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01.05.2013 SPEECH – Values, the Public and Smart Growth in the Arts

Notes for a presentation by Simon Brault, President of Culture Montreal, at the Sustainability and Culture / Sustainable Cultural Management International Conference, April 19-20, Thessaloniki Concert Hall, Thessaloniki, Greece


First of all, I would like to thank Mitos21, the Goethe Institute and all the partners involved in this initiative for having invited me to this International Conference. It provides an invaluable and essential opportunity to think about and discuss major concerns in the professional arts sector, particularly issues affecting theatre and the other performing arts.

I will begin with an important observation about this gathering. What struck me the most from my reading of the materials that Iphigenia gave me in November, in Paris —the notes prepared by the speakers and a list of prominent guests — was the clear sense of urgency and a genuine determination to harness intelligence and expertise in a constructive and concrete way.

I therefore hope to be able to make a contribution based on my own three areas of practice:
•    as the CEO of the National Theatre School of Canada;
•    as the Vice-Chair of the Canada Council for the Arts, Canada’s largest public funding agency for professional artists;
•    as a cultural activist who publicly defends and articulates a firm civic stance in the reconfiguration and re enchantment of a major city — Montreal — through the arts, heritage and culture in all their dimensions.

To continue to move forward, I, like so many others, have  to “act and think at the same time”, to use Edgar Morin’s expression. Morin postulated that “Complex thinking leads to complex action. Complex thinking leads to a different way of acting.”

That is precisely why I sometimes take part in conferences like this one.

Crisis? What Crisis?

I am definitely not going to start listing the multifarious aspects of the crisis we have been in for quite some time now. It has persisted for so long that we find it impossible to describe the state of the world without referring to a host of economic, political, sociological and philosophical explanations, and to the causes and consequences of the countless calamities that shape our planet.

Sometimes, bored with always being in dire straits, we may be tempted to consider crisis a normal state of affairs, and any lull or period of stability a form of disrespect.

An image that struck me when I was 20 years old comes to mind: I am referring to the album cover of Supertramp’s Crisis? What Crisis? I was not a great fan of this progressive rock group from England back then because I was from my teenage years steeped in hard rock. On this album cover, with which you are no doubt familiar, we see a young man in a bathing suit, wearing sunglasses, seated comfortably on a folding chair under an orange beach umbrella, in the middle of an industrial dump with factory chimneys in the background spitting out black smoke against a leaden grey sky. I was fascinated by this photomontage which I took to be an arrogant rude gesture from my generation, giving the finger to a lifeless world that deserved to be ignored.

When I look at the image today, I am sometimes tempted to draw a parallel between the young man in the 1975 photograph to some colleagues of my generation who are now in high places in the cultural sector. What could have been seen as giving the finger or taking a rebellious attitude has over the years turned into denial, wilful blindness or even stubbornness. The time has definitely come to take off the sunglasses, stand up, fold up the beach chair and props, change the sets, change the attitude and project another image.

Crisis, what crisis, that is the question.

I am definitely not going to argue that the serious economic downturn – or degrowth—and the repeated blunders of the financial system and the budgetary austerity policies imposed on national governments or elected representatives of the day, for sometimes ideological reasons, have no short-term impact on the cultural sector. There is no doubt whatsoever that they do, and anyone in this room could demonstrate it and give compelling examples.

Incidentally, government decisions to cut spending and investment can do much to dismantle the vast art and literature sector, and the cultural and heritage industries, which are directly funded by the State.

Nevertheless, I am inclined to share the conclusions of Professor Andy C. Pratt of King’s College, London, who wrote: “It is too early to make a final judgement on the recession, as it is clearly not over yet. However, what is striking is that the cultural sector has not collapsed as was expected.” In his article entitled A world turned upside down: the cultural economy, cities and the new austerity, he argues that the cultural sector is generally built on a mixed economy and that the classical hypotheses according to which consumers first cut discretionary spending in times of recession are inaccurate with respect to culture, as was demonstrated during what is often referred to as the “golden decade of Hollywood”, which began with the 1929 stock market crash. Professor Pratt added that, “There is strong support for the theory that culture provides a ‘feel good factor’ that is important in periods of austerity.” He goes on to demonstrate that government funding cuts have a different impact on large, mid-size and small organizations. As evidence, he points out that in England, the real squeeze is experienced by the mid-size institutions, while large institutions attract significant sponsorship and very small organizations can largely compensate by adding more volunteer workers.

