How the arts in Canada lost its mojo

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Jeff Melanson. (Photo:

Talk within Canada's arts communities today has become as predictable as office politics, a projection of disengaged management fueled by personal anxieties. Discussions revolve vaguely around the need for "interpretive creativity" and "strategic innovation," and, naively, for more public funding. This is a huge problem for the industry's future.

It happened because arts associations and administrators have become risk-averse and lazy, unable to accept that art-as-a-possible-profession is broken. Their cheerleading is out of touch with how our culture defines value. And if they can't harness 21st Century energies, they'll die.

Jeff Melanson dropped this anvil during a May 2011 talk he gave at Toronto's Gardiner Museum. He was on his way to take over as President of the Banff Centre when he stopped to explain the problem as the "legacy of the [1951] Massey Commission that produces an attitude of 'what is' rather than 'what's possible'." He said a bunch of other important things, but I had to ask him why he slagged Canada's defining arts moment.

"It's not criticism of the Massey Commission, per se. It's about how (arts organizations) have become laissez-faire, not bothering to adapt to where the culture is moving. You can hardly blame [the public and private sectors] for not getting excited about art in Canada if art in Canada is not very excited about itself."

There are dozens of reasons why this happened, from entertainment overload and apocalyptic daze to elitist language and other snobberies. But they are all symptoms of a disease called declining relevancy.

It's possible to pinpoint when that bug took hold. In 1992 the federal government set up the Canadian Council of the Status of the Artist, an intra-government lobbying group that oversaw organizations like the Canada Council for the Arts. In 2003 the council was eviscerated and then consumed by the Canadian Artists and Professional Relations Tribunal, whose name alone tells you all you need to know about its pay-to-play mandate.

By 2010 the Status of the Artist council was gone, with not a whimper from arts organizations who had just lost their best friend in government. Actually the Canadian Conference of the Arts did do something; it commissioned a $14,000 study on the issue that concluded the government's decision was bad. Artists never heard about the demise. They didn't even know the names of the players because they were too consumed with how their incomes had dropped about 40 per cent during the previous decade.

It was an opportunity for arts administrators to man the barricades screaming about legitimacy, integrity and human rights. It was an opportunity missed. 

This brings me back to Melanson. I asked him if the arts had lost relevance in our country. He laughed gently and, in a very nice way, told me the question was naive. "[The arts] will always be relevant," said the former head of Canada's National Ballet School.

Canadians will always create art, some of it spectacular, some pedestrian, much like all human expression during the past 78,000 years, when homo sapiens first spat dye at cave walls. The not-naive questions are a) whether arts in the future will only be made by hobbyists, with a few exceptions, and b) whether that's a bad thing.

This not an issue for most young artists because they have no expectation of getting money from any organization, and they're using technology and collaboration to fill the gap. Stagnation is centred in older demographics -- the ones who actually pay dues to arts associations -- where the starving-yet-brilliant-artist-in-a-garret stereotype is understood as a fantasy yet remains idolized for its very iconography: if I sculpt it, they will come. No one in this cohort actually starves.

Melanson feels the attitude needs disassembling because our culture has become completely focussed on building trickle-down consumption opportunities at the expense of offering education and generating excitement.

"The willingness of arts associations to try something different that might fail is almost non-existent. They aren't aspirational, and there is no reason for them to exist if they aren't." That's why he wants to see a private-sector think tank in Canada, similar to ones in the United States and United Kingdom, that can create "navigational abilities for the uninitiated." 

More bluntly, creators need to work very hard to prove arts' social value, something they have abrogated during a retreat to defensively competitive silos. Unfortunately the vast majority of them don't want to talk about it, not because they can't, rather because they think it isn't part of their job description: my art is all the value necessary. 

Right now the arts are a rudderless ship. We need heroes -- in the way that environmentalism has David Suzuki, a lateral thinker and risk taker who's almost repulsed by the status quo. 

Someone who understands the lobbying process well enough to the pick low-hanging fruit of no-cost benefits: like pensions for artists and the same consumption tax breaks for individuals that corporations enjoy. Someone with a chance to make artists understand that much of the private sector can be a resource rather than an enemy. And someone who can integrate the incredible energy of all creative communities, like immigrants. (There are as few as three immigrant-arts organization in the entire country.)

I suggested to Melanson that he'd be great as this leader, but he laughed at that too. 

Media love linking the arts to people's desire to be part of something bigger, without explaining what that bigger life actually looks like. Theatre and music and painting and sculpture are supposed help society glimpse that life. But dialogue within the arts has become very small, about who gets what slice of the pie, and from whom.

Establishing relevancy can be so much greasy marketing speak, yet no one is helping artists understand how to get traction. The problem with the arts in Canada lies in its administrators, the ones who are publicly funded, scared to death of losing what they've got and therefore unwilling to take any risks.


Mike Levin has written about the arts, culture and business for international newspapers and magazines during the past 35 years. He currently works as a freelance writer in Ottawa and publishes the arts blog

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