For more than 20 years, the New Brunswick Arts Board has been supporting arts and culture in the province through an arm’s-length process viewed as the standard for artist granting in Canada.
Thanks to that arm’s-length approach—also a hallmark of organizations such as the Canada Council—funding for artists and artworks has always been decided without government interference or pressure; juries of peers and experts have decided how granting funds are allocated.
But this week, that tradition was put at risk, say artists and gallerists in the province and beyond.
On April 1, the New Brunswick Arts Board (also known as ArtsNB) officially received a cut of $200,000 to its operating budget—a 40% slash to the funds available for salaries and administration.
Next year, the provincial government is planning another $200,000 cut as administration of ArtsNB is taken under the wing of the Department of Tourism, Heritage and Culture.
Arts Industry at Risk, Commercial Gallerist Says
Though the government says the amount of granting money delivered to artists—like the $910,000 distributed across five regions and nine genres in 2014–15—will remain intact, concern remains that artists and arts in general in New Brunswick will suffer with the shift.
“You can say all you like about being arm’s length and being peer-reviewed [in future]—it is still under the wing of the government, and to me, that’s a step back from how things are progressing in jurisdictions around the world,” says Germaine Pataki-Thériault, of Federicton’s Gallery 78, the oldest commercial art gallery in New Brunswick.
Though Pataki-Thériault’s gallery, as a commercial enterprise, has not been eligible for ArtsNB grants, she sees the board as essential to the success of the art industry in general in New Brunswick.
“If an artist is really good, they could be doing [art] anywhere,” Pataki-Thériault says. “So if they choose to live in New Brunswick, we should try to support that initiative.”
The fear is, in part, that, without a well-functioning arts board, New Brunswick could lose talented artists to other regions with better granting structures.
“There are many reasons why it is hard to be recognized for the work you do in New Brunswick; people talk about Canada finishing in Montreal or Quebec City,” Pataki-Thériault explains. “So it is important that we all work together to bring focus to our artists.”
There are also other ways the government could save money, Pataki-Thériault argues—perhaps by streamlining deadlines and the types of grants available.
“I’m not opposed to making sure that things are done in the most efficient way, because that is certainly how we work here—we all work with not that much money,” Pataki-Thériault says. “I’m not opposed philosophically to a cut when it is necessary as long as it’s done properly.”
Arm’s-Length Funding Key to a “Strong Democracy”
Over at the newly truncated ArtsNB, executive director Akoulina Connell argues the cuts have implications that stretch well beyond the arts specifically, or New Brunswick in particular.
“I think a lot of arts boards [across Canada] watch this with concern, and I think a lot of [culture] departments are watching this with interest,” Connell says.
Indeed, national and extra-provincial organizations have also spoken up against the cuts.
The Canadian Craft Federation stated that the government’s plan would “restrict the provincial arts sector’s abilities, destabilize the social and community programming undertaken by ArtsNB, and reduce public faith in the accountability of the province’s arts-based funding.”
The Newfoundland and Labrador Arts Council issued a statement which reads, “We strongly encourage the government of New Brunswick to reconsider the devastating decisions made that will debilitate artsnb.”
And Arts Nova Scotia—which was itself absorbed into government operations in 2002 before becoming more independent again in 2011—stated on Facebook that “we have extended an offer to the New Brunswick Arts Board and to all those involved in this transition to share our own experiences, practices and approaches at the Board and other levels, should that be helpful. And we join with others to hope for a speedy and productive resolution to this difficult situation.”
“I think it’s really important to have considered dialogue on why the arm’s length model is important in the Canadian context, and what that model has to offer a strong democracy,” says ArtsNB’s Connell. “Freedom of expression is fundamental to the arm’s length board in terms of what creative projects get supported.”
Independent arts funding benefits not just the arts, but society as a whole, Connell argues.
“What we do as public arts funders doesn’t just benefit artists—it benefits society as a whole,” Connell says. “Part of that benefit is ensuring there is rich critical self-expression; at the moment when perhaps there is a political crisis, often artists are the first to write about it, sing about it, paint about it—that is one of the ways we have a failsafe on a democracy.”
Path Forward Uncertain; Outreach Already on Hold
One of the concerns that the arts community in New Brunswick has had with the cuts is a feeling that there hasn’t been an appropriate level of dialogue and consultation with artists and others in the process.
The social-media campaign #makenoiseNB has been asking the premier to meet with ArtsNB since the cuts were initially proposed on February 1.
“We are in a quote-unquote transition, but it’s isn’t clear what we are transitioning through,” says ArtsNB head Connell.
While Connell hopes the tone in meetings with the department will be “civil and collegial” on both sides, she also notes the $200,000 cut has already affected ArtsNB outreach, among other activities.
In the past, a small budget has allowed staff to visit universities and communities around the province to explain programs and how to complete a grant application; that now has zero dollars allocated.
Board meetings have also been reduced to two per year in order to save money on travel, accommodation and translation—the latter being mandatory in New Brunswick as an officially bilingual province.
Leadership is also an issue, as Connell is due to begin a new job with the Manitoba Arts Council in June, and the board is unclear about whether it can “in good conscience” hire a new executive director given the funding uncertainties at hand.
Connell says she expects the government to table changes to the legislation governing ArtsNB by the end of this week.
A clarification was made to this article on April 12, 2016. The original copy referred to “the government” rather than “the provincial government” specifically.