It is certainly not my intention to downplay the problems caused by the recession and austerity policies, although such problems are rarely terminal, but I do want to examine the profound transformations that began to occur before the 2008 recession. I would like to describe their impact on the cultural organizations that are subsidized or that receive philanthropic funding. These impacts are not entirely circumstantial and they lead us to re examine the main assumptions – the very foundations – upon which our cultural policies are based. It is on the basis of these assumptions that we administer our infrastructures and make artistic, organizational, financial and communications decisions, which are at the core of our cultural action.

The crisis caused by the levelling off or decline in department of culture budgets is perhaps not the one that should galvanize us into action.

The crisis that concerns us at a deeper level is a crisis of values in which we have lost our bearings, in the sense that there is currently a rapid erosion of political and social consensus about the importance of the arts, heritage and culture as “the inheritance of the nobility of the world” as André Malraux described it so elegantly.

To the tidal wave of commodification of culture that we were condemning at least a quarter of a century ago have been added other complex phenomena. These are eroding the underpinnings of our convictions concerning the usefulness and intrinsic relevance of the artistic and cultural supply  to which we devote all our effort, and on behalf of which we request – completely legitimately, we believe – government support, the generosity of patrons and the participation of the citizenry as audience members and consumers.

Major migrations caused by globalization, which can lower or raise the status of cities and countries, have reassembled populations in a way that has blurred the identity benchmarks that were previously protected and promoted by government policies. Accelerated urbanization has given major cities a new legitimacy for cultural action that is still only partly recognized by many governments. Customized access to online cultural content through information technology fuels a huge illusion about freedom of choice and creates thorough confusion between cultural democratization and transactional efficiency for consumption purposes.

The postwar democratic postulate is that the long-term supply of artistic experiences designed by professionals and corroborated by experts on the basis of universal criteria of excellence is the best way to give large numbers of people access to the power of elevation intrinsic to the arts. This assumption has been repeatedly disproved not only by cultural statistics confirming that regular audiences are increasingly opting out, but also by the growing indifference of the audiences we would like to reach out to, particularly those growing up in the digital age.

Our cultural systems are partly dysfunctional and disoriented. Moreover, many arts institutions and organizations are now feeling the consequences of ostensibly strategic decisions and modus operandi that are increasingly ill-suited to circumstances today.

For more than a half century, we based our cultural policies and built our organizations around a structured programming strategy. We focused on verticality: our enlightened decisions were imposed on potential consumers of culture forcefully, or we sold them through one-way communications.

There are accordingly some obvious issues to be addressed today: anaemic demand for art on the one hand, and rapid fragmentation on the other, leading to a proliferation of cultural preferences. Added to this is an obvious desire to be actively engaged in the processes and outcomes of creation itself. Our contemporaries are refusing to be treated as nothing more than available and passive viewers, clients or consumers. A quality relationship takes precedence over pressure to complete a cultural or other form of transaction.

We need to do our utmost to reach out to and generate interest among these new cohorts who lack interest in our linear approach to storytelling (including theatre, alas) and who appear to cultivate a short attention span.

We have become increasingly aware of some of the phenomena described by the Pew Research Center in Washington, in a recent study of the impact of technological hyper connection on people. Young people growing up in an always-on world, who like multi-tasking and have a short-term mindset, are developing new social and cognitive skills, to be sure, but not without some negative effects: “The impact of networked living on today’s young will drive them to thirst for instant gratification, settle for quick choices and lack patience.” These are thought-provoking findings. What we usually offer are experiences scheduled at a specific time and place, with inflexible configurations, whereas the digital mantra accepts only the virtual and on-demand.

Every function of our organizations needs to be re-examined.

We have incorporated the great humanistic principles into the ways we operate, make decisions and manage, and we are justly proud of this. But we must admit that we instinctively plan and communicate from the top down most of the time and that we will have to reinvent ourselves by adopting an approach that shifts quickly and continually between the bottom and the top. This means acknowledging that hierarchies and chains of command – and perhaps even expertise – are collapsing in an era in which instantaneous sharing and friendships are only a few clicks away.

