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Allyson McHardy, mezzo-soprano, in the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Handel’s Messiah. (Malcolm Cook)
Allyson McHardy, mezzo-soprano, in the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Handel’s Messiah. (Malcolm Cook)

Canada Council’s diversity focus brings new opportunities, challenges Add to ...

The Canada Council for the Arts is getting a new funding model in April of 2017 – a total rethink of the Ottawa-based granting council that reduces its number of programs from 148 to a streamlined six.

As details of this shift have started to emerge in recent weeks, however, the most striking change may be the direct tying of diversity to funding for large arts organizations for the first time since the Canada Council was established in 1957. It’s not just the diversity of art and artists that will come under scrutiny in the future at institutions with revenue of more than $2-million. If the administration or backstage crew at your opera or ballet company, or the audience for your symphony or theatre company, or the board of directors of your art gallery, does not demonstrate a “commitment to reflecting the diversity of your organization’s geographic community or region,” this will now affect the size of grant received from the federal arts council.

“It’s clearly an assessment criteria – it’s no longer a wish,” says Simon Brault, appointed the director and CEO of the Canada Council in 2014 for a five-year term. “The companies that are performing the most will get more money – it’s a real incentive.”

With the Canada Council’s budget expected to double over the next two years – from $180-million to $360-million, if the Liberal government keeps its campaign promise – Brault will actually have the new funds needed to achieve his objectives. “We want to make sure [the doubled budget] is not a money pit – to make sure that we are advancing the quality of production and the progression of diversity.”

With this move, the Canada Council finds itself in line with current thinking in other multicultural countries. Just over a year ago, for example, Arts Council England (ACE) shifted its priorities – announcing that arts organizations that did not show progress in diversifying their programming and audiences could see their grants cut. And results are already being seen, with Black and Minority Ethnic (a British term) representation in the arts work force supported by ACE increasing from 13 to 13.7 per cent – the equivalent of an additional 576 jobs.

Judging by conversations with many of the artistic directors, executive directors and administrators at Canada’s top theatre and dance companies and orchestras this week, the initial reaction to the Canada Council’s new assessment criteria – where diversity is second only to artistic excellence – has been overwhelmingly positive, even if these arts heads eagerly await more concrete details on how it will work.

Tim Jennings, the new executive director of the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., like many of his colleagues, argues the shift is necessary – because if you’re asking for money from a government agency, “how can you not say you’re supposed to be doing your work for everybody?”

The Shaw Festival – which currently receives about $800,000 from the Canada Council – will be an interesting test case as to how an established arts organization might access a potentially larger operating grant based on “the inclusion and engagement of aboriginal peoples, culturally diverse groups, people who are deaf or have disabilities and official-language minority communities.”

The repertory theatre company will score well in terms of accessibility for people with disabilities – as 70 per cent of its audience is older than 50.

But, while it has made some strides in terms of diversifying its artistic programming and artists in recent years, the Shaw Festival’s audience remains almost 95-per-cent white, according to Jennings – who adds that the board of directors and administration is not much more diverse. (The destination theatre is located in a province where, according to the 2011 census, 25.9 per cent of the population identified as a visible minority and another 2.4 per cent as aboriginal.)

“We’re a very, very white company,” says Jennings, whose background as administrator is in the very diverse world of theatre for young audiences. “How do we get more voices into the room? That’s the most important thing currently. I hope we’re going to succeed at this and deserve additional funding.”

Different institutions will, of course, encounter different challenges with respect to the new assessment criteria – especially more highbrow (read: Eurocentric) art forms such as symphony orchestras, opera companies and ballet.

In the view of Jeff Melanson, the chief executive of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, demonstrating a true rather than token commitment to reflecting the diversity of the country’s most multicultural city will require artistic evolution. The TSO – which gets about $2-million from the Canada Council – has recently hired diversity consultant Michael Charles and given him “carte blanche” to figure out how to fulfill their new mission statement of being “the world’s most innovative orchestra in the world’s most ethnically diverse city.”

That may mean coming into conflict with certain segments of the TSO’s existing audience, particularly purists – and the result may be an orchestra that does not have the same makeup or repertoire that those in European capitals do. “Cross-cultural experimentation is the history of the art,” Melanson says. “The cultural opportunity of Toronto is its diversity.”

“To be reflective of your community is fundamental,” says the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s artistic director, André Lewis, who is supportive of the Canada Council’s new assessment criteria and feels his company is already on the way to fulfilling it.

The RWB – which gets around $1-million from the Canada Council – has just launched a national tour of Going Home Star – Truth and Reconciliation, a choreographic representation of the stories of residential-school survivors created with the participation of indigenous artists such as novelist Joseph Boyden, singer Tanya Tagaq and the Northern Cree Singers.

At the same time, however, Lewis wants to know how this commitment to diversity will be measured and whether it will apply across the company – while he’s actively working to expand representation of the city’s aboriginal communities on his board, he has found it more difficult to attract indigenous dancers to the world of ballet. “We need to clarify all this – how you define it and how you number it,” says Lewis, whose company is based in a city where 11 per cent of the population self-identified as aboriginal in the 2011 census.

As for organizations that are already succeeding at reflecting their community’s diversity, they want to make sure they are assessed not just on progress, but on the present. At the Gateway Theatre in Richmond, B.C., for instance, artistic director Jovanni Sy recently began a festival of Chinese-language theatre (with English surtitles). The second edition was tremendously successful, bringing in 3,000 audience members to six paid shows. Almost all were Chinese Canadian – and 80 per cent said in a survey they would be interested in booking tickets to an English-language show at the theatre in the future.

Having only started to receive operating funds from the then-cash-strapped Canada Council in 2012, the Gateway receives an amount that is more in line with older companies that are a third of its size.

“It’s absolutely important if we’re taking public money that companies at least have some kind of consciousness towards being more inclusive,” says Sy, who has been a leader in finding innovative ways to reflect the diversity of his community.

As Simon Brault puts it, these changes are not just a matter of being inclusive – but of the arts being sustainable in an increasingly multicultural country. “Many companies are near the cliff,” he says. “The risk of marginalization is great.”

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