Ask federal Conservatives what their party has done for the arts and chances are they'll tell you they have given more money to the Canada Council for the Arts than any previous government, citing permanent increases to its budget under their watch.
That's true: Ottawa increased the Council's grant by $30-million in 2007 and 2008, bringing it up to $180-million a year, and has sheltered it from any cuts.
So in the Harper household, the council often plays the role of the favoured child, parked in the front parlour within reach of the candy dish. Meanwhile, back in the kitchen, the National Film Board of Canada is being fed dry bread, while the CBC gets that plus a daily beating. It's not easy being the leader of those cash-strapped institutions, but it can also be tricky to be the director of the Council, advocating for the arts in a political environment that is at best naive about culture's potential, and at worst downright hostile.
In a discussion of his eight-year tenure in the job published in the current issue of the Literary Review of Canada, former director Robert Sirman says he never experienced any political inference and was grateful the Council was spared the budget cuts made to other federal cultural institutions and programs, but he couldn't feel happy about what he saw around him: "The image I had of the Canada Council … was of a lighthouse on a small island standing tall but feeling increasingly vulnerable as the raging sea swept away more and more of the coastline."
By his own admission, Sirman is a leader who likes to fly under the public radar, and of course his refreshingly forthright essay is only possible because he is now safely retired from the job. How bluntly can his successor actually tell the government and the country that more support for Canadian culture is of crucial economic and social importance?
We'll find out now that the more outspoken Simon Brault, former director of the National Theatre School (and a former vice-chair of the Council's board of directors) is on the case. Brault is the author of a 2009 book about the role of the arts in a democracy (translated into English as No Culture, No Future) and says he plans to be a high-profile advocate, not simply the administrator of a body that gives grants to artists and arts groups.
"The Canada Council cannot be limited to funding activities," Brault said in a recent interview. "If we are, we become trapped in a conversation with our clients – what organization should get what – it's not interesting. … We need to reframe the conversation."
Brault's current push is to get arts groups more involved in public relationships that go beyond selling tickets. In an age of multiple media distractions, performing-arts audiences, in particular, are dwindling. On the other hand, social-media democracy and digital capabilities mean new arts-lovers are less bound by the traditional distinction between the amateur in the audience and the professional on stage.
"Traditional companies need baby boomers as subscribers, yet they have to engage a new generation or they will die," Brault said.
That's the kind of message he will be taking to a gathering of arts service organizations in Ottawa on Sunday, where he will be explaining the council's stress on audience engagement, and how it is moving funding from incumbent arts groups to newcomers, a controversial scheme that aims to keep the council relevant. The network of arts service groups (which includes professional associations of arts companies and artists) is an ad hoc but increasingly important gathering.
It occupies the vacuum left by the Canadian Conference of the Arts, the advocacy group that folded in 2012 when the federal government withdrew its funding.
The CCA's demise was a case of shooting the messenger: The group had organized debates among its fractious membership about the government's proposed copyright law, which was eventually passed in 2012. Some artists liked the new legislation, but most didn't, and when the CCA took a position against it, pointing out it benefited consumers at creators' expense, the organization got targeted by the Tories as a loathed example of the government funding its own critics.
The CCA's fate demonstrates how treacherous the political terrain can be. Can some reconfigured gathering of arts groups plus a more vocal Canada Council provide the advocacy that is needed? The Council certainly shouldn't be lobbying for artists, but it can lobby for art. Brault sees his job as one of convincing the larger public that, to borrow from his own title, no culture, no future.
"The last thing we want to do is say we want a little more money to keep doing the same old thing," Brault said. "The question of repositioning public support for the arts is a big task. I'm hopeful."
So far, the candy dish remains within reach.