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B.C. art attack: Interview with Judith Marcuse

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Judith Marcuse is the founder and Co-Director of the International Centre of Art for Social Change, a partnership with Simon Fraser University. She is also founder and artistic producer for Judith Marcuse Projects.

Am Johal: The BC government restored some funding recently to the arts.  To what degree does it make up for the devastating cuts that were implemented?

Judith Marcuse: Well, it’s partial and it’s temporary. We have no guarantees on what was restored will be part of the budget in coming years, nor was the full amount restored particularly if one looks at the whole gaming situation which affects small and medium size organizations across the province.  I would say good for the government for, you know, retrenching on some of the cuts they made, but there’s a lot more to do.  Particularly in light of the fact that before the cuts, BC funding of the arts was at a rate that was the lowest in Canada and had been for many years.  And Canada is one of the lowest funders of the arts in the industrialized world.  Put in to a wider context, both looking at the wide shot and close up, there’s a lot more to do. 

Even if the government were to triple the investment in our 78,000 strong sector we would still be at the bottom in terms of per capital expenditure for arts and culture funding in Canada.  It’s a step forward but there is still lots more to do to put us in line because it’s behind what’s happening in Canada and the rest of the world.

AJ: The Minister of Arts and Culture recently criticized the arts community for lobbying to restore funding.  At one point, he even said publicly that he felt threatened.   What is your response to this?

JM: I was at the first meeting with the minister. There were two meetings with advocacy groups with the Minister.  There was absolutely no hint of anything that could be construed as threatening. In fact, a lot of people felt afterwards that the whole demeanour of our presentation was too reticent. I was not at the second meeting but had long conversations with people who were. What I understand happened at that meeting, simply, that the group told the Minister that the plan was to go to our constituencies and advocate for a change in policy. 

And if the practice of democracy is a threat, then, yes, I guess it was a threat.

I don’t know what else the Minister has received.    According to everyone, there was no threat.  In the meetings I know about, there was nothing.

AJ: Many members of the public go out to arts events from festival to art openings to theatre.  People don’t necessarily see the on-the-ground impact that these cuts have had.  Can you describe some of that impact?

JM: They are multi-fold. Many artists are leaving the province right now. Organizations are cancelling or reducing their programming, losing staff, cancelling tours, cancelling co-productions with organizations both inside and outside the province. Planning is just impossible because we really don’t know if there will be sustained investments. Certainly at the time of the cuts, everything was put on hold. People were unable to plan past January.  It’s certainly the same situation with many organizations with the gaming cuts. It destabilizes the community, it reduces the amount of activity substantially. On a more spiritual level, it is demeaning to be treated in this way. I think many people believe the arts is part of what makes us fully human and is a necessary component of a healthy and civil society. To be pushed around is  difficult -- it’s destabilizing and demoralizing. 

Even in the context of cuts, these were surreal. They don’t make any sense whatsoever. The figures and statistics are clear. At an economic level they don’t make sense.  At a ‘condition of living’ level, they don’t make sense.

AJ: There were a lot of one time funding of the arts leading up to the 2010 Olympics.  How was the arts sector impacted by the Olympics, given what’s happening now?  What are the impacts of gaming funding?

JM: On the Olympic front, a lot of good work got produced, it was a shot in the arm for some members of the sector, but it wasn’t any kind of sustaining investment. It was an excellent moment  in which  a lot of great work was established, a lot will stay such as visual arts installations, but even that $40 million (Opening and Closing ceremonies) compared to some of the other Olympiads was small. It was a great thing, it celebrated the great work that’s going on here, but it wasn’t sustainable.

The arts ecology includes everyone and everything feeds everything else. If you don’t have R and D happening with small groups doing experimental work, if you don’t have the full range of artistic activity, everyone will suffer. 

We tend to create a hierarchy of values around art. Like high art, or elite art, is the valuable aspect. In fact, all of the parts, like community arts in all kinds of non-traditional settings, to culturally based celebrations, to arts and education where we lag so far behind in this province, it’s all part of a larger ecology that makes for development and access in a rational way. 

What the gaming restrictions have done to our sector is cut off the arms, cut off the abilities of smaller organizations or those who are doing non-mainstream work to operate. It’s a very very serious impact -- I find it particularly upsetting at a time when BC is expanding its gaming to an extent it’s never been seen in Canada before.

AJ: Funding is one part of the issues with the arts.  There are also policy changes that need to be implemented.  What can done to help the arts sector develop in BC and Canada?

JM: First of all, we need policy and we need an endorsement of that policy. Without policy, we are kind of floating in ambiguity. It’s fine to float in ambiguity in some circumstance, but not when you’re trying to run an arts organization, it certainly doesn’t help. 

I would advocate for a tripling of arts funding that would still put us at the bottom of the per capita national average. Very, very importantly, advocate for arms-length decision-making, which is absolutely critical to the province’s well being. 

If governments dictate what artists should do, you are on a  very, very slippery slope.  I would also institute long term investment.  Three year investments, because it’s known to work – it works federally through the Canada Council and internationally, three year funding is the norm in many contexts. 

I would restore gaming funding of course. I would actually set up a citizens’ panel to advise the BCAC (BC Arts Council) on a regular basis on policies and on the implementation of policies. Some of the most interesting arts policies in other parts of the world have evolved because there have been really interesting programs, in Australia for example, years ago, they instituted an animateur program that facilitated people who could talk about the arts in very accessible ways to all kinds of community-based situations and to other contexts. 

There became the possibility of public education in general about the arts, about what participation in arts could do. Federally, there’s some talk of a ‘Participaction’-like program advocating for participation in arts and cultural practices which is a great idea. 

I kind of waver between pessimism and optimism in my advocacy work because I see not just those already involved in arts and cultural work, but I also see in all sorts of other sectors, a real hunger about a new way of looking at the world -- another kind of lens,  that involves the imagination and creative approaches.

A friend told me that there are two ways of being in the world -- the quantifiable, the bottom line, the statistical vs. ‘storyland’ which is about relationships with people in all kinds of sectors, looking at other ways of solving complex problems. 

In the conversations I’m having now when I travel, I’m seeing a real opening of the doors in these areas of social innovation to the idea that arts practices can be hugely effective ways of creating dialogue and solving problems. I find it really ironic with these cuts by government, that this whole way of doing things, and being, is considered irrelevant when they’re dealing with very complex problems.

AJ: Anything else?

JM: Well, we’re offering our first course in partnership with SFU through the International Centre for Art and Social Change -- we were fully booked, over-booked with a long wait list for a 400 level course within days of it being offered. There’s really overwhelming interest in the arts. I really feel that the government is really not aware of what’s going on in respect to what our sector offers. For the savings, they are making, there’s no logic to the whole thing -- it makes no sense.   

We are really looking forward to working on the advocacy front and the public education front. One of the things this crisis has done, it brought together many, many diverse parts of the arts community in the province and it’s been excellent, respectful dialogue within the community. All of the years I’ve been doing advocacy work, I’ve never seen such passionate and intense dialogue. It’s been very heartening for some of us older folks to see.

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