But the problem is that this reinvention, which has become urgent and will require many conceptual, organizational, operational, budgetary, financial and even personal adjustments, needs to be effected in a turbulent setting, and at a time of limited or even reduced resources.

The arts sector, which has been protected if not promoted for six decades by the state governments (in Europe) or by major philanthropic foundations (in the United States), is convinced that there are only two possible alternating options: stability and development, or if you prefer, consolidation and expansion. Both scenarios are consistent with treating arts supply as an essential relationship with the community.

As Richard Evans wrote quite rightly in his article “Entering upon Novelty”, it is important to understand that “Where before we were structured for growth, future success will mean being structured for sustainability, growth capacity as a measure for success will be replaced by adaptive capacity”.

Growth? What growth?

“Anyone who believes in indefinite growth in anything physical, on a physically finite planet, is either mad, or an economist.” This often quoted witticism from the former President of the American Economic Association, the late Kenneth Boulding, contains a good measure of truth, and deserves comment. The first thing that strikes us is that the unreasonable assumption of indefinite economic growth is so seductive that we have taken it to be an indisputable truth.

Recent history has helped to consolidate this utopian view. As economist Robert Gordon reminds us, it initially took 5 centuries – from 1300 to 1800 – for the standard of living to double in the most advanced countries. But in the next century, it doubled again, and then again in less than 30 years, between 1929 and 1957. And it doubled once more in the 30 years that followed.

This amazing economic growth resulted from 3 industrial revolutions that began by virtue of major technological advances: first came the invention of the steam engine and railway transportation; the second brought the invention of the internal combustion engine, running water, communications and medical chemistry; and the third gave us computers, the Internet and cellular telephones, beginning in the 1960s.

The second of these revolutions (the internal combustion engine, running water, communications and medical chemistry) is the one that has had the greatest impact on the standard of living, and the third (computers) has had the least impact on the economy, despite what we would like to believe.

Like many economists, Gordon concluded that the next doubling in the standard of living in developed countries would no doubt take… a century! One sign of the times is that at the most recent meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, income inequality was cited as the main threat to economic globalization.

The current cultural system, in which all of us here are players, was essentially developed during a period of history that underwent two doublings of the standard of living. We got high on the assumption of continuing strong growth and now have to go into detox.

The development model based on hopes for constant growth have had concrete consequences, such as the heavy concentration of available cultural sector resources in the hands of a very small number of large organizations. In the United States, fewer than 1% of all not-for-profit theatres in 2009 were receiving 48% of all funds available for the whole non-commercial theatre sector. In dance, one half of 1% of the country’s dance companies were receiving 60% of funds available for this sector. In music, 1% of orchestras were receiving 60% of the funds. The Metropolitan Opera alone received 26% of funds available to the whole opera sector in the United States! Incidentally, the Met ended its 2011 year with a surplus of $41 million, while many companies were on the verge of bankruptcy.

Of course, these trends are more pronounced in the United States than in many other countries (because the government there plays less of a regulatory role than elsewhere). But look into the large arts organizations in your city, region or country.

I do not want to demonize the large institutions, but it is certainly worth asking whether their growth model is really sustainable, and in particular whether the model might be harmful to the artistic and cultural ecosystem on which these institutions are heavily dependent, and on renewal of the content that makes their mission and raison d’être relevant and meaningful. That is because renewal sometimes requires risk-taking and placing less of a priority on economic growth than on full cultural development.

It is also undeniable that the sustainability of development is increasingly difficult to discuss openly within the cultural sector because every organization that has been around for more than 10 years is worried about avoiding decline and wants to perpetuate its existence forever, while other organizations and collectives are emerging and want their place in the sun. This means dreaming up a magical system in which there is life without end, and in which nothing perishes or dies. That’s what I call magical thinking.

The fact is that the system is being undermined because resources are not increasing at all or only very little. We are certainly aware of this at the Canada Council, and we are trying to change it by introducing the concept of flexibility within the granting envelopes we administer, for these funds will no doubt be frozen for an extended period of time. Clearly the idea of change is worrisome to those who have been there for a while and who would like to continue to operate within the growth-stability-growth cycle. A flexible funding approach is of great interest to those who are emerging and who would like to make their presence felt because of the excellence of their work. I could discuss this at greater length and would be happy to do so during the question period, if you are interested. But I think that we now need to approach a concept that is related to growth, namely development.

