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Engaging Citizens in the Arts: Think Global, Act Local – Address by Simon Brault

by ahnationtalk on October 29, 20151072 Views

Address by Simon Brault
2015 Creative City Summit
Kelowna, B.C.
October 28 at 9:15 am

Thank you.

And I want to thank Jordon for his welcoming remarks just now.

I can’t think of a better way to start this summit than to recognize the spirit of creativity and resilience of this land and to draw on it in your work throughout the next two days.

I’d also like to recognize our host city, Kelowna – a community that has done tremendous work to reinvent itself over the past twenty years. Kelowna has made it a priority to build a stronger and concentrated presence of public art, cultural facilities and practicing artists.

Its cultural plan, its enthusiastic involvement in Culture Days, the successful and fruitful business-arts partnerships it has encouraged. These are all obvious signs of a broad commitment to culture. A vision of culture as a catalyst for development. A force to leverage community building. A pillar in the sustainability of our cities… and our society.

Last week, Canadians elected a Liberal government with a platform that includes a substantial commitment to the arts – notably an increase in funding for the Canada Council. I think we should all see this as a meaningful statement on the benefit of the arts to Canadian society – and to build on this momentum. To this effect I applaud the work done during the Federal Election campaign by Kelowna to make the arts the topic of an all-candidates’ debate.

We can all learn from Kelowna’s example. We can all find ways to bring the arts to agendas across all sectors of society. Political, economic, education and health. And the best place to start is in our home towns.

This is the theme I’ll return to again throughout my remarks this morning.

Cultivating Culture

It’s an honour to speak to you on this first day of the Cultivate Culture Summit. As the Director and CEO of the Canada Council for the Arts, I bring a national and international lens to the summit conversation. One that is grounded in deep experience and appreciation for the city as a cultural ecosystem.

I know from personal experience that the success of an event like this is measured by its practical results. Many of you may know that my home town is Montreal and that I’ve worked for most of my career to elevate the creative capital of that city – notably as the chair and founder of Culture Montréal.

I learned first-hand the value of sharing ideas and knowledge with others moving in a common direction.

This network, this event, can inspire and galvanize a whole range of actors in civil society. It can build potential allies amongst elected officials and the public service.

For us at the Canada Council, this type of exchange and cross pollination of ideas is vital to our work at the national level. All of us here have unique and complementary roles to play as we build together a vibrant cultural presence. One that can be felt across the country and on the world stage.

The theme of this summit — “cultivating culture” – recognizes that a healthy culture starts at the grassroots.

Coincidentally, the metaphor of the community’s role in cultivating culture comes through in a book I read this summer by Astra Taylor. It’s called The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age.

Astra writes about the abundance of cultural offerings from around the world made available by technology. But she warns that these offerings are only as good as the soil that cultivates them.

She points out that even the most virtual, electronic work is produced by people who create in a social context. And I quote:

“We are toiling shared soil in the hopes that our labour bears fruit. It is up to all of us whether this soil is enriched or depleted, whether it nurtures diverse and vital produce or allows predictable crops to take root and run rampant.” [end quote]

This is a powerful metaphor for the value of your work. It means that in a global society where geographical borders are blurred, our physical communities are more important than ever.

So, how do you, as cultural planners and arts administrators, see your role in cultivating culture in your hometown?

Local actions – global impact

Development, sustainability, quality of life, citizen engagement, cultural rights. These are all global issues that manifest themselves at every level and scale of policy and decision making.

But the local level is where these issues move from policy to practice. In the way cities plan and deliver housing, social services, public health and transportation.

What is particularly exciting to me is that there seems to be a growing recognition that the arts need to be part of these plans.

You are familiar with Charles Landry who, of course, invented the concept of the creative city. He argues persuasively that the arts and artistic imagination should be embedded in all parts of civic urbanity.

The way we plan the common spaces where we gather, the way we bring together the diverse cultures in our cities, the aesthetics of our buildings and how they reflect the unique personality of our city, the way we walk through our neighbourhoods, the way we foster eco-consciousness and sustainability in our cities.

As Landry says, when all of these elements come together, cities can truly become living works of art.

Putting the arts at the heart of all areas of public policy was also the theme of an international forum I attended in Bilbao, Spain. It was the first summit of the United Cities and Local Government (UCLG). Local delegates met to discuss and to demonstrate how culture can be a driver for change and sustainable development within a city.

It called on the idea of the city as an ongoing project to build citizenry and democracy.

Of course it’s easy to see how many of the great cities represented at the summit could point to this idea in their past and present. But Canadian cities and towns can and should also claim this ambitious role.

