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Simon Brault Q&A: Rebranding the Canada Council

Big changes are afoot at the Canada Council for the Arts. Yesterday, the core of what promises to be a leaner and meaner organization was outlined in a new funding model that, as of April 2017, will take the country’s most significant support system for the arts from the current 147 discipline-centred funding categories down to a streamlined, six-part, non-disciplinary superstructure organized by the headings Explore and Create; Engage and Sustain; Creating, Knowing and Sharing Aboriginal Arts; Renewing Artistic Practice; Arts Across Canada; and Arts Abroad. Specific details of these new, simplified program categories are yet to come. In the meantime, Bryne McLaughlin checked in by telephone with Canada Council director and CEO, Simon Brault, to discuss what will change…and what will not.

Bryne McLaughlin: A major structural shift at the Canada Council has been officially underway for the past year. The outline of that new funding model was just released and, as anticipated, it fundamentally reorganizes the council’s distribution of funds, turning the former 147 discipline sections into a six-part, non-disciplinary superstructure. That’s a big change: how has the reception been thus far?

Simon Brault: It’s a good day. We have been trending with the new funding model, in Toronto especially. It’s interesting that there is such a conversation happening now about public funding of the arts, and in a positive way, because I think it’s a subject that needs to be more present, and more and more it needs to be in the face of Canadians, and especially of decision makers.

BM: That’s true. The Canada Council is something that we all rely upon, but the argument could be made that to one degree or another, the existence of those funds is also often taken for granted. So with significant changes underway, it seems that conversation is going to be key to get people thinking and debating.

SB: And also appreciating what the Canada Council does and how important it is. I think that’s true for a lot of people. Many of the comments I’ve heard from people since we started the process, especially people from outside the arts community, have been, Oh, okay, now we understand better what the Canada Council does and why it’s so important. Sometimes in Canada we tend to defend or argue the importance of the Canada Council only in terms of wanting more money, wanting this and that…we’re so specific and it’s such a private and difficult-to-decode conversation that we isolate ourselves. That’s the last thing we should do now. We need to be more present, more proactive and more positive about all of that.

BM: The other thing that often comes to mind is that it’s such a crucial program and has been a groundbreaking model in so many ways, yet it’s also a bit of a monolith that was fundamentally designed for another century and another arts environment. Change can be good, but it can be hard, too.

SB: Yes. It is hard to change. But, at the same time, we know that we would be foolish not to. Hearing what we’ve been told for so many years from the community and observing what we know is happening all around the world, it would be foolish not to make a serious attempt to modernize, update and really make sure that everybody notices that we are renewing this model for the 21st century, instead of trying to hold on to an old model, like we have with many other parts of the cultural system. I think we need not only to do this, but we also need to be perceived as doing it.

BM: You’ve been at the Council for just about a year now, officially…

SB: I’ve been with the Council for 10 years as vice chair of the board, but in the capacity of director and CEO I started 11 months ago. It’ll be a year at the end of June.

BM: Was this a process that had already been under discussion, or was this a vision that you brought with you to the job?

SB: No, these discussions have been happening, certainly at the level of the board, for many years. The Council has been consulting the artistic community over and over in the past few years. But each of those consultations was basically done discipline-by-discipline or subsector-by-subsector. Seeing it from the perspective of the board, one of my obsessions was always to find the common threads; what are the common findings and conclusions coming from each of those different disciplines that we will need to address?

The way I see it is that when I came in as CEO, the conditions and the alignments were there to do what I call some kind of a crystallization of all of that work. We have been audited many times, and we have often debated the operation of the Council. We have been seeing those consultations and have had discussions many times with colleagues at the international level to see how this model is trying to adapt in other countries—without a lot of success. When I arrived at the Council, I took into consideration all of those different elements, and I think that with my team I came to the conclusion that we do have the professional and moral responsibilities to draw conclusions and act without being afraid of acting…but also to act differently.

As I have said many times, we are lagging behind. If we use the same approach that we have been using for the past 20 years, we should immediately create 50 new programs and at least another 100 programs next year to tackle all of the issues that have been raised. But that approach has two very bad effects. One is fragmentation: you’re fragmenting your resources, you’re fragmenting the money, you’re fragmenting your strategic capacity to address those issues. The other is that you are reinforcing the silo-effect of disciplines. So for me it’s not at all about getting rid of the disciplines; it’s more about getting rid of the silo-effect of our organization by discipline. Again, it’s more about a catalytic process as opposed to, Wow, here is a new vision.

So I don’t think I came with a new vision. I came here with a sense of, okay, let’s act. I’m a very pragmatic leader. And now that we’ve heard what people have been saying, let’s act and let’s go in a direction that will really address those issues. Let’s organize a bright future for ourselves, as opposed to waiting and being told or forced to streamline or downsize because we have budgetary costs like everybody else does.