Development? What development?

We need to examine and fully explore the increasingly widespread idea that the next great revolution – the fourth – will be based on sustainable development.

That is where I am coming from when I argue in favour of a sustainable development vision that fully incorporates the cultural dimension.

I believe that we need to emphasize that sustainable development must be expressed and implemented in many forms that go beyond the usual prescriptions that need to be spelled out and followed to avoid wasting limited or non-renewable resources.

Sustainable development needs to be explained in a way that will elicit the emotional and creative engagement of as many human beings as possible, because they will be mainly responsible for resolutely developing a vast and essential blueprint for civilization and for deploying it for everyone’s benefit. And this resolve and determination must remain keenly aware of the vulnerability of an inherently destructive economy whose goal is to fuel the insatiable gluttony of the few. How to achieve it without calling upon the arts, heritage and culture, freely available and endlessly renewable as a creative and civic resource, and a positive response to those who would blame others and to laws that are too often circumvented?

Don’t be afraid to say it: more than ever, the future of sustainable development depends on culture, because culture is indispensable to humanizing it and to optimizing its power to rally people.

If we can successfully put this idea forward – and it is possible to do so by pointing to how movements are converging: movements like Agenda 21 for culture, the movement to consider culture the fourth pillar, or the smart growth movement, which is increasingly going beyond simply urban concerns – then we would be able to claim a place and a role for culture in the revolution that is currently underway and in the smart development that it can generate. For once, development would not, as Edgar Morin once commented, be a voyage that has more castaways than passengers.

However, we must also begin to learn more about the impacts of smart growth, and rather slow growth I might add, on our organizations and our sector.

What this means is that the highly desirable attributes of “indefinite” growth, such as the accumulation of assets and increased funding, and constant expansion of human capital and programming, will become out of reach. But this does not mean that subsidized arts or arts supported by private philanthropy have no future.

What is clear is that their future will depend on their genuine, significant, relevant, obvious, recognized and sustainable contribution to the welfare of people and the many communities to which they belong, or to which they would like to belong.

This is what led the Canada Council to channel concerns – mainly expressed by the organizations and artists they support – about audience development and recognition of their contributions, into a new strategic approach called Public Engagement in the Arts.

Public Engagement in the Arts: Why we can hope for a better future

We have by now moved some distance away from the era in which audience development was based primarily on advertising and other forms of one-way communication. We are no longer in the era of “arts marketing”, if indeed we ever were.

The illusion that we could compete using the marketing methods of commercial culture, often called mainstream culture, melts away when commercial culture climbs to ever more vertiginous peaks in terms of transnational sales and consumption. Attendance at subsidized arts and cultural events is at best a bit of a rollercoaster ride and, objectively, increasingly marginal compared to commercial culture, even though it has grown over the past 60 years.
While there has in fact been a democratization of access to the arts in our societies, the issue of radically reforming and renewing cultural participation still needs to be addressed. This is neither a tragedy nor a problem for us. On the contrary, it is an ideal opportunity to rethink and reposition not only public and private funding for the arts, but also how our organizations operate and the content they provide.

The public engagement in the arts approach adopted by the Canada Council is both philosophical and highly pragmatic. We deliberately avoided a normative (or even coercive) approach by defining what we mean by “public engagement in the arts”. We arrived at this definition by identifying – and we know that this identification is not exhaustive – which practices to recognize, value, promote, multiply and intensify.

Our definition of public engagement is: “Actively engaging more people in the artistic life of society notably through attendance, observation, curation, active participation, co-creation, learning, cultural mediation and creative self-expression.”

In October 2012, the Canada Council published a discussion paper on public engagement in the arts. We launched discussion through speeches and meetings, and on the Council’s official blog.

We were very insistent that support for the arts and cultural development is one of the major missions of government in a democratic society. We also pointed out that there was a fundamental difference in perspective between public and private funding: the former is based on democratic legitimacy and the latter on the free will of the individuals and companies that provide the funding.

