Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Making arts and cultural champions of all Canadians, not just the party brass

In this election, precise arts and culture pledges and promises are advanced in all the parties’ campaign platforms. This is a success, one worthy of being celebrated!

In the not so distant past, Canada’s arts and cultural sector was acknowledged more in platitudes and generalities, than measurable specific policies and initiatives to strengthen the sector. Hard work has changed this.

Now it's time to move on to capture the hearts and attention of Canadians generally.

The past few years have seen Canada’s diverse cultural sector secure the attention of the political parties and policy makers. The Canadian Arts Coalition, ACTRA, the CCA, CAMDO and others have worked hard to make sure that the needs and interests of the sector are understood by the parties, and those developing the platforms. Their success can be seen in the consistent and recurring refrain of Canadian Heritage Minister James Moore, who, for the past number of months at least, has stressed the connection between cultural policy and economic policy. In February, at the Canadian Media Production Association’s Prime Time Conference he said

supporting Canadian culture means supporting the Canadian economy.

Arts and culture represents over 630,000 jobs in the Canadian economy.

Canada's cultural industries represent $46 billion in the Canadian economy.

A little further he said,

In our Economic Action Plan, we stood up for and stood with our cultural communities and increased our support to record levels.

We did so because we know how fragile arts organizations are. How quickly they can disappear if support isn't there.

And, also, we increased our support because we know how much Canadian artists do for Canada.

Canadians though, remain in the mushy middle when it comes to considering arts and cultural policy in making their voting decision: They don’t connect cultural policy to either the economy or their quality of life.

The recent Nanos poll commissioned by The Arts Advocate found that half of us aren’t really sure if cultural policy is important or not in determining our vote. Just one in ten of us said arts and cultural policy is an important factor in considering this question.

What this means is that, as Canadians, we have a hard time relating cultural policy to our daily experience -- we don’t connect the dots between the magazine or book we read, the show we watch, or the museum we visit to Canadian cultural policy or politics.

So what does it all mean?

Perhaps the information best gleaned from the polling data commissioned by The Arts Advocate is that Canadian artists and cultural organizations need to change the way we connect to Canadians.

The dialogue, perhaps, has to be about how artistic experience connects to the everyday lives of Canadians. It’s not about more funding for the CBC or Canada Council for the Arts, per se; rather, it’s about making sure that all Canadians have the experience of and access to high quality artistic opportunities.

How we tell this story is what needs to change.

No question, many people are putting their minds and attention to this, with Culture Days an obvious example.

Initiatives like this provide a jumpstart perhaps, but truly connecting Canadians to the richness of the arts and the importance of cultural policy is going to take the efforts of all of us, everyday, changing the way we communicate and interact with our neighbours and our friends. It’s not an ‘us and them’ conversation; it’s about ‘all of us together’.

Is this platitudes? Perhaps. At least I’ll start thinking about doing things differently though.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Federal arts and culture funding: 29% of Ontarians think it's inadequate, 18% feel it's adequate

It’s well established that Canadians value the place of arts and culture in their communities, and believe that governments should invest in it.*

What is less well established is whether Ontarians and Canadians think that arts and culture is adequately funded. A recent poll commissioned from Nanos Research for The Arts Advocate Report found that 29% of Ontarians think that federal funding for arts and culture is inadequate. The number is a little less nationally.

Only 18% of Ontarians think it’s adequate. This means that most people are somewhere in the middle.

The question becomes ‘what does this mean for Ontario and Canada’s cultural sector’. A few thoughts come to mind:

First, celebrate that 3 in 10 Ontarians really do pay attention to federal arts and culture support and figure out how to build on this foundation.

Second, and most important, the arts and cultural sector needs to significantly raise public awareness and understanding about the role of public funding in allowing artistic pursuit and activity to enrich individual lives and communities - - most Ontarians and Canadians really have no idea of either the importance or the limited extent of public cultural funding.

Third, those naysayers populating the media comment boards disparaging fat-cat artists paid through public sources are few and far between – less than 2 in 10 Ontarians! Don’t dwell on them.

*Last year, the Ontario Arts Council released an Environics poll showing 8 in 10 Ontarians feel that the arts are important to their own quality of life. 81% say they believe public investment in the arts is a good thing.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Ontario's nonprofit sector: forging a new relationship with government

This week, the Ontario NonProfit Network (ONN) brought together leaders from across the province to forge a plan for strengthening the sector in an environment of unprecedented demand, change and challenge. In the words of ONN co-chairs Tonya Surman and Peter Clutterbuck, “ The relationship between the government, for-profit and nonprofit sector is changing fundamentally. Donations are stagnant and as governments react to a changing economy, cuts are coming.”

Among the highlights of the two-day gathering was a presentation by Citizenship and Immigration Minister, Eric Hoskins. Born and bred in the nonprofit sector, Minister Hoskins pledged to change the relationship between the provincial government and the sector.

Key to achieving the change, in his view, will be fostering respect. Respect can be viewed in many ways, a point emphasized by Partnership Project Executive Lead, Helen Burstyn: ‘self-respect’ she said is as important to the sector as respect of the government to the sector.

Minister Hoskins and Helen Burstyn were well received by the ONN audience. Minister Hoskins’ emphasized that the recommendations of the Partnership Project Report had been accepted by Premier Dalton McGuinty.

Together with Civic Action’s Julia Deans and MASS LBPs Peter MacLeod, I had the privilege of following Minister Hoskins’ comments as a ‘provocateur’. Not a small task! I urged both the government and the sector to ensure that the recommendations of the Partnership Project do not end up creating additional processes and programs for the sector to contort themselves into: The recommendation that funding and regulatory processes need to be streamlined and aligned is welcome by all. It’s up to all of us, though, to ensure that the government involves the sector in doing that. Too often, best intentions have resulted in additional hurdles and hoops for nonprofit organizations, providing limited help to actually achieving core objectives.

The organizations on the ground, be they a large arts company or a social service agency, etc. know their business best. Moving forward, both the government and the sector need to focus on providing an adequate, appropriate core level of support that achieves the basic objectives of Ontario’s rich array of nonprofits. That way, everyone can do his or her job better.

Congratulations to the ONN for bringing the key players to the Unconference. It was an important step in what promises to be a productive period ahead for Ontario’s nonprofit organizations.

Monday, April 4, 2011

A question to ponder: the value of fitness vs the arts?

The proposed Conservative Budget, tabled March 22 in Ottawa, promised to introduce a $500 children’s artistic activity tax credit. (The pledge was originally made in the 2008 Conservative Platform). It parallels the children’s fitness tax credit, introduced in 2007.

The proposed new tax credit is welcomed by many in the cultural sector: It will demonstrate to Canadians that piano lessons are equally as legitimate a pursuit as soccer in the development of children.

What to make then of Sunday’s Conservative Party pledge to double the children’s fitness tax credit, with no mention of the artistic activity tax credit?

Both artistic and fitness activity are essential to a child’s development. Study after study finds positive correlation between arts education, academic success and all round health. The same is, of course, true of fitness activity.

So why promise to double the fitness tax credit, with no reference to the artistic activity tax credit?

One can’t help but ponder the question.