BM: What you’re saying goes in a couple of different directions for me. In an interview you did with Canadian Art just before you started as director and CEO, one of the questions raised pointed out that funding for the Canada Council had held steady, but it also hadn’t increased (in spite of rising inflation rates, for example). You said then that now is a good time to “attempt to convince Canadian citizens and the government that it’s time for reinvestment in the Canada Council.” How much of that public-relations messaging is played out in how you fashioned this new model?

SB: Obviously as the CEO of the Canada Council, it’s clear to me that what I consider to be my first responsibility is that this organization has a future and delivers more impact and public value. I think that if we organize ourselves to do so, I’m confident that we will continue to get those responsibilities and the necessary resources in the future. If I was not convinced of that, I would not propose to go in this direction. At the same time, I’m very aware right now that if there’s one thing we hear over and over when we consult the artistic community, it’s that we need the Canada Council and its resources. This comes out loud and clear all the time. But I also think that an important role of everything we do now is to make sure that the arts—not only the Canada Council, but the arts in general—have a place at the table where important decisions are being made about our cities, communities, country and international presence. The fact that the arts are marginalized more and more in our society has obviously been tearing at the Canada Council and also is putting us under the radar when governments are debating priorities. By being more present and more contributive, by bringing something useful and meaningful to the table and by making sure that this is recognized by Canadian citizens, we are reinforcing the Canada Council as a key funder, but also making sure that the arts are valued and considered as important.

The mandate of the Canada Council is double: to develop the enjoyment and appreciation of the arts in Canada and to fund the support and creation of art. Those two aspects of the legal mandate of the Council are obviously informing everything we do, including the new funding model, which, I want to add, is not the desired end state. It’s not for me to create a new funding model because it’s new and I like new models. It’s part of a larger transformation of the Council, realigning everything we do, organizing and updating everything we do, and really getting ready for our 60th anniversary to present a Canada Council that is as robust and fresh as it was 60 years ago. That model has really served people from my generation. But convincing is needed to prepare for the years to come. So all of this work—the vision, the horizon—is not about the launching of new programs. The horizon is really a new generation.

BM: Still, there are some dramatic changes at hand, and a lot of these changes are revealed in the overview document without committing to many specific details. One big issue is the peer-assessment process and the perceived loss of discipline-specific knowledge and expertise in a more generalized adjudication model. How does peer-assessment work in this non-disciplinary format?

SB: The programs are non-disciplinary; they are not multidisciplinary and they are not anti-disciplinary. That’s really the important thing. People sometimes think that if it’s non-disciplinary then it’s multidisciplinary. It’s not. You can imagine that especially with the two biggest programs, Explore and Create and Engage and Sustain, those programs have a huge overview of applications and, as I’ve repeated again and again, there’s absolutely no intention to do away with the peer system as the core criteria to do assessments at the Canada Council. We will maintain that, absolutely. What will remain important is that if you are operating within the context of the first program, which is Explore and Create, where all of the individuals and collectives and many organizations will be, obviously the juries will be informed by the goals and expectations of that program. The same thing will happen with Engage and Sustain; organizations, especially organizations that are delivering seasons and a permanent presence in a community or city, again in that there will be peer assessment. We may over time come with the notion of disciplinary peers, which is important, but also sometimes peers from organizations doing the same type of work or at the same scale.

But peer assessments remain the best system and my commitment will remain. We want to upscale and reinforce that. That’s another element of work that will be done. We want to make it more robust. I’ve observed that in many, many, many countries in the world, peer assessment has disappeared, or almost completely disappeared. It’s an endangered species. In the US now, they do it over the phone. In England they don’t do it anymore. In Australia they don’t apply it to major organizations. So we are one of the very rare arts councils in the world right now that has an integral peer-assessment system, and that system, even today at the Canada Council, varies a lot from one discipline to another. Peer assessment in dance is not the same as writing and publishing, for instance. So I want to make sure in the future that peer assessments will remain a fundamental way to assess artistic quality in alignment with the goals of our programs.

BM: There’s a lot of trust in the way that programs are assessed and awarded now via that peer-assessment process. You know that your application is being judged by other specialists in your field with the knowledge and credentials to make fair assessments. How will you maintain that trust?

SB: There is a lot of trust, but there are also a lot of critics. I’m not talking about critics within the process, but more that there are reservations in some quarters of the artistic milieu about our system. What I want to make sure of is that we keep what people value and that we fix or improve the weakest spots of that. And, you know, I’ve made the commitment to keep peer assessment and we won’t change that. It’s fundamental. I don’t see any cause to effect relationships between what we do now and peer assessment in the future—on the contrary. It’s not about getting rid of any expertise, and actually we do have all of those experts at the Canada Council now. It’s more about adding another branch to that expertise. The last time we did a survey, the biggest survey the Council has ever done with the artistic community, we asked the question: What do you need? The first answer we heard was that we want more money, but we also want more social recognition. Social recognition is also about demonstrating the impact and the outcome of public funding of the arts. I want to be able to do that. We all want to be able to make a stronger plea for what we do.

