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News / July 27, 2016

Why Ontario’s New Culture Strategy Still Needs Work

Last week, the government of Ontario announced its first-ever culture strategy. It's a big step forward—but there's still a ways to go.
Visitors discuss Graeme Gillmore's exhibition at Division Gallery in Toronto during Gallery Hop 2014. Visitors discuss Graeme Gillmore's exhibition at Division Gallery in Toronto during Gallery Hop 2014.

Last week at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, Minister of Tourism, Culture and Sport Eleanor McMahon launched Ontario’s first culture strategy.

The strategy “establishes goals and actions to promote participation in arts and culture, build on the sector’s economic impact in communities across the province and help Ontarians tell their stories and express themselves,” a government press release says.

So far, the response to the plan has been largely positive, particularly when it comes to supporting the use of more Canadian authors’ content in schools—an angle emphasized in the government’s press materials.

“I am particularly pleased that the strategy will help publishers to develop curriculum tools that will support teachers and facilitate the use of Canadian books in schools and inspire children to read the diverse and compelling stories of our own talented authors—and perhaps to become writers themselves!” Margaret Atwood said in a government press release picked up by the CBC, the National Post and other outlets.

Other potential positives of the wide-sweeping strategy include helping to conserve heritage buildings with energy efficiency improvements through Ontario’s Climate Change Action Plan, and developing a new fund to support cultural activities in Indigenous communities.

Architects and Designers See Some Progress—But Need More

Past critics of Ontario’s culture strategy—which was circulated in draft form in the spring—also say the new strategy addresses some of the concerns they relayed earlier this year.

“It’s a good step forward,” says Alex Josephson, co-founder of Partisans, an award-winning Toronto architecture and design studio.

Josephson was one of hundreds of design-field professionals who protested the lack of acknowledgement for architecture and design in earlier drafts of the culture strategy.

In May, Metro News reported that “a petition organized by the Ontario Association of Architects calling for the government to amend the culture strategy to include architecture and design had almost 1,000 signatures…including a long list of prominent Canadian architects.”

“On the face of it, the document appears promising,” Josephson explains to Canadian Art, pointing to the inclusion of fashion, design and architecture in the new strategy document.

However, Josephson notes, the new Ontario Culture Strategy still has a long way to go.

“There is no a clear implementation strategy,” Josephson argues, “It’s one thing to say you support the final exhibition of this work [in fashion, design, architecture and urbanism], but it’s the research and intellectual investment in these fields that matters.”

Why don’t design, architecture, urbanism and fashion receive the same government support that genres like performing arts do?

Josephson wants to know—in part because he thinks the economic gains could be great for Ontario.

“Denmark and Holland have almost singlehandedly created economies that are based on architecture and design,” Josephson says. “Think about Paris and Milan. These are cities that have multibillion dollar brands and experiences generated directly from the study and practice of innovation in design and architecture. This is still really simple stuff we don’t see support for.”

Artist Groups Respond to Status of the Artist Act

Architects and designers aren’t the only ones concerned about inclusion in the new culture strategy.

“Dance is only periodically mentioned in the strategy,” writes Kate Cornell, executive director of the Canadian Dance Assembly, in an email to Canadian Art. Cornell also, like Josephson, notes the relative lack of material for those in the design field.

Overall, though, Cornell is pleased by the strategy’s direction.

“The Culture Strategy’s four goals are admirable,” Cornell writes. “Eliminating barriers and increasing access are the primary themes. Indigenous arts and deaf and disability arts play a large role in the strategy.”

One of the biggest boons, it seems, could be a commitment to build upon the Status of Ontario’s Artists Act.

“The policies will benefit the arts sector generally, especially artists working in communities and/or schools,” Cornell notes. “Most notably, the influential Framework document and toolkit that will be distributed to other Ministries will build on Ontario’s Status of the Artist Act.”

Originally passed in 2007, the Status of Ontario’s Artists Act recognizes the importance of the province’s artists—but, as the actors’ union ACTRA Toronto notes, the original act “fell short of what ACTRA and other artists had hoped for.” As a result, ACTRA Toronto and others have “continued to pursue rights and benefits for Ontario’s artists,” in particular “labour rights for artists.”

Representatives from CARFAC Ontario were also pleased to see mention of building upon existing Status of the Artist legislation.

“It is good to see a mention of a commitment to building on the Status of Ontario’s Artists Act,” CARFAC Ontario executive director Sally Lee and board president Yael Brotman said in a joint statement. “We hope for continued participation/consultation to ensure that legislation includes wording that addresses artists’ socioeconomic standing; makes a commitment to developing a labour relations mechanism; and requires periodic reviews of the legislation.”

What About the Bottom Line?

Again, while largely positive in response to the new strategy, CARFAC Ontario underlined some still-remaining salient questions.

“The continuing discussion about a creative economy and the important role artists play in our communities has been frustrating for many professional artists who are unable to make a decent living from their work,” CARFAC Ontario’s Lee and Brotman write. “We hope the Province will examine the ‘operating environment’ for artists.”

This operating environment is one in which the culture is credited with adding more than $25 billion to Ontario’s economy, but in which artists in Canada have had median incomes of $21,600.

“We would like to see real and substantial progress on addressing the socioeconomic status of Ontario artists explicitly stated in [Goal 3] Strategy 2: Strengthen Ontario’s culture workforce (pg. 25)” ‘Engage federal, provincial and territorial culture partners on strategies to improve the socioeconomic status of artists and to improve support for culture-related infrastructure,’” Lee and Brotman state.

Looking at how art and artists are supported—or not—through various government departments in and outside of culture is key to improving the situation.

“We are happy that the ministry acknowledges the need to collaborate with other ministries and other levels of government,” Lee and Brotman write. “Artists don’t live in a bubble, and are affected by issues under the jurisdiction of other ministries and levels of government, like the availability and affordability of live/work space, precarious employment, income tax, sales tax, etc.”

According to Ontario Culture Strategy press materials, there are some 58,000 artists in Ontario—nearly twice as many as any other province.

Leah Sandals

Leah Sandals is a writer and editor based in Toronto. Her arts journalism has appeared in the Toronto Star, National Post and Globe and Mail, among other publications, and her creative work has been published in Prism, Room and Freefall. She can be reached via