We affirmed that the Canada Council, like many similar organizations around the world, believes that the best way to strengthen the legitimacy of what it does is to increase the number of concrete initiatives to make the contribution of the arts to the lives of communities and individuals even more obvious, broader and valued.

Even after providing this additional information about our stance, we soon received conflicting opinions from members of the professional arts community, many of whom receive Canada Council subsidies. Some applauded our new direction, while others were upset that we did not give enough recognition to what they were already accomplishing in terms of cultural democratization; and a few – in particular a number of directors of artistic professional associations and groups – got very worked up and publicly accused the Canada Council of secretly attempting to commit the ultimate crime of opening its program to amateurs! Needless to say, this is a complete fabrication.

Accordingly, we were temporarily plunged into a bad psychodrama in which the Canada Council was considered guilty of having said out loud the very things that had for some time already been whispered in the corridors of the arts community about declining audiences and the lack of recognition for the arts. The whispering lessened when things took a more practical turn, mainly economic, for example when culture is supported because it promotes growth in the tourism economy. In short, in this bad psycho drama, some players chose to shoot the messenger in the hope that they wouldn’t have to get the message.

But never mind all that: this false debate on public engagement in the arts as a premise for public funding of amateur art or bargain-basement art will have enabled us to get back on track, remind people of our convictions and take the conversation to a more meaningful level. The whole exercise had nothing to do with funding amateur art.

It became necessary once again to address the question of the rather complex relationship between artists and society. The question is definitely not a new one. It has been asked repeatedly throughout history because art has always alternately or even simultaneously been in and out of synch to varying degrees with the society from which it grew and was nurtured.

The very nature of artistic work means constant challenges because artists must withdraw from society for more or less extended periods of time to do what they have to do. Mastering a musical instrument, long and demanding performing arts rehearsals to achieve the desired high level of perfection, extended dance training, studio work for visual artists, or writing a book or a play, all require time, some isolation, and a form of freedom that ordinary people might often find suspicious. Artists – in theatre for example – are constantly torn between the intimacy required for periods of incubation, analysis and rehearsal, when they are among themselves, and the eventual need to go out and encounter the audience, which gives meaning to their art. This reconnection is integral to their art form even though it is sometimes difficult.

Not only that, but the romanticization of these long periods of solitude or attempts to ennoble and glorify long periods of poorly paid and unrewarding existence, paradoxically constitute another factor in their retreat from society.

The idea that one could and should make art simply for the pleasure of doing so without any consideration of the public is a frustrating fantasy that is difficult to shed.

The need to connect art, and artists even more so, with the people has always been there, and the barriers to this connection have been – and are still – numerous and almost systemic. It is, moreover, fascinating to see that elites, who are always in the minority, but who have wealth and power, have always sought to exert control over artists and to be as exclusive as possible in enjoying their works. This has been true in every historical period.

It is only very recently that we have begun to want and feel obligated to work towards making art accessible to a larger number of people.

Democratization is still an ideal that needs to be made a reality.

Cultural democratization must be understood to mean authentic participation, as a real exchange, a deep and significant engagement with art in its most diverse, highest and richest manifestations. It is in everyone’s interest to defend this principle forcefully, because it is the only legitimate ground for government support to the arts and culture.

Let us once again pursue this ideal to counteract the crisis of values that I mentioned earlier. We need to make it our everyday struggle, but this time, without relying only on government policies and grants, which are in any event shrinking away. The goal of more widespread public engagement in the arts will still require government action – and public education – but it must become emblematic of our missions and of our relevance.

This is the most effective way to remain socially relevant. We run the risk of permanently losing this relevance if we try to keep all of our organizations alive through increased competition, aggressive marketing, management and controls, or even worse, by dumbing down our content and our products.

We must work on a smaller scale, with big ideas, rather than on a large scale with ideas only every now and then.

Thank you.


A bit more about us

Culture Montreal is an independent organization and place for reflexion and action that contributes to building Montreal’s future as a cultural metropolis through research, analysis and communication activities. Its mission is to assert the central role of the arts and culture in all areas of Montreal’s development: economy, buisness, politics, land-use planning, education, and social and community life while encouraging cultural diversity, emerging artists and practices and public art.

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