The Arts After Society

Shrinking public funds pose challenges for the next generation of creative Canadians

by Gregory Beatty

On Sept. 25, Saskatoon author Guy Vanderhaeghe receives the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Lt. Governor’s Arts Awards in Regina. It’s a pretty big damn deal, though Vanderhaeghe shares some trepidation. “Sometimes these awards seem like double-edged swords,” Vanderhaeghe told me in a phone interview after the announcement was made. “It may suggest I’m being delivered a message that it’s time to quit, I don’t know. But it’s a recognition of what’s now approaching 40 years of work.”

Born in Esterhazy in 1951, Vanderhaeghe is a two-time winner of the Governor General’s Literary Award for his 1982 short story collection A Man Descending and his historical novel, The Englishman’s Boy, in 1996. His most recent book, A Good Man, was short-listed for the 2011 Giller Prize. So he obviously isn’t ready to be put out to pasture yet. But as it does for all of us eventually, time is catching up with him.

It’s also catching up to and changing the world he developed in.

As an artist, Vanderhaeghe came of age during an era when governments at the municipal, provincial and federal level were all keen to develop Canadian artistic talent as an expression of our national identity. They were exciting times.

“There’s a generation of artists who were in the first wave of establishing all sorts of organizations like the Saskatchewan Writers Guild, CARFAC, theatres, artist-run centres, festivals and other things,” says Vanderhaeghe. “They’re getting on in years and can’t possibly sustain their involvement.”

Again, this isn’t to suggest that these pioneers are a spent force. But the generation that built much of the arts infrastructure in Saskatchewan in the 1960s and ’70s is aging, and there’s a sense of the torch being passed to the next generation.

That presents both opportunities and problems, says Vanderhaeghe.

“As the arts professionalize, I think there’s a struggle to maintain the position and actually advance it. That’s the question that a new generation of artists has to face.”

That’s not necessarily going so well. Citing recent actions like the province killing the Film Employment Tax Credit and the University of Saskatchewan closing its Emma Lake campus as a cost-cutting measure, Vanderhaeghe says there’s no guarantee the position of the arts in society will improve.

“It’s not all onward and upward by any stretch,” he says. “In the case of Emma Lake, that’s something that fostered a generation of artists through workshops and the ability to  meet communally to discuss artistic questions. And the loss of the tax credit is obviously a big backward step for the filmmaking community.”

While Vanderhaeghe, like any reasonable person who likes the arts, sees value in preserving organizations that were important in the development of his generation of artists, like the Arts Board and Writers Guild, he recognizes that younger artists may want to establish their own organization and conduct their practices differently. And that’s okay too.

“You see that here in Saskatoon in the theatre community,” he says. “That’s ultimately good. But one problem is acquiring the resources to make these things viable.”

THE ARTIST AS ENTREPRENEUR

Carrie Catherine in one example. A musician based in Saskatoon, she’s mother to two youngsters. Because of her responsibilities at home, she can’t tour. She is still performing, however — this spring she collaborated with Kelley Jo Burke on a one-woman play called Somewhere Saskatchewan.

Along with her husband Curtis Olson, she’s also co-owner of Two Twenty — an office and event space run out of a converted grocery store.

“We needed work space,” she says of their decision to open Two Twenty. “We’d seen centres in other cities like 401 Richmond in Toronto. They all had one thing in common — a lot of like-minded people working in close proximity. We wanted to be surrounded by people who were friends that we were working with constantly. As we talked about it and traveled more and saw different versions of that idea, we refined our concept.”

So far, it’s going well.

“It’s exceeded expectations. We knew it would be convenient and that it made sense to share certain resources. But we didn’t expect the degree of collaboration that’s going on. What we’re finding is that a lot of the people at Two Twenty are working together and their businesses are growing quite quickly.”

“Most of the tenants fall under the umbrella of creative industries.

“We built Two Twenty for businesses that can grow and increase in capacity,” Catherine says. “Beyond that, we’re increasing our staff. We have a community manager now whose sole focus is creating professional development opportunities.”

Adding to the dynamic energy is a 1300 sq ft. event space and coffee shop that are open to the public.

“It’s so rewarding to have people come into the community, use our spaces and start meeting people and experience a bit of the vibe,” says Catherine. “We’re there every day so we know what it feels like, and to know that it translates to passersby is really neat.”

EVOLUTION AND DEVOLUTION

Jennifer Matotek says change is also in the wind at public arts institutions. Matotek is a lifelong Ontario resident who recently moved to Regina to become the director of the Regina Public Library’s hallowed Dunlop Art Gallery.

