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May we suggest

News / October 18, 2019

Art Policy vs. Social Policy and the Federal Election

What is the value of art, beyond being a social benefit? Here, arts leaders discuss what we lose when we continue to value art only in relation to social gains

Culture policy is often an afterthought in the public policy domain. We can see that clearly in the current election campaign: there’s passing mention of Canada Council for the Arts and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, an exchange on the Netflix policy flop, and that’s it—culture campaigning is done and dusted.

Yet there are fundamental issues to address. Key among them is, What does a visual art organization pursue: art policy or social policy? Should we value art because of what it is, or because of what it does?

Artists and cultural organizations are under greater pressure than ever to prove that they can transform society. Having worked in the culture sector in Canada for four decades, holding the view that the arts are a public good, I’m increasingly concerned about the manufactured consensus around the “social impact” of the arts. In my view, there are numerous bodies—funders, foundations and think tanks—that have, over the last decade and a half, pushed through the particular policy perspective that the arts should be approached and supported mainly as a social-value vehicle. Public art galleries at the local and regional levels have to adhere to the social agenda of municipal and regional governments as costs are downloaded onto these two levels of government. But art galleries’ own mandates are not typically developed to deliver on outcomes of a social policy. And in these spaces there seems to be little room for alternative thoughts, grounded theories or different perspectives. This essay provides a little more space to hear some views of art as more than a propeller of social value.

Last month in Toronto, roughly 250 people came together to listen to UK researcher Geoffrey Crossick at an event called “Reshaping How We Understand the Impact of the Artsthe kind of event I tend to think of as a policy show-and-tell. Crossick discussed a three-year research project on the “many lives of cultural value.” After the presentation, I asked Crossick whether he thought public art galleries (because that is the group I represent as the executive director of the Ontario Association of Art Galleries) have a mandate to deliver on social agendas or policies. He said they didn’t. But the context in which such research on the “value of the arts” is commissioned is, in my view, still connected to the idea that art should impact society.

Canadian arts professionals are also raising questions about these issues. When I contacted Kate Cornell of the Canadian Arts Coalition, she stated, “I think it’s going to be a lifelong goal of arts advocates to talk about the arts again. In the 1990s, with the major cutbacks that we saw under the Harris government in Ontario and the Liberals federally, we became beholden to the economic argument as the go-to argument in terms of the need for funding the arts. We already have a huge challenge from that legacy and now we have to make a social argument to get the funding.” Alexandra Badzak, director and chief executive officer of the Ottawa Art Gallery, whom I also reached for comment, reiterated, “There has been an emphasis on the leadership role that public art galleries play within their constituencies/cities: as community connectors and conveners, where important conversations can take place in a safe space. Increasingly these are conversations that emerge from social factors affecting a certain locale, such as social housing or youth and mental health. Will [public art gallery] mandates and missions have to change to reflect this? Or at least stretch past the usual statements of ‘research, preserving, presenting and interpreting’ to include ‘community hub’ or ‘centre for art and wellness’?”

Kate Taylor, the visual art critic at the Globe and Mail, told me: “I do listen with interest to the ways in which the arts are justified in society and do see a change there, in that the economic, job-creation arguments of the 1990s, followed by the more refined creative class arguments of the 2000s, are gradually being replaced by a notion of social utility.” And she gave many examples, saying, “You see this everywhere, from the popularity of research studying the neurological effects of music, to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts program that encourages some Quebec doctors to prescribe free museum visits for mental health. Obviously, there are some dangers to the arts if you continually demand their worth be assessed in measurable social terms, just as there were dangers in demanding they always be able to show job creation numbers. When it comes to making policy in face of such pressures, institutions need to respond to changing social goals with smart programming and balanced execution.”

Arts councils are also are increasingly aware of these issues between art and social benefit. Sergei Petrov of the York Regional Arts Council states, “When such funding priorities for the arts start to be tied to a broader social impact (e.g. environment, Indigenous, youth, underserved communities), and especially when they stay on top of the agenda for longer than a few years, it does start to impact the mandates and missions of those organizations, especially ones that heavily rely on the funding from government agencies or private sectors. Therefore it is becoming more common for organizations (and even one-off projects) to integrate socially responsible language as part of strategic plans, organizational values, as well as having an impact on long standing missions and visions statements.”

And there is growing awareness that Canadian culture policy is in crisis mode generally. In 2016, Michael Geist, law professor and Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, flagged the crisis of Canada’s cultural policy in the context of then-ongoing negotiations around the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement: “The TPP departs from longstanding Canadian policy by not containing a full cultural exception and creates unprecedented restrictions on policies to support the creation of Canadian content. The Canadian position on trade and culture has been consistent for decades with successive governments requiring a full exemption for the cultural industries. The exemption, which is found in agreements such as NAFTA and CETA [but not in the TPP] give[s] the government full latitude to implement cultural policies to support the creation of Canadian content.” (What those negotiations will mean, in the context of federal support of Canadian cultural content, has yet to be determined.)

As I reflect on these comments from professionals in the arts sphere in Canada, issues of context come to mind. Locally and internationally, we see the same policies repeated over and over, or the same terms used in arts policy: “resource allocation,” “market approaches to service delivery,” “managing reduced programs.” From the UN at a global level to the arts councils at a municipal level, I see these discourses extending and reproducing. And I am concerned about how this connects to the downloading of state and social responsibilities onto individuals, and the ways that the culture sector is expected to participate in “building a skills agenda,” or promoting “entrepreneurship” or “self-care.”

These language patterns around art policy and social policy were exacerbated by Richard Florida’s flawed pitch of culture as an economic imperative in 2002; his creative class theory, which was widely embraced by politicians, solidified art policy as part of municipal agendas of community development and urban regeneration. His errant ideas are persistent and,

Beyond Richard Florida, the broader onslaught of neoliberalism has been detrimental to the idea of a public good, and has been a factor in the repurposing of art policy as social policy. The idea that the “public” in “public good” has been eradicated is familiar to many: the public has collapsed into the individual.

Even as culture is increasingly instrumentalized by other, non-cultural policy domains, it remains relatively marginal compared to policy portfolios such as health, immigration or education. Continuing to define art as socially useful, rather than maintaining its value as a general public good, will, I believe, lead to a widening of fault lines across policy platforms and a weakening of the arts sector overall.

What I want, ultimately, is for the arts to be strengthened with a robust federal policy apparatus that enables visual arts organizations, like the public art galleries I work with, to deliver on their mandates and allow artistic practices to flourish—and for that to still be a worthy metric of our work.

In the remaining few days of Canada’s current federal election campaign, I believe it is still worth foregrounding this issue and making it a part of the political conversation.

Zainub Verjee

Zainub Verjee is a media artist, curator, writer, arts administrator, critic and activist. Her work has been shown internationally, including at the New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the Portland Institute of Contemporary Art and the Venice Biennale. She is currently executive director of the Ontario Association of Art Galleries.