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Canada Council for the Arts chair Simon Brault is most proud of the new funding category for First Nations art. (Denis Beaumont/The Canadian Press)
Canada Council for the Arts chair Simon Brault is most proud of the new funding category for First Nations art. (Denis Beaumont/The Canadian Press)

Russell Smith: Your new Canada Council is categorically confusing Add to ...

Canadian artists were, on the whole, agitated by the Canada Council’s announcement of its “new funding model,” a new set of programs to which artists, organizations and institutions may apply for government support. They are agitated because most of them don’t know what the new categories mean.

There used to be 147 arts grant programs to apply for, divided by discipline – one for poetry, one for choreography, one for operating a gallery, etc. Now there are six general ones, and the Council has boasted of streamlining and simplifying the system. But what do the six categories represent? They have magnificently vague names – Explore and Create, Engage and Sustain, Renewing Artistic Practice – and the brief texts that describe their goals are written in such fluent management-ese one might guess they are actually the product of a computer program designed to baffle and obfuscate.

Let’s attempt to contrast the programs “Explore and Create” and “Engage and Sustain.” The first “is intended for artists, collectives and organizations focused on research, development, exploration and innovation in the creation of new work advancing their art forms.” The second “supports arts organizations in the production and presentation of ongoing, sustainable, high-quality artistic activities that engage the diversity of citizens within their communities.” If you can discern the actual practical meaning hidden behind those magic incantations, you have spent more time in boardrooms than I have.

You might attempt to read the rest of the descriptive paragraph to see if any further elucidation occurs, but by the third sentence you will find your head getting heavy. By the time you reach the phrase “design and test strategic approaches and initiatives,” you will be unable to resist looking out the window. For Canada has not two but three official languages: English, French and Bureaucrat.

The third language is designed to make you sleepy. (“Follow the diversity, yes, just watch the diversity, now your eyes are closing, diversity, yes …”)

The best I can understand is that “Explore and Create” is for funding individual art works, “Engage and Sustain” is for funding organizations and institutions, “Renewing Artistic Practice” funds professional training and “Arts Across Canada” and “Arts Abroad” fund travel. The last program, the most important addition, “Creating, Knowing and Sharing Aboriginal Arts,” is the only one that is self-explanatory.

If I have misunderstood these, it is not my fault, as I am actually a pretty good reader.

There were reasons, though, for a restructuring: the Council is always under threat of cuts in times of hardship and under Conservative government, and it must show that it is modern and evolving and digital-friendly and multidisciplinary and whatever else sounds good to “creative economy”-obsessed politicians. The director of the Canada Council, Simon Brault, acknowledges this in his statement on the Council’s website, saying, “Unlike many arts funders around the world, which have had to restructure due to budget cuts and other external pressures, we have undertaken this exercise proactively, from a position of strength, on our own terms.”

There were serious limitations to the genre-specific programs, especially in an age of multimedia art forms. The new system is designed to be more flexible: Program officers will be able to convene special juries specifically for projects that don’t fit into conventional genre categories. But, Brault admitted to me in a phone interview, coming up with new nomenclature was difficult: “The question of titles is always a nightmare in a bilingual country.” He had been doing interviews about it all day and confessed he was having trouble remembering the perplexingly similar new names in both English and French. (In French, “Engage and Sustain” becomes “Enraciner et Partager,” which is hardly clearer.)

What of conventional categories, though? Will there still be grants for a book of sonnets? Or will the mixed-media, genre-crossing works be privileged? Brault assured me that there will still be money for sonnets and silkscreens. He explained that non-disciplinary doesn’t mean necessarily multidisciplinary – a sonneteer will still be judged by a panel of poetry experts rather than by a dancer and a videographer. I hope that this will always be true.

Actually, a simplification was inevitable. Brault said, “We are moving from gatekeeping to sharing. We had hundreds of eligibility criteria. A lot of them were created in the pre-digital age.” He pointed out that they had a program for “a musical composition in one city.” But now the definition of city is changing and perhaps irrelevant in the borderless Internet. He said, “If we didn’t change, we would have to add 300 new programs in the next 10 years and I wouldn’t want to do that.”

And – to assuage the fears of artists I have been hearing all week – he stressed that the bottom line remains the same. There is no shrinking of funds for artists. It will not be more difficult for a sonneteer to receive help. It may be easier, however, for a circus performer, whose category was hard to pinpoint before.

What he is most proud of is the new section entirely for First Nations art, in which all the program officers will be themselves aboriginal. The timing of this announcement is excellent, as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommended just such an increase in Canada Council support for aboriginal culture. The Council seems to have been planning this avant la lettre.

But timing generally is a question that is annoying artists, many of whom are expressing dissatisfaction on social media. We have been waiting for months for this big announcement of how the new programs are going to work, especially the technicalities of the assembling of specialist juries, and what we have been given is still rather vague. Well, it’s a slow roll-out, says the Council. Stay tuned for more concrete details in the fall. We’ll wait – but we do hope that when the details are published, they will be this time in English and French.

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