors, painters and sculptors of their generation were much shorter lived.
There were never many prizes in their fields, and the writers can now barely remember their old colleagues' names -- although Atwood's infamous wit is undiminished and Ondaatje swears he's still sharp as a tack.
Perhaps this futuristic fantasy sounds improbable, but a recent study of Academy Award winners did show that an Oscar conferred, on average, almost four extra years of life on the winner. Prizes are good for artists.
They are good for art too. Just look at what the creation of the $25,000 Giller Prize has done to encourage the growing public interest in Canadian fiction, while Britain's Booker Prize continues to ensure that people read books they might otherwise ignore.
It seems that the mass-market forms -- books, films and pop music -- are the easiest to celebrate.
Everybody has screened the Oscar nominees, heard those hits on the radio or seen the contenders for the latest Booker decorating store windows. Figuring out how to create an annual prize for dance, live theatre, classical music or painting is more tricky and such an award is less likely to get attention.
The $25,000 annual Chalmers Awards for national achievements in dance, music, craft, visual art, documentary film, artistic direction and artistic administration were rare prizes in their scope and their size. Now that Chalmers has cancelled them to use her $325,000 pot to grant much smaller sums to more artists, the only substantial national prizes left in many of these fields are the $15,000 Governor-General's Awards.
And with the demise of the Chalmers play awards, which annually recognized four new Canadian scripts performed in Toronto, Canada has lost the closest thing it had to Broadway's Tonys. The only alternative is Toronto's Dora Mavor Moore Awards, which are still struggling to rid themselves of their reputation as nothing more than a theatre-community popularity contest -- sort of like the Oscars but without any of the glamour. The Governor-General's Literary Awards recognize Canadian scripts but have never achieved the mystique of the Chalmers, probably because people see plays, they don't read them.
Let me declare my bias here: I have served on the Chalmers theatre jury regularly. Indeed, I was one of those who awarded Walker his ninth Chalmers. Our brief was to recognize excellence. We were not asked to consider which playwrights most needed the psychological boost, nor to remember that some were richer than others. We weren't asked to debate how best we could encourage new playwrights, or female playwrights, or Quebec playwrights in translation or Canadian playwrighting in general. Nine of us just voted for the plays we liked best. The final tally awarded the prizes to Walker and three playwrights who had never previously won: Chris Earle, Florence Gibson and Michael Redhill.
At the ceremony to announce those prizes last month, Chalmers dropped her bomb: The prizes were no more.
"The era of the big ego award is over," she proclaimed, adding it was obscene to award any artist $100,000 when so many were doing without. Perhaps Chalmers feels she has been upstaged by the new $100,000 Siminovitch Prize that will give three-quarters of that amount in a three-year cycle to a theatre director, designer or playwright, who will then pass on the remainder to a protégé. At any rate, her statement sounded more like wishful thinking than a statement of fact. With the recent creation of the Giller, the Siminovitch, and the $40,000 Griffin Prize for Canadian poetry (whose first winner will be announced tonight), the big award seems to be flourishing in Canada. And with all due respect to the ever-generous Chalmers, that's great.
It's hard to know how best to nurture the arts, whether to spread the money around or concentrate your efforts, but artistic talent and achievement are never democratically distributed, and the bigger and rarer the prize the more public recognition it can win for the art form. More artists may be a bit richer for Chalmers's decision than those few who will be a lot poorer, but I am not convinced the rest of us will benefit. Big prizes recognize that elitism is the arts' best friend.
I'll certainly miss the lively meetings of the Chalmers jury room, where the debate always seemed more intelligent and less partisan than out in the theatre lobby. At the ceremony, Redhill announced he was honoured to win one of what he called "the most spiritually pure awards in the land."
But then, he was bound to say something nice: Joan Chalmers had just added several months to his life expectancy.