An interesting controversy roils in Ontario, where a petition has been submitted to the provincial government asking that fashion design be eligible for arts funding – the kind of funding now reserved for opera and short films. The petition, spearheaded by Ashlee Froese, a lawyer representing the fashion industry, and supported by many important designers and fashion-media people, is addressed to the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport, which administers grants to artists, because the ministry is currently formulating a new cultural-funding strategy.

The notoriously underperforming fashion designers of Ontario want in on the $800-million given out every year to cultural enterprises. They want to be eligible for the same grants that poets and sound-installation artists can apply for, since acting as businesses in competition with mass-produced global fashion brands is impractical.

The petition has a paltry few signatures on it (fewer than 1,500 at the time of this writing). This is not a popular cause. Arts funding in general is not a popular cause – and fashion seems to the sensible person not only a luxury but also one that can possibly make its own money, and plenty of it.

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The truth is that fashion has been one of the toughest of all cultural industries in Canada: Designers are artistic people and yet they seek to make practical objects that people can wear; fashion design's goal is to obtain distribution in retail stores and ultimately mass-production, so it is clearly a business, and yet its commercial successes are minuscule. Designers need capital to obtain fine fabrics, promotion, industrial space and labourers and all the other things that individual artists tend not to have to worry about (dancers have dance companies that act as businesses and provide these things; authors have publishing houses; painters have gallerists). The famous Canadian clothing success stories, such as Roots, produce conservative and practical wear, not the kind of thing we tend to think of as fashion (certainly not "art fashion"), and are hardly an advertisement for the necessity of government support.

The proponents of the change say that fashion is artistic, expressive, a part of our national culture, as with our landscape painting. Opponents say that anything designed to be mass-produced is not art. Arts funding is for impractical things. Everybody needs clothes; nobody needs fiction. We have long argued over whether craft and industrial design or even architecture are art – if it has a practical function, is it excluded from the pure art category? People go so far as to call expensive culinary experimentation art. But the argument is not exactly relevant: We like to have all kinds of viable businesses in our economy, artistic and non. Governments support all kinds of enterprises – even failing banks – for all kinds of reasons: The question is into which stream of bailout or startup money a business like fashion should fall.

It is interesting that the claims of the pro-fashion petitioners are largely couched in financial terms. "The fashion industry is a big money-maker and if we take the lead and inject resources into it, I'm hoping and I believe you will see that return back," Froese told the CBC. You don't hear short-story writers summarizing their value that way: They are under no illusions about contributing to the economy. They claim other kinds of value.

This emphasis on the economic makes me sure that the fashion industry is looking to the wrong place for help. There are plenty of government programs available to help small businesses and programs to give beginning fashion designers a leg up. Sure, fashion is culturally important, but so is wheat farming. We have lots of subsidies for wheat farming. Fashion will always attempt to justify itself in economic terms and so should be considered for subsidies in those terms: as an industry.

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I can imagine and predict now what most of the grant applications to arts councils from fashion designers would look like: They would have to look practical and professional; they would have to make claims for commercial viability. They would have to explain how they plan to get distribution for their outfits. Fashion is worthless without retail.

Unless, of course, the designers were proposing receiving money to create haute couture – that fantastic and unfettered avenue of expression that consists of making one-off outfits for individual people. There, artistic expression is luxuriant and dreamlike and the results are often magical. The problem is, these outfits can only be afforded by the very rich, and the profit margins for the designers are high. You're going to have a hard time selling to the taxpayers of Ontario the idea that this business requires subsidy.

There is also art that involves fashion, that is purely impractical: Something like Jana Sterbak's Meat Dress for example, is pure, non-functional art – it has no designs on mass-production – and will be funded by an arts stream. I don't think this kind of thing is what the fashion petitioners are thinking about.

I can see the fashion pitches to the arts councils looking a lot more like pitches to Dragons' Den. They will of course focus on their "viability." If we start to reward this way of thinking, we will end up funding a lot of companies that look a lot like Roots. And I don't think that's what arts money is for.

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We have seen this happen before in Canada: It happened with film. Telefilm Canada, the arms-length federal agency that funds our movie-making, has to allocate such enormous amounts – millions of dollars at a time – that it must insist that the resulting productions have at least a minimal audience; they must have some commercial potential. As a consequence, pitching a movie to Telefilm has become similar to pitching to any commercial investor: Their officers are terribly concerned about popularity and ultimately looking for box-office successes. It's not a place to go for anything groundbreaking. Let's not turn all our arts councils into economy stimulators.

Look: We fund failing steel plants for one reason; poems for another reason. And there is so little money for poems – let's not make their pile any smaller.