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Ann Connors has been outspoken on the Canada Arts Council granting system.Paul Daly/The Globe and Mail

A controversial change in the Canada Council for the Arts’s use of peer assessment to make funding decisions is prompting the council to start circling back to assessors after their work is done, to explain how money was actually divided among the applicants they reviewed.

The council underwent a huge overhaul in 2017, trimming its 147 granting programs to just six. It also vowed to get more money into the hands of first-time applicants, Indigenous artists and those from diverse communities. The amounts disbursed as core operating funds for organizations were to shrink from two-thirds of the total granting budget to one-half, in favour of a greater emphasis on one-time project grants.

When council director Simon Brault first broached the changes in 2015, he also said that the council’s firm reliance on panels of artists to assess grant applications would continue, with some changes. “All over the world, peer assessment is an endangered species,” he mused, referring to some arts councils that have dropped the practice.

Many in the arts community broadly support the revolution Brault supervised. Under the old system, it was hard for newcomers to break into a circle dominated by established institutions with core grants that tended to roll on from one year to the next. But there are questions about why the role of assessors has changed, and how it affects where the money goes.

Prior to the big shift, assessors not only ranked the applicants on artistic merit, but recommended how much money each should receive from the funds available. Under the new system, money allocation is discussed only by council officials, after the assessors have been dismissed. A recent letter from the Toronto Alliance for the Performing Arts to the head of council’s granting services includes a call for this new practice to be reversed.

Franco Boni, incoming artistic director of Vancouver’s PuSh International Performing Arts Festival, says his first encounter with the new system was perplexing. “We didn’t know how much money was in the pot, and we left the room not knowing who was going to receive funding. We were fairly sure the top five or six would get money, but others lower down, we didn’t know.”

Ann Connors, a veteran theatre presenter and promoter based in St. John’s, says her first assessor experience under the new system left her “really satisfied with the rankings. But when I saw the results posted later, the people who were one, two and three in the order didn’t get the highest amount of money. The one that got the most was probably seventh or eighth. So when council suggests that it is all driven by peer assessment, it’s a little disingenuous.”

Caroline Lussier, director of the Explore and Create program, acknowledges that some assessors have found the new system mysterious. “I think that perception will change,” she says. “We have committed to make it clear to the committees that we will get back to them and explain our final decisions, in the case of core grants, and give them a chance to ask questions.” Those meetings will take place via conference calls, she says.

According to the council’s website, it’s mainly the task of each program director to decide the grant amounts, after consulting with the program officer who led the assessor meetings and heard their deliberations. Lussier says this does not mean that the importance of peer rankings has diminished.

“The job of the director is to review the proposals submitted by the officers, and make sure that all the rules and procedures and policies are applied, and that the rankings given by the committees are entirely respected,” she says. “Council’s grants are pro-actively disclosed every four months.”

Even so, says Boni, “the director has not heard the discussion in the room. The director only knows what the officer is able to share with them.” He also doubts that many assessors will have the persistence to pore over the council’s dense spreadsheets of grant recipients, to see who got what, from a process concluded four months earlier.

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Vancouver playwright Marcus Youssef says he 'would love to have more clarity, particularly in relation to the allocation of the money.'Jackie Dives

“I’m a real advocate for the inclusion of the officer’s perspective,” says Vancouver playwright Marcus Youssef, who has also served under the new system. “But I would love to have more clarity, particularly in relation to the allocation of the money.”

The decision-making process is relatively simple for project grants, says Lussier, because of a new policy that “we are to award as close as possible to the requested amount, so that the artists can work in the best possible conditions.” The director and officer go down the assessors’ list, she says, and stop when the money runs out.

One feature of the new system, however, is that there is no preset funding envelope for any grant competition. André Jutras, a former music officer whose 18 years at the council included the first under the new system, says “if I said this was a very high-quality competition, the director could add more money.”

The director can also make strategic decisions, in line with the council’s equity targets or other stated policy aims. “She has the authority to approve applications that are not at the top of the list,” says Jutras, who reported to Lussier and is a strong defender of the new system.

That kind of strategic decision could well come up for discussion when the council begins circling back to assessors to explain how funds were disbursed. Lussier says that adding retrospective conference calls to the directors’ agendas still leaves the assessors’ new role preferable to the old.

“It gives us more time for reflection,” she says. “Now we give ourselves the time to sit down and question the recommendations of the officers.”

That’s not a comment likely to calm the fears of those who wonder if the council is quietly eroding a principle it championed for its first 40 years: that artists take a decisive role in public financing of the arts.

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