They – you – all represent cities that are complex, ever-changing cultural ecosystems made up of public and private stakeholders, institutions, spaces and activities, visitors, citizens. And of course, artists. Artists are the urban cartographers who map out the narrative of our cities. They tell the stories that describe who we are as communities – and ultimately who we are as Canadians.

This type of discussion about the city and the role of arts and culture recognizes the many benefits that the arts bring to our everyday lives, in the places where we live and work.

I know I don’t have to enumerate all the benefits of the arts to this audience. You’ll be sharing statistics and stories to illustrate these throughout the summit.

We all know that a rich cultural context encourages and optimizes creativity, innovation, problem solving skills, collaboration, well-being, and livable communities.

But all of us in this room also know that we still have challenges in presenting and measuring these intangible impacts of the arts.

We need to find ways to name, articulate, document and bring attention to the attributes of the arts.

We need to make the case to a whole range of stakeholders that the arts can help resolve the global issues of the times. And we need to start in our own backyards.

Because when we talk about global issues, we are really talking about the issues that affect us in our day-to-day lives. In the places where we work and live.

Waves of globalization and new technologies that promise to bring us together are at the same time stripping us of a sense of belonging. In an era of virtual identities, we remain shaped by the people and places in our actual lives.

In our ever-shrinking world, expression and identity are as important as ever. It’s not an either/or situation. A rich physical community provides the roots for our virtual ones.

To that point I want to quote Astra Taylor again, because she expresses it so well. She writes:

“Our virtual and physical lives are intertwined, inseparable, equally “real.” Whether their work is distributed by paper or pixels, creators never emerge fully formed from the ether. Individuals are buttressed by an array of plinths and braces. These include family and friends, patrons and publics. And institutions that include universities, foundations, community centres, publishers, distributors, libraries, bookstores, rock venues and cinemas as well as the ad hoc networks that comprise scenes and subcultures, digital and analog.

And so, it’s vital that we make sure these plinths and braces, these people, institutions and networks are strong. How do we do this? How can we nurture a healthy ecosystem for the arts… and a better world for us all?

These are questions we contemplate more and more and richly discuss at the Canada Council.

We’ve been asking ourselves: How can we, as a national funder, create the optimal conditions for artistic creativity – and creativity in broader sense. How can we help creativity to thrive locally – for the benefit of all Canadians? How can we support Canada to become a leader in this regard on the world stage?

But the overarching question I want us all to think about today is: How can we work together to raise awareness of the value of the arts? To bring the arts to the table wherever decisions about human development are taking place? And are we inviting others to our table when we talk about arts?

So yes, these are big questions. But I think we all can bring our unique perspectives and experiences to responding to these questions – both at this summit and in the weeks, months and years to come.

Impacts of technology/globalization

I want to take a moment to dive a bit deeper into effects of technology and globalization.

In our global society, borders have become blurred. Large-scale movements are felt locally.

The impact of the Syrian war and mass movements of refugees is felt in cities throughout Europe.

Climate change is affecting the way of life in the smallest, most isolated Northern communities.

The shift in Western societies toward aging populations impacts the housing, public health and social services we offer in our cities.

Think of the global recession of recent years and its impact here at home.

But perhaps the greater driver of globalization – the one whose impacts we feel most closely and forcefully here – is digital technology.

It has brought the world to our fingertips in ways that we all experience in our everyday lives.

It has created new spaces for sharing and co-creating.

It has changed the way we relate to each other and the way we form our private and public identities.

It has amplified our individual voice but in some ways has made it less direct. It gives us a world of knowledge, but can also deluge us with meaningless information and content.

Just think. Even ten years ago, social media was non-existent for most of us. The iPhone was still a rumour.

Now, networked and mobile technologies have blurred the lines between personal and professional.

These waves of globalization and technology are having a deep impact on the arts. Artists and audiences have a myriad of platforms on which to create and consume art.

Young people and new Canadians are engaging with art less and less in traditional ways.

Audiences – which had become increasingly passive over the period from Shakespeare’s era to the 20th century – now, once again expect collaboration and participation. They create and share photos and videos more than ever before. They curate online galleries and playlists.

They express their opinions and impressions on social media as a way to define their presence in the world.

New business models are also emerging rapidly. Many young artists find that their work doesn’t fit the parameters offered by traditional arts funders. They are looking for new ways to finance their work – crowdfunding, for example.

Our publishing and music industries have been turned upside-down with the ever growing influence of profitable online distributors and vendors like Amazon and iTunes.

These changes pose a world of possibilities… and a world of challenges.

