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Kate Taylor: Canada Council’s big makeover: What it really needs is more money

There is really only one way to judge a Canadian arts administrator: How well can she write the application for a grant to build a wheelchair ramp?

This was a professional skill that was raised to an art form in Ontario a few years back when the provincial government had a push on to make public buildings accessible; people who ran small theatres, arts centres and public galleries realized that if you included a wheelchair ramp, and perhaps even an elevator, you might get some capital funding that you could use to build those amenities and generally spruce up the entrance and the front lobby.

This might free up the rest of your minuscule capital budget to repair the leaky roof while a grant to hire a marketing intern or a grant to computerize the box office might allow your overworked general manager to spend more time writing the application for the operating grant that might actually pay the salaries of the people who were supposed to fill the building with art.

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Public funding for the arts has been stagnant for decades, driving arts organizations to political expediency and bureaucratic acrobatics to maintain their grant levels. It is disheartening how quickly even the smallest institution devoted to the arts becomes an institution devoted to running an institution. Now, in one fell swoop, the Canada Council is going to change all that – or at least change its part: At its annual general meeting Tuesday, the council announced it will streamline its entire application process and reduce 142 different programs to 10.

No more sorting through red tape to figure out if you are an emerging or an established artist, if you are touring or travelling, if you are in need of organizational development or capacity building. Just … well, it's not exactly clear what "just" will be, nor what will replace the 142 programs covered by 108 policies. What Canada Council director Simon Brault announced Tuesday was merely the intention to remodel by 2017, not the actual shape the redo will take. He reassured his audience that no current client would lose funding and that the council would continue to use peer juries, letting artists and arts administrators judge each other's worthiness.

Apart from that, a best guess at the future lies in this exhortation from Brault: "We will take up the rallying cry of our colleagues at the Australia Council for the Arts: 'More sweat and tears in the art forms than in the application form.' "

So, the idea for streamlining is borrowed from the Australia Council and if it mimics that model, it will look something like this: a handful of huge multidisciplinary categories separated only by the scale of the requested grant. In Australia, there are now $100,000 two-year fellowships for senior artists and six-year operating grants for institutions; and there are three levels of project grants, capped at $25,000, $50,000 and $150,000 each, with the smallest intended as development grants and the largest available to groups not individuals. That's it.

It is very hard to imagine the Canada Council, with its six disciplines, its equity, inter-arts and aboriginal offices, and its many instances of separate English- and French-language streams, could ever pare down to this extent. Off the top, Brault announced there will be a separate aboriginal program while First Nations, Métis and Inuit artists will also be welcome to apply to the main categories. The logistics of managing large categories would be difficult and might put too much power in the hands of a few individuals: Who would be qualified to sit on juries that would hand out hundreds of large grants in all disciplines?

Still, some kind of shakeup is necessary as the council needs space to do two crucial things if it's going to remain relevant. One is to start devoting as much energy to engaging Canadians in the arts as it does to helping art get made, a direction that is becoming politically important in a democratic culture where the barriers (and even the distinction) between consumer and producer are breaking down. The other is figuring out how to channel funding to younger artists without destroying the achievements of the previous generation.

"The next generation, they want to be able to send a video to explain their project, not a grant application of 25 pages written by someone else," Brault said during the meeting, touching delicately on the generational divide.

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Of course, what is really needed, along with streamlining, is more money. Unlike a lot of federal cultural institutions that have been heavily cut, the council has received small increases to its parliamentary grant in recent years. But the sums are not enough to keep up with inflation, let alone address the reality that Canada has a growing population that is producing more and more artists worthy of support: Incumbents haven't seen increases in years while youth has to fight to get in the door.

In the end, the council, which does not, by the way, fund wheelchair ramps or any other building costs, will be judged by how successful it is at wringing money from Ottawa.

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About the Author

Kate Taylor is lead film critic at the Globe and Mail and a columnist in the arts section. More


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