I noticed a group of people standing on a Vancouver corner, pointing at a parking lot and having an animated confab. It was Wednesday and I knew exactly what they were discussing. The issue that has dominated the city this week has not been pipelines, pot or even politics, but a conceptual design for a new Vancouver Art Gallery. When the proposal, planned for that parking lot, was revealed on Tuesday, Twitter blew up. The reaction was mixed – much of it negative, even nasty ("seriously ugly," "dog pile," "just because it's weird looking doesn't mean it's good"). But still – people cared.
Meanwhile, in Edmonton last weekend, tens of thousands took in the city's first Nuit Blanche event. About one million people are expected at Toronto's Nuit Blanche this weekend. Want to attend "An Intimate Evening with Lawrence Hill" at the Vancouver Writers Fest later this month? Sorry – sold out (along with 22 other events and counting).
Translation: A lot of Canadians are interested in art. And by art I mean not only paintings and installations but also the architecture to house them, the book you read in bed last night, the music you might be listening to right now, even that Netflix series you're binge-watching. The arts contribute to our lives in a profound way, illuminating our condition or distracting us from it (there is honour in that, too). Art matters. And yet.
During a heated federal election campaign, wouldn't you think the arts might capture at least a tiny bit of that heat?
The arts have received a modicum of attention, with a few campaign announcements – the Liberals in particular have highlighted their cultural platform – and some talk about the CBC. (Full disclosure: My husband works for the CBC and I am a former employee of the public broadcaster.) But none of this seems to be getting much traction.
I get it: Child care, budgetary spending, carbon emissions, foreign policy – these issues are top of mind, and rightly so. But the arts are a key, consistent ingredient in the salad of daily life. For most of us, arts and culture have an impact far surpassing, say, "barbaric cultural practices" (or the niqab or marijuana).
And with federal funding so key to arts and culture in Canada, it seems odd that this importance is not reflected in an election campaign. It almost makes you pine for 2008 and that nonsensical Stephen Harper quip about galas for rich, whining artists. (Okay, maybe not.) There have been some attempts to get a conversation going. The Canadian Arts Coalition (CAC) sent questions to the four major parties about issues such as support for the CBC and the Canada Council for the Arts. As of late Thursday, the group had received responses from all but the Conservatives. The CAC also created a Twitter hashtag for these discussions. But #ArtsVote isn't exactly dominating my feed.
Meanwhile, some artists are mobilizing, and not necessarily to discuss the arts.
The #ImagineOct20th movement is putting on shows across the country (Feist and Joseph Boyden were among the participants in Toronto this week) with the stated purpose of booting the Conservatives out of power.
"I felt like I could not live with myself if the Conservatives won one more time and I didn't do what I could," said musician Dan Mangan, who is leading the charge along with musician Torquil Campbell.
"The hope is that we're not preaching to the choir; the hope is that we're actually making some converts out of this," added Shane Koyczan before the Vancouver event on Thursday night (emceed by that famously rogue Senate page, Brigette DePape). Mr. Koyczan is the poet best known for bringing the house down at the Vancouver Olympics opening ceremony with his poem We Are More. He refused to perform it this past Canada Day, saying he could no longer stand behind lines such as "We are an experiment going right for a change."
He brought down the (much smaller, grittier) house again on Thursday, with a piece he wrote for the occasion, The Cut. "We're looking for change and not just the penny you phased out," he roared.
Margaret Atwood, meanwhile, is leading a group of more than 200 artists (including filmmaker Paul Haggis and children's musician Raffi) who have signed an open letter opposing Bill C-51. Arguing that the legislation "directly attacks the creative arts and free expression in this country," the letter asks if writing a spy novel about an assassination plot or recording a song questioning the government's agenda amounts to promoting terrorism.
If so, watch out, Blue Rodeo. The band's new protest song Stealin' All My Dreams pulls no punches, touching on issues such as child poverty and the treatment of First Nations, refugees and government scientists ("you muzzled all the white coats in your laboratories").
So artists are speaking out, or singing out, about politics. It would be great to hear politicians speak out about the arts.
Take the Vancouver Art Gallery, which has been tasked with raising $100-million from Ottawa for the project. The Conservative government was clear that it would not provide that funding, and its position hasn't changed. The Liberal incumbent for Vancouver Centre, Hedy Fry, told The Globe and Mail that the project might be eligible for funding under the party's social infrastructure funding plan, depending on priorities. (The NDP and the Green Party did not respond to requests about this issue by press time.)
Given that spirited social-media debate about the VAG design, it would be refreshing to hear candidates discuss the issue – and the question of arts and funding priorities – with the same vigour. I think many of us would take that over Mr. Harper belting out another off-key Beatles tune. So let's do it. There's still time.
Great civilizations aren't remembered for their tax policies; they're remembered for their art. The economy and the environment are essential issues, of course. But really, we are more.