The digital age invites us all to be content providers. To create work, share it and comment on it.

But these new structures, like previous ones, value celebrity over the obscure; homogeneity over diversity; easily consumable ideas over challenging ones.

There continues to be a risk of corporate conglomeration. We once worried about a few companies controlling all news media and drowning out diverse voices. Now that threat persists in the internet age with a few mega companies controlling social media – Our content and our personal information.

It’s an era where Google, Facebook and Twitter profit wildly – both from the content created and provided for free by others, and the data profile of these contributors.

Popular content – most liked, most shared, most favoured by murky algorithms – rises to the top.

The digital age offers a platform for creation, but where is the structure to develop and support emerging talent? Where’s the financial reward for creators? How can we ensure that our digital culture empowers us and authentically represents who we are and who we want to be as a society?

Mastering and turning these digital tools to our advantage is crucial to our cultural democracy and empowerment in the internet age. And I believe we can nurture the creativity and innovation of our artists to lead in this challenge.

One recent example that comes to mind is a cultural hackathon that was held in Quebec City and Montreal as part of Journées de la culture. For this, teams of people involved in IT, culture and the general public got together for a 3-day marathon to find ways to make culture more accessible to more people through digital technology. Online data, tools like Instagram, YouTube, Google Maps, prototypes for apps – these were all mined for ways to re-appropriate culture.

So, given all these monumental and daunting changes brought about by globalization and technology, what can we do, as cultural funders, planners, arts administrators, to enrich the cultural context?

I can tell you that, at the Canada Council, we’ve been asking ourselves what our role as a national funder is in this regard. How do we, in a perpetually evolving environment, support traditional and new forms of artistic production and reach Canadians? And beyond that, how do we cultivate the true potential of the arts to make a better world? For us at the Council, the answer to this question was nothing less than a major transformation of our organization and the way we fund and promote the arts.

So let me tell you a bit more about our story of transformation. A transformation which has been considered for some time and is now, I’m proud to say, well underway.

The national landscape

When the Canada Council was created in 1957, the cultural offerings of this country were meager. Now there’s abundance. Now there’s diversity, with artists and audiences shaped by a vast range of cultural influences.

Given this, the Council’s focus needs to shift from increasing the supply of art produced to ensuring our artists can thrive. Increasing access to a diversity of voices. Raising awareness of the arts as the driving force they can be.

“Accountability” is a word we hear often in Ottawa. And as a publicly-funded federal agency, the Canada Council must be rigorous in reporting results, outputs and outcomes.

But this is something that we’ve always taken seriously at the Council. For us, accountability is not just an expectation from government. It is our expectation of ourselves. It’s ensuring we are relevant to artists and to all Canadians.

To achieve this, we needed to put in place new frameworks to measure our progress against this goal. So that we can see clearly where we are succeeding and where we need to target more efforts.

At the same time, after close to 60 years of existence, we have taken a good, hard look at all that we have achieved and where we need to adapt. Over a series of formal and informal consultations with arts community and other stakeholders we have learned many things:

We have learned just how extensively and rapidly arts practices and disciplines are changing.

We have learned that Aboriginal arts must be better supported. And not just with a heightened awareness of the issues around reconciliation. We must be conscious – in a way we weren’t 60 years ago – of the deliberate attempts throughout our nation’s history to eradicate the culture and language of First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples.

Deaf and disability arts also deserve more and more targeted support.

New organizational models have emerged, or are about to emerge.

Artists are asking for more support to adapt and adopt new technologies.

They are looking for more access to valuable international markets.

Young artists and culturally diverse artists need to feel welcome in our process.

We also heard from artists and arts organizations that they want to explore deeper and more meaningful ways of engaging with the public. Both to enrich their practices and to respond to their audience’s demand for more interactive, participatory arts experiences.

For us at the Council, all of this feedback pointed to the opportunity to transform our organization. To become more flexible and better able to deliver impact – and to demonstrate that impact.

It’s an opportunity to adapt in a way that maintains our proud reputation as a relevant and vibrant organization into the future.

We realize that the expectations of us are high. We wanted to transform in a way that would make us flexible and able to scale up our impact to make the most of funding opportunities whenever they arise.

As you know the most powerful lever a funding organization has to effect change is our funding programs. And that’s where our transformation begins – with a new funding model.

New Funding Model

I want to give you the overview of our new funding model but want to preface it by saying that this transformation is being planned and carried out in the context of the same budget and the same level of investment in the arts.

But it’s a transformation that has always been planned in a spirit of anticipation. It has always been driven by an ambition to deliver more impact, more value to the public and more financial support to Canada’s artists and arts organizations.

