State of the Arts Funding in Canada
When traveling abroad, I’m often struck by the number of foreign artists who comment on how wonderful it must be to work as an artist in Canada. My American friends, in particular, seem to be especially envious of the cultural climate here. The artistic freedom, the fair adjudication processes, and the access to arts funding are both necessities and luxuries that many Canadians overlook or take for granted. They are necessities in that culture is a key factor in defining any nation or society; they are also luxuries in that many countries do not offer the same sort of creative freedom, financial support and administrative infrastructures to promote growth and development in the cultural sector.
The Canada Council for the Arts is an excellent example of Canada’s recognition of the value of arts and culture in society. Formed in 1957 through an act of parliament, the Canada Council administers a multitude of grants, awards, and operating funds to both professional artists and arts organizations. One passage from ‘The Canada Council Act’ explains that, "The objects of the Council are to foster and promote the study and enjoyment of, and the production of works in, the arts, humanities and social sciences..."
Part of what makes the Canada Council for the Arts both special, and functional, is that it is an arms-length Crown Corporation. This means, that while much of their funding comes from the federal government, that they are able to establish priorities and policies to manage and distribute these funds without political interference. This protects the process from falling prey to the politics of propaganda art that would create a unilateral and official state culture. The arms-length structure allows for more freedom and equality of representation, because the business of the Canada Council is art and not politics, therefore funds are distributed based on artistic merit, rather than on political influence.
Competition for arts funding is fierce, and in order to achieve the most fair and equitable process possible, the Council administers what is called a peer assessment process. This means that for each deadline, a new peer assessment committee is formed to look at all of the applications, and to make recommendations to the program officer. The assessment committee is made up of artists and art professionals representing various regions and diverse communities from across Canada. Throughout the course of a year, about 500 different artists and art professionals will serve on 120 assessment committees in order to review more than 16,000 applications, of which only 6,000 will receive funding.
“The Canada Council has had an exceptional year as $30,000,000 in new ongoing funding was approved by the government and an additional $1,500,000 from the Council's investment income was allocated for project grants.” According to Michèle Stanley, a program officer at the Council. In order to manage these new funds, Stanley states that, “The Canada Council has just released its action plan for 2008-2011; which describes the specific strategies the Council will pursue in the next three years. It explains the steps the Council is taking to align its budget with its priority strategies and how it will be allocate the $31,500,000 in new funds in 2008-2009.”
Rather than settling into the role of a fixed institution, the Canada Council adapts to keep up with the changing community needs by consistently reviewing its programs to make sure that their structures and models adequately reflect the current climate of the contemporary arts. Currently, the Canada Council is preparing to conduct a large-scale program review of the Media Arts Section. Stanley explains that: “We are aiming to consolidate some of our programs at both the operating and individual level; to welcome emerging organizations and collectives; and to renew our slate of programs to keep apace with the evolution of the milieu and in-line with Council's Action Plan.” She expands on the program review further, as she states, “Our goal is to provide a slate of programs which meet the needs of the current community; while empowering organizations and helping them to create their own momentum. At the same time, the Media Arts Section hopes to nurture new organizations and allow space and growth for new players and new initiatives.”
This is good news for New Brunswick, as the emphasis on ‘nurturing new organizations’ will hopefully encourage artists to form a few more media art collectives. Currently, New Brunswick only has a handful of media art production centres, and it has no distribution centres for media artwork at all. Perhaps the new funding and program reviews happening at the national level will encourage young enthusiastic artists on the local level, to take on new projects and to form organizations rich in creative and cultural diversity. For more information on the Canada Council for the Arts, its programs, policies, and for the 2008-2011 action plan, you can consult their website at www.canadacouncil.ca.