BM: So part of the new decision-making process will put more weight into production and demonstrable outcomes?

SB: Yes, but you know outcomes are things like exploration and creation. That’s an important outcome, because artistic creation is an outcome. When you are an organization with huge assets, when you’re the Stratford Festival, engagement and sustainability are important outcomes, as are creating, knowing and sharing arts for Aboriginal artists. I mean nothing is new there; these are always the outcomes that the Canada Council is looking for, but they are not hidden in a forest, a jungle of programs that we are now cleaning. It’s really about that, about scaling up the impact of what we do.

BM: How does the new funding model ensure that populist events, like the Stratford Festival, don’t take the lion’s share of funding away from programs or exhibitions or productions with less of a measurable impact, that are more ephemeral but are still vital as incubators of ideas and experimentation?

SB: First of all, I think it’s really important to realize that we do not understand outcomes at the Canada Council in terms of numbers and quantities. That’s exactly why you have a program like Explore and Create that states clearly it is for artistic creation. This is what is expected from that program. A program like Engage and Sustain will have less clients, but will be focused exclusively on those ideas. So, again, it’s making sure that the contract between the applicants, artists and organizations and Canada Council as a public funder is clear. We are not moving at all in a populist direction. On the contrary, we are really stating that the Canada Council is there first and foremost to support artistic creation and artistic organizations because they are engaging with an audience and outreach of artist excellence. I hope that when people read about this program they will see that this promise of focusing the Canada Council on its original mandate remains. Other departments in the federal government, like Canadian Heritage, are working more with a view of sales and all of that. That’s okay. But that’s not the fundamental role of the Canada Council; we’re not here for that. The mandate is about the appreciation and enjoyment of the arts and to support the production of works of art. We won’t move from that mandate, at all.

In terms of the lion’s share of funding, we have committed that, as the baseline and point of departure for this new funding model, we would respect the distribution envelopes that are given to each discipline and our multi-year commitment with our clients. We don’t want to disorganize the art infrastructure. In the future, in terms of where we are, if you go back to what the mandate of the Canada Council is, if there is new funding from the government, the discussion will not be in terms of which clients or disciplines should get that money, but rather which program should be the priority. Those priorities are now stated very clearly around creation, engagement with communities, international outreach…these are very clear in terms of innovation for artistic practice. Those outcomes are clear and the investment will be outcome-driven. That’s what we want to achieve with public money as opposed to which clients should get that or which discipline deserves more than another discipline. Those are the discussions of the 1960s and ’70s, and they are not relevant anymore.

BM: Still, some well-founded anxieties exist based on the distribution of funding in the current model, and how that might or might not be corrected in this new, non-disciplinary model….

SB: I will do everything in the world to diffuse those anxieties! I understand that people can be anxious. At the same time, I’m a believer that the best way to dissolve anxiety is clarity of purpose and also by giving people time to think and debate those questions. This is why we have rolled out the new funding model in this way: it’s kind of a work-in-progress, but we have chosen to be very transparent, not to take anyone by surprise. I made the commitment today that each of our clients will be informed of where they can go in the new model. Our work will be to accompany the artists and the organizations in the transition. We don’t want to get rid of anybody and we don’t want anybody to be lost in the transition.

You can see the program Engage and Sustain. This is the program that is crafted for the institution. The baseline for that program will be what exists now in the institution. So there’s no shifting of money in the context of the new funding model. Not one cent will be shifted. At the same time, with the program Explore and Create and the other programs, we are consolidating and reaffirming the vital importance of artistic creation. We are saying clearly this is what we do, this is the intention, this is what we’ll keep. This should be good news for institutions and artists because they now know what the outcomes are that we recognize. So, again, all of this transformation is not to shift emphasis or money. It’s really to tell people that this is what we have, this is the legacy of the fantastic work that Canada Council has done over the past 58 years. This is the baseline, and from now on these are the six areas where the Canada Council will focus and hopefully we will be able to invest more in those programs over the next few years.

BM: Last question: where do we go from here?

SB: The next big rendezvous will be around November or December, when we will release all of the details on the programs. Then people will have a year to understand how it works. We have at the Council a year to train staff and fix the IT systems and be ready for April 1, 2017. It will also be a year that we will make sure to precisely answer any questions and also make sure that everybody in the system now finds a place in the new funding model. Hopefully it will be a year during which we will be able to have more attention, more conversation about the importance of public funding and maybe, you know, progress.


AA Bronson says:

blah blah blah. Lots of public relations talk. No dialogue. Such a disappointment that the Canada Council has forgotten it’s very special role, set up in the early 50’s. Even Wikipedia is silent on the history of the Canada Council: one sentence suffices. I suspect it has been deleted by Council employees as it now reads like an excerpt from the Council web site. Also interesting that the Council has never published anything about it’s own history. Perhaps they don’t want to reveal that the past of the Council set new standards that defined arts funding world-wide, while the current reality is strictly ho-hum business as usual, with a political undertow.

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