When I first took on the role of Director and CEO, I realized immediately – and I mentioned this in one of my first interviews with the Globe and Mail – it would be futile to simply ask for a little more money to keep doing the same old thing. Canadians – artists and the public alike – deserve more.

We needed to anticipate new possibilities. And in doing so, we needed to create a funding model that would be solid, agile and flexible enough to embrace these possibilities as they arise.

And so I’m confident that our new funding model makes us prepared for a bigger public investment in the arts. We are ready to scale up our impact. We are poised to invest in creativity and innovation in our communities in a way that benefits our economic, social and human development.

And at this point, increases to our budget can only make the intentions of our new funding model more tangible, more concrete and more sustainable.

The basis of the new funding model is fewer and clearer programs that are outcome driven.

The major change is a significant reduction in the number of granting programs from 147 to six. These six programs will cover all regions and all fields of professional arts practices. They will address the major issues specific to both existing arts disciplines and emerging art forms, while adhering to the Council’s fundamental values and commitments.

To be clear, the new funding model is not an exercise in shifting money. It’s about clarifying expectations and demonstrating results.

It’s about shifting our attention away from prescribing the way the arts should be made. And shifting it toward enabling the artists and the arts organizations to conduct their own quest for excellence and maximize impact on society on their own terms.

It’s not about making applicants squeeze themselves into the constraints of our programs. Rather, it’s about us adapting our programs to their realities, skills, potential and ambitions.

And as an organization, the Council doesn’t just want to fund innovation. We want to walk the talk.

I recently read an article that advised “before you think innovation, think simplification.”

And I agree, it’s easier to be nimble and creatively adapt to change when you eliminate the many layers of complicated rules and procedures inherited from a long institutional history, such as the Council has.

We want to be innovative ourselves – in our organizational structures and our processes. We want to lighten up the bureaucratic work so that we can focus more on understanding and advising the arts community.

I won’t go into the details of the six programs this morning. But I will say that they reflect our commitment to the freedom of creativity and innovation.

There’s a commitment to national outreach, so that Canadians have access to the best in the arts, wherever they live.

There is targeted support for international outreach to expand Canada’s cultural influence, allow artists to benefit from valuable new markets, and position Canada as a leader on the world stage. And with the new federal government’s commitment to re-invest $25 million in international market access, the Council will remain a key player in this area.

I can touch on two of the programs that might be most interesting and relevant for you as they are very much rooted in community.

One program, called Engage and Sustain, funds arts organizations that choose to have strong tangible links to a local community or region.

I’m sure you can each think of such organizations in your hometown. Some of you may be here today representing such an organization.

They are on the frontlines – connecting the public to artists. They are the community hubs.

They reflect the diversity of their community. They are what make citizens proud of their home town.

This grant program supports organizations to strengthen these bonds, to bring even more value to their community.

Another program I’m very proud of is called Creating, Knowing and Sharing Aboriginal Arts.

This is a pivotal time in history when the relationship between Aboriginal Peoples of this land and the Canadian state has been called the defining issue of our times. One that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has brought to the forefront most recently.

It’s a time when it’s recognized that Indigenous arts hold tremendous potential to change the tide in relations between non-Aboriginal and Aboriginal Peoples for a common future.

Aboriginal artists will of course be eligible to our other programs. However, this dedicated program will take a unique, self-determined approach.

This means it will be guided by Aboriginal artists’ values and world views, administered by staff of Aboriginal heritage, assessed by Aboriginal arts professionals and its impacts reported in an Aboriginal cultural and artistic context.

This is a program that can have great impact at the community level – especially in Aboriginal communities where the healing power of the arts and cultural identity is well documented. This program can both inform and be informed by national and global movements for Indigenous rights.

Aside from the changes within our funding model, there are other transformative waves running throughout all of the Council’s activities.

These waves speak to our vision to see the arts take on a bigger role in society – they reinforce our goal to empower artists and citizens. One of these waves is equity. In recent years, we’ve made targeted investments in culturally diverse communities and in the Deaf and disability arts communities.

What’s more, we’ve woven these values of equity into the fabric of our organization through internal practices, program delivery and knowledge sharing.

Why is equity integral to our transformation? It’s because the arts and culture are essential components of any journey to empower people, and for communities to re-invent themselves.

Cultural expression and participation are keys to countering discrimination and alienation.

They open doors to diverse practices. They encourage innovation. They amplify voices that may not otherwise be heard. Voices we need to hear for the arts to truly reflect the range of excellence and to effect societal change.

And that’s why I feel so strongly about another transformative wave at the Council: public engagement in the arts.

