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Canada Council cruises through budget as U.S. arts fund faces attack

There was hooting and hollering in Parliament Wednesday, as the Opposition attempted to delay the announcement of the 2017 federal budget. But at the Canada Council for the Arts all was serenity. The Council was so certain that the budget would continue with last year's five-year plan to double its allocation by 2021, the communications department wasn't even planning a press release. The nail-biting days of the lean, mean and last-minute Stephen Harper Conservatives feel like a fading memory.

Compare that to the perilous state of affairs at the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) in Washington, where the culturecrats must be down to bloody knuckles by now. The NEA is one of 19 federal agencies that Donald Trump is simply proposing to disappear – by eliminating them from the budget that he now has to get through Congress.

The NEA has been on the Republicans' hate list since the culture wars of the 1990s when two touring art exhibitions that it had partly funded enraged conservatives: one was a show by the gay photographer Robert Mapplethorpe that included a few highly aestheticized images of sexual acts; the other featured Andres Serrano's Immersion (Piss Christ), a photograph of a plastic crucifix submerged in the artist's urine. But the NEA has changed a lot since those days and changed in ways that now seem prescient; they actually resemble modifications the Canada Council is currently undertaking. And it's those changes that may yet save it.

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Ronald Reagan only threatened to defund the NEA in the 1980s, but in 1990s Congress did penalize it heavily for Mapplethorpe and Serrano. Its budget was cut about 40 per cent and it was directed to discontinue most grants to individual artists and ongoing operating grants to arts groups. The endowment also did away with divisions by discipline, such as dance or classical music, to award grants based on much broader categories such as education or access: Instead of a well-established ballet company relying on its regular annual contribution, it would have to compete against theatre companies or music festivals for money that was increasingly spread across all states and regions.

Although granting by discipline was reinstituted in 2005, the overall effect has been decidedly anti-hierarchical; today, the NEA spends about 40 per cent of its budget on regional and state partnerships, funding a wide range of activities in all sorts of communities. Accusations of bicoastal elitism are simply out-of-touch.

For those who have been following recent changes at the Canada Council, this may sound familiar: the council is in the process of replacing more than 140 grant categories with six broad ones, covering such areas as projects, organizations, professional development and travel. Generally, the reorganization favours project grants over operating grants and should funnel more money to less well-established artists, while encouraging diversity among recipients is a stated goal.

Of course, the Canada Council, which also got small increases under the Conservatives, is in the lucky position of having been promised more money to do the job. The NEA's allotment has crept up since the 1990s, but today it still survives on a budget not much bigger than the Canada Council's current one – in a country nine times the size.

It might be easy to feel smug about the comparison, but in fact the arts are more generously funded in the U.S. – just privately. Figures from 2014 show that U.S. charitable foundations hand out 13 times more money than Canadian ones, and they also appear to be more generous to the arts specifically, giving about 13 per cent in that category versus about 8 per cent in Canada. It's a difference that NEA-chopping Republicans, when they are not fulminating against blasphemous pornography, can actually believe in: the private sector does a good job of funding the arts in the U.S.

But even if small-scale, government funding does a different job than private philanthropy, public grants are usually much more carefully scrutinized, so in the arts government can play a crucial leadership role vetting recipients and encouraging private donors to step up. If allowed to genuinely operate at arms' length, arts councils can be less afraid of the avant-garde, the risky or the innovative and, most of all, they can represent social goals rather than private whims. Demands for equity, diversity and regional representation will be answered more quickly in the public realm.

In the United States, where there is no minister of American heritage at the cabinet table, the NEA is a blend of an arts council and a federal culture ministry, an organization that both makes juried grants to arts groups but also, with politics in mind, spreads money widely across the land. The American arts community is rallying to its side, with many pointing out the NEA accounts for .004 per cent of the total U.S. federal budget. One commentator suggests every artist in the United States convince at least one non-artist to speak to their local representative. Robert Redford has pointed out that the Sundance Film Festival got its start with an NEA grant. But what may really save the agency is Republicans in Congress remembering that the NEA is doing good things in the communities that elected them.

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The Canada Council is looking awfully healthy these days, but its American cousin isn't dead yet.

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About the Author

Kate Taylor is lead film critic at the Globe and Mail and a columnist in the arts section. More

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