Monday, October 20, 2014

The missing puzzle piece in Canada’s cultural policy

Cultural policy in Canada is complex.  Like a puzzle, many different, sometimes disjointed pieces, come together to make a whole.  The past week-end’s Globe and Mail demonstrated, with clarity, that some of the puzzle pieces are missing.

Elizabeth Renzetti did a wonderful column on how we pay, or more accurately don’t pay, artists, even those who are legendary such as Iggy Pop or the latest Booker Prize winner, novelist Richard Flanagan.  In Ms. Renzetti’s words, “a new reality has tripped him [Iggy Pop] up and it’s the same one shafting artists all across the world:  Namely, that everyone wants to listen, and no one wants to pay.”

Deeper in the paper, Kate Taylor did a profile piece on new Canada Council Director Simon Brault.  For Mr. Brault, the challenge is one of engaging the public, particularly the young.  Ms. Taylor quotes Mr. Brault as saying “Traditional companies need baby boomers as subscribers, yet they have to engage in a new generation or they will die.”  Further he is quoted to say “The last thing we want to do is say we want a little more money to keep doing the same old thing.”

Nowhere in The Globe and Mail, or anywhere else, is there adequate debate about how we sustain and update the operational and organizational infrastructure [not bricks and mortar] for artists and cultural organizations so they can continue developing and attracting audiences and pay the artist.  Put another way, how do we, as a country, monetize the creation, production and interpretation of arts and culture, so those who create and interpret art and culture can put food on their table?

In the cultural sector, this is not a new theme.  Each year the Ontario Media Development Corporation presents Digital Dialogues.  Monetization is a dominant theme.  Last week at the Ontario Museum Association conference, a similar dialogue emerged, where curators and museum professionals noted adequate investment in our institutions is what is required, not shiny new baubles.

Cultural organizational infrastructure is critical to having the ability to pay artists and engage new audiences.

Like the infrastructure in our cities and towns, Canadians have come to count on a rich and diverse cultural sector:  We want clean water, good roads and adequate transit; we also want the ability to go to a play, hear great music, read a good book or be enticed by a great magazine.

There is the rub.  Organizational infrastructure and support for the cultural sector, like infrastructure for cities and communities across the country, is not compelling for Canadians.  In Canada it seems that crumbling community infrastructure only commands the attention of decision-makers and politicians when it’s near the point of collapse.  As citizens, we justifiably moan about the lack of foresight and political will to have addressed it.

It could be said that we’re at a similar place in Canada’s arts and cultural sector.  The sector is contorting itself to secure alternative resources [public and private], offer new programs and engage Canadians in more and different ways.  The missing puzzle piece though is that we haven’t figured out how to keep the lights on so we can pay the artist.

Let’s hope that together we can find the missing puzzle piece.

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