Public engagement in the arts is much more than increasing ticket sales and creating a market for the arts. It’s about making the arts part of the everyday lives of all Canadians, whatever their origin, ability or level of participation.

I referenced it earlier when speaking about accountability. This is integral to the Council’s mandate as a public funder of the arts. It is what reinforces the democratic legitimacy of our work.

The Council has always funded activities and projects to promote public engagement.

Many of the organizations in your communities have done exciting and innovative work in this regard. But for the Council that’s no longer enough. We need to embrace it ourselves as an organization. And at the core, our transformation is about embracing the public considerations and responsibilities that come with our public funding.

For me, it comes down to embracing the values of cultural democracy. This means authentic participation, real exchange, deep and significant engagement with the arts. Every citizen must have the opportunity to see, hear, experience, participate in the expressions of the culture – or cultures – that define them.

Public engagement is something that takes place in the spaces where we live and work – our communities. But at the end of the day is a global concern. When our citizens are actively engaged in cultural life, they are likely to be engaged in all of civic life. A deep level of engagement grows Canada’s cultural influence on the world stage. It’s soft power in a global context.

I hope it’s obvious from my remarks that the Canada Council’s transformation is not just about change for the sake of change. It’s about aspirations, ideas and vision.

And it’s anchored in the conviction that with these aspirations, ideas and visions firmly in place, we are in a better position to give meaningful financial support to the artists and arts organizations of this country.

We can better make the case to the people and the government of Canada for greater responsibilities in delivering public services that reflect our values.

I wanted to take the time to share the vision that supports our transformation with you because as a national arts funder, our work compliments the support given at the provincial and municipal levels.

We invest in creativity in your communities – the artists and organizations that access our funding, and the citizens who benefit from their work.

I also offer our experience as an example of the need to be proactive. By changing now – we are the masters of our re-organization, our re-invention.

Contrast this position of strength with the experience of many of our colleagues internationally. In recent years several fellow arts councils worldwide were forced to change due to financial and political pressures. They didn’t have the luxury of reflective change. In many cases they were severely marginalized, drastically cut and downgraded. The lesson is – we all need to be proactive.

Our transformation at Council has also given us the opportunity to talk about arts funding in a way that is positive, visionary and future-oriented – for the benefit of all.

What’s more, it provides a way to talk about innovation and renewal in your cities in a way that is positive, visionary and future-oriented.

This can only strengthen our case for stable and enhanced funding. It gives us more credibility to make ourselves – the arts – part of the key conversations on the future of our society.


This brings me back to the point I made at the beginning of my presentation – and the point I want to leave you with as you begin your work here at this summit.

Be proud of the important work you’re all doing – and challenge yourselves to continue to be innovative, creative and proactive.

The soil you are cultivating nurtures your local ecosystem and can have a global impact.

There is some discussion in academic circles about the way we describe local and global.

In our everyday discourse, we don’t talk about these concepts in terms of geography and distance.

Instead, as sociologist Jean-Sébastien Guy argues, when we talk about globalization, we are actually describing ourselves as a society.

We talk about concerns, problems or trends as being global, as a way of signaling that they are worthy of being addressed.

This concept resonates with me because it acknowledges that globalization isn’t just some external force impacting us – it’s something that comprises our everyday realities.

It gives us the opportunity to make the case that the impact of our local actions can be scaled up globally.

It helps us to build the case for having the arts considered at the heart of our development. For inviting the arts to the tables where the big decisions of the day are being made. Let’s find innovative ways to make this happen.

This was the argument made at a symposium hosted this spring by the Arts Advocate. Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of the United Kingdom’s Royal Society was a speaker at the event. He urged the cultural sector to move away from always articulating the ask for more funding – to articulating the benefits. He said: [and I quote] “The arts heritage and creative industries have many attributes that other sectors seek – innovation, collaboration, public engagement – all challenges in other areas.”

Let’s find ways to better understand and articulate these attributes. Let’s invite ourselves to the tables where global issues/ community issues are being discussed.

International movements like sustainability, citizen engagement, cultural democracy – their success depends on the work done in your home town – your cultural ecosystem.

The artists in your communities are the urban cartographers telling the story of your hometown. Give them the opportunities, flexibility and support to tell this story in a way that truly reflects the experience of the community – and our larger society in all its diversity and complexity.

Consider the business owners, entrepreneurs, educators, mentors and connectors who can also play a role in telling this story.

Let’s make the innovative offer of the arts known. Let’s bring the arts to life. And in doing so, we’ll be doing nothing less than improving life in our communities, in our country, in our world.


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