Thomas Hodd teaches Canadian Literature at Université de Moncton.
Fifteen years ago I worked in the private sector as a proposal writer for an I.T. services firm. I sat in board meetings with some pretty high-level people. And much of the conversation involved words like “export,” “delivery of services,” “marketability,” and “strategic positioning.”
What’s disturbing is that I now sit on arts and culture boards and they use the same language.
Not so long ago “arts and culture” was all one needed to say when talking about the country’s story-tellers, actors, film makers, dancers, artists, poets, and musicians. Everyone knew what you meant. Then it became “the cultural sector,” now the buzzword is “cultural industries.”
What’s behind this shift? It started innocently enough. During the recession, governments cut back on funding for the arts as part of an overall debt reduction strategy. But the exception became the norm, forcing the arts community to look elsewhere for money. Soon corporate sponsorship became the mainstay for many arts organizations.
Unfortunately, this turn of events created a situation whereby artists and cultural organizations are now being forced by governments to conform to the language and approach of corporatism if they want to get funding. Not surprisingly, this move is being encouraged by the business people who seem to be appearing more and more on culture boards.
In short, culture is no longer a fundamental part of civilization worth preserving and promoting: it’s an industry sector that must constantly justify its “value-add” to shareholders.
It’s no coincidence that Joseph Rotman, as in the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, has been reappointed chair of the Board for The Canada Council for the Arts, the country’s largest and most important funding body for culture.
Witness the flurry of arts organizations who are scrambling to explain the “economic impact” of their activities, to gather “meaningful data” in order to quantify their contribution to society at the local, provincial, or national level, to brainstorm ways on how to pad their annual reports with pie-charts and statistics.
This is not to say that arts organizations shouldn’t ignore the costs associated with their activities or think of ways to improve their services. But they need to get back to creating and promoting culture instead of being forced to agonize over metrics, branding exercises, and the wording of their strategic plans so as to appease their MBA-minded assessors.
The country’s cultural creators – the people who speak better than anyone else the language of creative expression – haven’t had time to process the sea-change, let alone challenge it. They have been too busy fighting proposed changes to copyright that would see them lose even more of their meager earnings. To put it in perspective: according to York University’s 2013 MBA/IMBA Salary Survey, the average salary reportedly earned by their graduates was $84,305. Hill Strategies’ 2009 Statistical Profile of Artists in Canada lists the average salary for a professional artist at $22,700.
What’s more, many artists have been told by their government, their agents, and their arts councils that they need to become more “entrepreneurial” with the selling of their album, play, or novel. No longer good enough to be the creator of a work of art, artists now have to be their own marketing department: they have to put up a website, start a blog, get a twitter following, take professional development courses on how to “export” their product to new markets. I’ve even had an author confess to me recently that editors are asking for changes to novels based on focus group recommendations.
Does Apple get its product engineers to do this? Of course not. It’s not their forte, and would slow the company’s “time to market” with new products (you see, I did learn something in those boardrooms). Such activities would take away from what their engineers are best at – creating.
The current corporate approach is draining this country’s creativity, not improving it. It’s time to stop viewing the arts through an economic lens. Give culture back to the citizens.