Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Taking a fresh look at arts support in Canada: Choreographing our Future is a new report with a view

Choreographing our Future, Strategies for supporting next generation arts practice is a welcome addition to Canada’s body of literature examining the public policy and funding framework that underpins Canada’s artistic sector.  In this report, Metcalf Innovation Fellow Shannon Litzenberger enriches the dialogue and discourse around support of the arts in Canada, a dialogue that is currently limited in its depth and reach.  This, despite attempts by some, particularly the Canada Council for the Arts, to engage the arts sector in the conversation.

In the report, the author intends to spark a “robust and informed debate about how we shape our collective future” as we contemplate a “transformation” of arts support in Canada.  A key objective is to ignite a conversation about addressing the existing logjam in arts funding in this country, one that makes it increasingly difficult for emerging artists and arts practice to secure public support.

In the report, Ms. Litzenberger challenges the validity of established funding practices, particularly around discipline-based assessment.  She calls for something she calls ‘industry-focussed” models; put another way, these would be programs that draw together the various disciplines and redefine the assessment criteria to be more based upon “sector-wide ecological conditions as they shift and evolve”.   She urges that greater emphasis be placed on the public value and engagement of Canadians in the arts, an area that is currently a major focus at the Canada Council, yet one the arts sector has not particularly embraced.  Not least, the author calls on public funders to consider mechanisms and programs that are more fluid, something Ms. Litzenberger believes is key to “next generation development”.

In making her case, the author draws on extensive research and literature from other jurisdictions.  Through travels in the US, UK and Australia, she sought out and learned about emerging and new policy practice to ground her recommendations.

Throughout the report, Ms. Litzenberger also integrates her own experience as a contemporary dancer.  The real-life realities that she brings to her analysis make her observations and recommendations all the more compelling.

Perhaps because of her perspective, the role and value of enduring “institutions”, or more established longstanding artistic enterprises, are given relatively scant attention in the report.  While the author is right in pointing out that artistic practice has evolved considerably over the last 50 years in which public funding has played a critical role in Canada, the report does not address how “institutions” often underpin much of the artistic activity that goes on in a community.  In many towns and cities across Canada, larger, typically older*, companies tend to provide assets and attributes like venues, relatively steady artist engagement, education programs, public profile and marketing heft which smaller or independent artistic enterprises leverage.  Without these institutions, the capacity of all artistic endeavour would be limited.

Choreographing our Future also calls for more fluid programs and mechanisms, including the recognition that a “defined organizational structure is not a pre-condition to successful growth and sustainability”.  True; however, the rigours of Canada’s legislative and regulatory regime, together with increased public expectations around accountability and governance, will limit how quickly organizational structures can be adapted and still receive public investment.  This is not to say that new models of operation should not be explored as is being done through another Metcalf initiative, Jane Marsland’s paper on Shared Platforms and Charitable Venture Organizations:  It is to say though, that it will take time and happen in small steps.

As Canada’s arts community contemplates the analysis and recommendations in Choreographing our Future, a lively debate is sure to ensue, one that holds the potential to make a significant contribution to the arts policy dialogue in Canada.  Shannon Litzenberger and the Metcalf Foundation are to be congratulated for sparking it.

*  Institutions do not always need to be older.  Soulpepper, a relative "youngster" among institutions, engages the largest number of artists in Toronto.  It underpins the activity of many other artistic endeavours.

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