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News / January 13, 2016

Canada Council’s New Funding Model: 5 Knowns and Unknowns

It has been difficult to get a handle on the Canada Council’s new funding model, but here are a few knowns and unknowns worth watching.

In recent years, the Canada Council for the Arts—the nation’s largest single art funder—has annually distributed some $150 million to roughly 2,000 arts organizations and 2,000 individual artists from coast to coast.

Yet its new funding model, due to take effect in 2017, remains, largely, a mystery.

Part of the issue is the slowness, and vagueness, with which the Council has chosen to reveal its new model. First announced in January 2015, details of the new model have been delivered piecemeal, with program names released mid-summer, additional details and a new website early December and two webinar sessions early January.

The latest instalment, the two webinars, happened last Thursday and Friday and offered a recap of the new programs listed on the website and a substantive Q and A portion. (A recorded version of the session will be available in two weeks.)

This method helps acclimate the broader arts community to the CCA’s overhaul, but it also runs the risk of obfuscating the changes’ ramifications.

“Personally, I think the changes are good, and overdue. Some of the conversations that are going on surrounding the changes are also good, and overdue,” says artist and editor Michael Maranda. “Alas, many of those conversations are sidelined by the unwillingness to be open and transparent by the CCA in their discussions with the community at large.”

Several artists and community members I spoke to echoed Maranda’s sentiments: change was largely welcome, but the delivery wanting.

While general categories and motives have been detailed, substantive, concrete information has been scant. The hour-and-a-half long webinar (itself a difficult format to follow), for example, was geared towards a general audience—while there were undoubtedly a wide range of viewers from a variety of disciplines, it would be fair to assume that most participants have been introduced to the notion of the new model, and skip questions that effectively asked, “Why are we all here?”

Amid the generalities, though, the webinar and website have revealed some significant shifts within the six new programs that merit attention.

5 Knowns About the New Funding Model

1. There Are New Categories of Grants

The new funding model introduces composite grants, which are geared towards artists with multiple activities going on at once. These will exist in addition to the more traditional project grants, which generally focus on one activity. The Creating, Knowing and Sharing: The Arts and Cultures of First Nations, Inuit and Métis Peoples program also includes a category for small-scale activities, effectively microgrants, which will give artists up to $3,000 per applicant per year with no application deadline (provided the application is received before the project has begun).

2. Discipline-Specific Juries Will Be Maintained—Sometimes

With the announcement of the new interdisciplinary categories, many were worried about peer assessment. At present, the CCA have more than 650 assessors serving on 120 committees (both peer-assessment committees and standing committees of peers) to make funding decisions. Within the new funding model, discipline-specific juries will be used when questions of artistic merit need to be considered, while non-disciplinary juries will be introduced in other scenarios. Full details about jury selection and composition have not been released.

3. Final Reporting Will Continue, but Likely With an Emphasis on Outcomes

After receiving a grant, individuals and institutions are currently expected to complete a final report for the CCA. Final reports will still be expected, but there has been a strong emphasis on outcomes, underlining the new significance of “impact” in evaluating art’s success, with information releases about the new funding. There was a suggestion that final reports would be “put to better use” to more accurately inform Canadians how their money is being used, and to make a case to the government and others about the ways in which art improves lives.

4. Timelines and Deadlines Will Change

If you download the deadlines for the current grant programs on the CCA’s website, you will get, no exaggeration, a 16-page document. There are deadlines almost every month: for some grants it’s an annual deadline, others are more frequent and others are less. Under the new funding model, deadlines for project grants will occur two or three times a year, while the timing and application deadlines for core grants will be harmonized, either through being extended or shortened.

5. The Art-Acquisition Program Will Shrink

The CCA currently has an art-acquisition program that operates on a matching-funds basis (up to $30,000) to help institutions purchase works of contemporary Canadian art. The art-acquisition program is one of the few elements of the current granting model that will see its budget reduced, noted visual-arts head Sylvie Gilbert, as these funds have been reallocated to support touring and other activities because the Council found, in consultation with artists, that these activities were a higher priority.

5 Lingering Questions About the New Funding Model

1. If the new funding model represents huge change, why do the Council’s webinars and resources put so much emphasis on what stays the same?

Despite the expansive nature of the restructuring, the information sessions have been punctuated by an insistence that much would stay the same, particularly through assurances that individuals and activities who received funding before the restructuring would continue to be eligible for funding under the new model. As Jacob Zimmer, theatre artist and director of Small Wooden Shoe, noted on Twitter during the webinar, “Focus on what won’t change shows arts sector fear. I’d be into hearing that lots was changing.”

2. How many new practices can the CCA really support?

Since its first introduction, the CCA has underscored that a major impetus behind the new funding model is supporting new, emerging practices that don’t currently fit into existing granting programs (e.g. “contemporary circus”). But how far can the CCA widen the pool while ensuring that current individual funding levels are maintained? And is the field widening to include for-profit entries?

3. With the new model’s non-disciplinary focus, why are the eligibility criteria of various program components so narrow?

In the current model, there are grants for visual arts, dance, theatre, and so on, but these have been eliminated within the new model. However, the eligibility criteria of various programs within the new funding model occasionally reinforce disciplinary distinctions. For example, only Canadian literary or dramatic works are listed as eligible activities for translation grants in Arts Abroad. Similarly, the public-outreach portion of Arts Across Canada only applies to groups, organizations and architecture professionals. Of particular importance to the visual arts: there are two dedicated program components for literary publishers and literary publishing projects, but questions around art publishing seem overlooked.

4. How are questions of artistic merit being defined?

If peer assessment is maintained for decisions involving artistic merit, it raises an important question: how will the CCA determine which decisions involve questions of artistic merit (and therefore require a discipline-specific jury)? How will juries be selected, and what will the jurying process look like?

5. How can the organization avoid becoming the “Canada Council for the Airlines”?

Will the travel portions of Arts Across Canada and Arts Abroad offer a more holistic offset of travel outlays, rather than simply covering airfare? Recognizing, as Zimmer points out in a recent blog entry, that airfare is only one part of artists’ major outlays of expense and effort: “Travel grants and touring grants often exclusively cover the cost of travel. No hotels, no per diems, no fee or wage…. At a time of rethinking, however, I want to encourage an understanding of the impact and reality of travel funding.”

While these notes and questions lack a comprehensive overview (which would be impossible to establish), they offer important points of entry.

With the long timeline, the good news is there is still time to act. “People should get together and try and make some more focused demands,” says artist and professor Clive Robertson, citing the unresolved issue of art publishing, which has been highlighted and followed by TXT, the Canadian Art Publishing Network.

For those looking for more concrete information, there are more reveals to watch this year: the CCA’s annual public meeting on January 19, information on the transition to the new programs in spring and the opening of the online portal in December.

Thus far, the roll out has revealed some promising changes, some buzzwords and a lot of questions yet to be answered. For now, as with most of last year, the most viable option is: watch closely, wait and see.