An administrative logjam at the Canada Council has driven the producer of a long-standing small-press fair to his local welfare office, while he waits for a grant cheque that is already five months late.
Louis Rastelli is the co-founder and director of Expozine, a bilingual international festival, which since 2002 has showcased 'zines and other forms of original print art at a jam-packed weekend event in Montreal. It's the largest event of its kind in Canada, supported for 14 years straight by the Council, which Rastelli has been told will again provide funds for this weekend's 2017 festival.
Normally, however, the Council's cheque is in hand by June. This year, Rastelli did not even hear if his application had been accepted until earlier this month, and still doesn't know the grant amount.
A similarly late response from Société de développement des entreprises culturelles (SODEC), a provincial granting body, left Expozine with no cash flow during the weeks leading up to the festival. Rastelli's only remaining option was the welfare line.
"After liquidating whatever reserves the organization had, as well as my personal savings and RRSPs, there was nothing left to do," he says. "The entire Expozine team has not been paid a cent this year, and nobody has room on any of our credit cards left. We are literally going to use the welfare cheque to cover the basic expenses for our snack counter – buying coffee, bottled water, juice, muffins, etc."
"Expozine is a Montreal institution," says Simon Dardick, co-publisher and editor at Véhicule Press, one of the larger exhibitors among the more than 350 registered this year. "I feel so badly that its survival seems to be threatened by bureaucratic problems at the Canada Council." The festival brings together all kinds of underground publishing and graphic-arts professionals, Dardick says, and has been an important jumping-off ground for new small presses.
Rastelli finds a bitter irony in the fact that he never had a Council-related cash crunch under the Harper government, when "we got that grant on time for his entire 10 years or so in power." It's only since the more arts-friendly Trudeau government approved a major increase in Council funding that Expozine has been driven to the brink financially, in spite of its successful grant application.
"To have been told to 'think big' and apply for much more money for Expozine, with these supposed amazing new Council programs in early 2017, only to end up having to host the most shoestring, low-budget edition, is Kafkaesque in the extreme," he says.
The new Council programs, which reduced the granting from 147 to six, were announced in June, 2015. The federal agency spent many months working out the details and creating a new online portal, which was intended to speed up the application process.
"We're going through a huge and unprecedented transformation," says Caroline Lussier, director of the Council's Explore and Create Program. "We had very high ambitions with regards to the service targets we hoped to meet, and there were delays." The portal did not open for applications until June. Problems with the new system forced the Council to revert temporarily to its former processes. Rastelli's Expozine application was funnelled into the new Arts Across Canada Program, which was swamped with applicants.
"We had much higher demand in that program than we expected," Lussier says. The interim director of Arts Across Canada, Guylaine Normandin, wasn't available for comment.
E-mails were sent out warning applicants of delays, says Lussier – but they were of little use to those who, like Rastelli, had an annual event planned with fixed dates. He says that the cash-flow issue harmed his festival in less obvious ways, by making it less able to seek out other revenues.
"Having no liquidity while organizing and hosting a big event ends up costing a lot of lost revenue, because we can't invest in more time finding private sponsors and buying more products to sell at the event," he says. Even with retroactive funding, as the Council and SODEC have both promised for this year, his organization and its festival have been weakened, though not for lack of interest from its target audience.
"We've never seen a drop in interest in Expozine since we started in 2002," Rastelli says, adding that the number of applicants this year was far greater than he could accept. "We have certainly noticed a jump in the number of young people publishing."
That's another irony of the situation. One of the aims of the Canada Council's internal revolution was to make funds more readily available for newcomers and young artists – the very people, in this case, whose signature event had to rely on welfare to stay alive.
Expozine, a project of Archive Montreal, takes place Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., at Église Saint-Denis, 454 Laurier East in Montreal.