There’s a lot happening with libraries these days. Matotek has seen it happen before.

“The crisis that libraries are going through now is pretty much identical to what museums went through 15 years ago,” says Matotek. “I think of it as a crisis of objects, and of the institution in general. For awhile the museum was just about the art and not really about the public. With libraries, it just used to be about the books and now it’s not. So it’s all about how you stay relevant to people.”

Before assuming her new post, Matotek was the Toronto International Film Festival’s senior coordinator of exhibitions. A practicing artist with a masters in business administration, she has worked at several high-profile Ontario galleries — including Toronto’s Power Plant and the Art Gallery of Hamilton.

“Collaboration and partnership are things I’m really interested in,” says Matotek. “Especially in a time when resources are limited, the more people can come together to make things happen [the better].”

Back in the mid-’90s, when Saskatchewan — and Canada as a whole — was facing tough economic times thanks in large part to a global recession, public funding for the arts was cut dramatically.

Funding increases since haven’t even kept pace with inflation, partly due  to our national aspirations changing. We used to care about building a proud society. Today it’s all about the economy, which often seems little more than a resource-fueled engine of wealth disparity.

The amount of arts activity in our society, meanwhile, has mushroomed. There’s more people making more art with more technology and tools than have ever been available.

The end result, says Vanderhaeghe, is that the funding pie gets cut into ever-smaller slices.

“That’s not an argument for not embracing new art forms [or artists], it’s an argument for ensuring that when they develop, the support — in some measure — increases as well.”

So where does the money come from? How about patronage from the businesses and billionaires who’ve been the biggest beneficiaries of Canada’s corporate über alles ideology?

Matotek phrases it a little more constructively.

“There’s broad recognition in the museum world that we need to start looking for private and corporate support,” says Matotek. “That seems to be the future, to have a balance between public and private funding.”

Fresh from her experience with TIFF and Power Plant, Matotek understands the value of a vibrant arts community.

“In Toronto, arts and culture definitely have an economic function — that’s something that people don’t necessarily think of,” she says. “They see it as a drain, but the evidence is there.

“But economics aside, the arts are a hugely important thing to have in your society and in your daily life.”

Vanderhaeghe recognizes that the arts are an important economic driver, but he‘s wary of defining their value strictly in those terms.

Still, he does think the arts community could do a better job of pressing its case with government and other funders.

“Artists have to be pragmatic. They have to understand that everyone lobbies. And effective lobbying is a way of getting things done,” says Vanderhaeghe.

“I’m not talking about diminishing artistic standards or freedom of expression — that’s inviolable. But I do think artists could be better lobbyists than they often are,” he says.

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Mapping Art

Will a three-year study reveal the mysteries of artists?

The arts have never occupied a central role in our society. That’s part of their magic, really. By operating on the periphery, artists are able to distance themselves from mainstream fads and fashions. That, in turn, permits them to develop a critical perspective that distinguishes great art from more spectacle-driven entertainment, like blockbuster movies (or even sports).

But while distance is vital to this process, it does pose a challenge when artists interact, as they inevitably must, with broader society.

How do you communicate with people and agencies that don’t share your passion for art as a major source of meaning and joy in life?

Well, the first step is to ensure you understand yourselves. That’s one goal behind a three-year study that the Saskatchewan Partnership For Arts Research (SPAR) is about to embark on with a $200,000 grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

The study involves the Saskatchewan Arts Alliance, Saskatchewan Arts Board, SaskCulture and the University of Regina, and is being headed by Mary Blackstone. The first component, an artist survey, is set for October.

“The primary purpose is to understand the kind of interconnections that make an artist’s creative process as productive as it can be,” says Blackstone. “That includes the way they interact with other artists, arts organizations, venues, additional employment to provide supplementary income, and other things they need to maximize their potential.”

The second component, a survey of the general population, is scheduled for February. “We want to get a sense of how people in Saskatchewan perceive artists and how they see them fitting into and contributing to the health of their community,” says Blackstone.

The SPAR team includes researchers with backgrounds in fine arts, sociology, human justice, kinesiology and health studies, geography and economics. That reflects the wide impact the arts have in our society.

Once the surveys are done and the data analyzed, focus groups will be held and case studies generated to better understand the province’s arts ecology. That in turn will help artists and arts organization in their dealings with government, business and other potential partners.

To ensure that the SPAR team gathers the best information it can, says Blackstone, it’s essential for artists to engage with the study.

“It’s important for artists to sign up on the Arts Alliance’s registry. And if they are contacted as part of the survey, please respond. It will take a bit of time, but it’ll potentially be very valuable.” /Gregory Beatty

2013-09-19