Max Wyman is a Vancouver-based writer and cultural commentator. His seventh book, The Compassionate Imagination: How the Arts Are Central to a Functioning Democracy, will be published in August.
The days when city councillors objected to using public money to support “a bunch of galloping galoots,” as once happened when a grant application from the Royal Winnipeg Ballet came before the Winnipeg municipal council, are long behind us.
But our continued lukewarm support of Canada’s cultural sector shows a widespread underestimation of the power of the arts to transform both individuals and communities for the better.
In the prosperous and educated world of rationality and accountability that the Enlightenment bequeathed us, and which our governments claim to perpetuate, the artist is an outsider: the supplicant conjuror with his begging bowl.
Our political masters mouth all the platitudes. They make sure the cultural sector gets resources sufficient for basic survival. During the pandemic, they even coughed up a little extra to help those in the arts sector counter the crippling effects of the economic shutdown.
But none of them have grasped the central nettle, which is the need to see the arts and culture not as a frill, nor an outlier, nor a tool – but as a central and necessary element of our nationhood.
It is time for a new cultural contract between the government of Canada and the people it serves – a policy that affirms art and culture as the humanizing core of our civil society.
Getting governments to understand why they should support art and culture has always been a challenge. Typically, if you can’t value the outcome in dollars, it doesn’t count. And it’s hard to show the value of art and culture on a cost-benefit graph. Even when they do come up with more cash, it’s usually for economic reasons. Just recently, for instance, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced a new investment of £50-billion ($84-billion) to “grow the creative industries,” in the name of adding a million extra jobs in the country’s cultural sector by 2030.
Professional arts groups thus become forced to try to prove their value in economic terms, and so they have become adept at showing how investment in culture pays rich dividends in spinoff effects. A thriving creative community attracts innovators to a city or region, they argue, and cultural activities create work for a broad range of other workers.
Many studies also show how engagement with art reduces demands on the health care system and is an effective tool in dealing with mental health. The Publishers Association in Britain has found that reading is more popular than going to the movies or browsing social media, with one in three people saying books offer them the best form of escapism when they’re having a bad day.
A recent U.S. study even managed to put a figure on the personal benefits of going to an art gallery. The Oregon-based Institute for Learning Innovation asked just under 2,000 visitors to 11 U.S. art museums to assess the way their museum experiences improved their well-being in four categories – personal, intellectual, social and physical – and to put a price on those benefits on a sliding scale from US$0 to US$1,000. They came up with an average cash value, per individual visit, of US$905. When the study’s authors extrapolated this information on a national scale, they calculated an annual economic value of US$52-billion in public well-being for museum visitors.
I know, I know: small sample, based on entirely personal valuations. But in an interview with The Art Newspaper, Will Cary, the chief operating officer of the Barnes Foundation (which took part in the study), said the research gives funders and policy makers “a compelling, quantitative argument that thriving, well-supported cultural institutions are not ‘nice-to-haves,’ they are ‘need-to-haves’ and that the return on their investment is significant and multifaceted.”
But what if we didn’t have to focus on the economic imperatives?
Of course, new money for culture will always be welcome. But our leaders need to be able to see culture in more than these quantitative, economic terms; they need to see it as a central, vital public good and – as I argue in my new book – as a unique means for us to reawaken our sense of decency and empathy toward one another in our increasingly splintered society.
What kind of Canada might we make if we were to embed art’s unique and deeply human properties of imaginative exploration and emotional and spiritual enrichment in the heart of public policy making? What if we liberated the power of the collaborative imagination by giving the visionary ferment of Canada’s diverse creative community a place at the decision-making table as we seek solutions to the stark challenges of our time?
What if we returned the arts to a central position in our education systems, affirming the role of the arts and humanities alongside the sciences in educating the whole person, and thus shifting the emphasis to STEAM rather than only STEM?
What if we were to put a little spine into our pious words about reconciliation and ensure that Indigenous ways of knowing and creating are integrated into our decision-making and funding processes?
What if we were to design a far more equitable spreading of the cultural wealth, in the form of expanded granting programs and new ways to empower all Canadians to enjoy the richness of our cultural expression?
It is time to jettison outdated ideas about exclusiveness or connoisseurship. Art belongs to everyone, and it is neither a frill nor an indulgence: It is an integral part of our shared humanity, and a way we find meaning and connection and understanding in an increasingly chaotic and morally compromised world.