Thursday, September 25, 2008

"Entitlement," Priorities and Lies

[Forgive me while I get political, but damn it, music is art, and I'm firmly of the belief that art and culture positively and concretely benefit society, and when my society is being led by by a man whose relationship with the arts is best described as "openly hostile," I get upset. Harper is in a position to benefit from the cache of Canadian culture abroad, a status earned by artists, musicians, writers and thinkers who have themselves been helped along by Federal funding, and when those artists are denied that help, and such cultural products begin to dry up, both Canadian standing in the world, and Canadians' sense of themselves are bound to suffer. I'll be back later with non-political words dedicated to my profile of Noah Howard airing tonight on CKCU.]

Much bluster today after PM Harper's denigration of the arts (sorry, the Arts), claiming that ordinary folks don't give a fig about spoiled artists, who are themselves too busy attending galas and, presumably, shining their diamonds to actually listen to what real, honest-to-God, salt-of-the-Earth, everyday Canadians really want to see/hear/think about.

It's a shrewd political move, of course, as the number of citizens working in the arts and likely to vote Conservative anyway would probably fit in my living room, but at its heart it is a divisive and damaging position to take, an alignment with the American notion of culture warfare and anti-elitism. An avalanche of pro-art, anti-Harper articles have appeared today (did you read the Globe?), and it's hard for me to find fault with any of them. But almost to a one, they all emphasize The Power of Art, to borrow from Simon Schama, and that is well and good. But it's also a case of preaching to the choir; an op-ed piece by Margaret Atwood isn't likely to suddenly convince anyone heretofore suspicious of arts funding that their lives have been enriched by Canadian artists. But a blog post by MK Piatkowski, artistic director of the One Big Umbrella theatre company, does just what's required: turns the economic argument back on the Conservatives and those aligned against arts funding. Piatkowski invites readers to use her argument wholesale, cut'n paste style, and I'll do just that. Read it, absorb it, and please, keep it in mind when you vote:

The problem is that the government has obscured what the eliminated programs actually did. The cuts were to eliminate programs that provided industry support - training programs for cultural workers, research and development programs, seed money and venture capital programs. All supports to promote work internationally have been eliminated.

Most artists are small businesses. Small business don't have the resources to leverage expansion on their own when they're first expanding their markets. That's why there are government assistance programs. Bank loans are impossible to come by because banks won't fund artistic ventures because the way it is sold doesn't fit into their cost/benefit analysis. There are no venture capital funds for arts, unless you're writing a Broadway music or making a Disney film. So we look to the government to provide assistance, as do other industries.

Again, it's the specific programs that were eliminated that were the problem. We understand it's a tight economy, but we also understand that right now is a growth period for our industry internationally as there is a much higher demand for entertainment product. These cuts will stop the forward growth we've been experiencing. Remember, Canada is a small market. To develop alternative funding sources, we need to expand. And there was no discussion with the industry about how we were going to move forward before the programs were canceled.

But instead of actually talking about what these programs did, the government chose a few grants to people they didn't like and used it to paint the programs as wasteful and unnecessary and to rile up their base of supporters against supposed "elitist art". And now Mr. Harper drops a comment that implies that artists are rich off government funding, completely ignoring the convenient fact that the majority of artists live at or below the poverty line and the successful ones live a middle-class lifestyle, with only the rare, odd exception.

There's also a misconception out there that the government funds the projects 100% and that it's easy money. No proposal to any government program that looks for more than 40% funding gets accepted. And there's a whole competitive process to go through with no guarantee of seeing money at the end. I've blogged about the process if you're curious.

And btw, the C-10 fallout has made it much more difficult for films to find investors because there is no trust that the government will honour their commitment. You see, the dirty secret of arts funding is that private investors will not commit until they see the government has. This is how they secure their investment.

The point is, artists are average Canadians too. We work hard to create something of value for society. We're just asking for our industry to be treated like the important economic engine it is.

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