The incident is a much needed wake up call for Canada’s artistic scene, which has existed for too long under the blissful assumption that public funding of the arts is a right rather then a blessing.
The funding of the arts is in the news again following Heritage Canada’s decision not to renew funding for Toronto’s Summerworks festival. Artists are seeing it as another nail in the public funding coffin while Jim Flaherty, the Minister of Finance, is asking everyone to remember that no one should ever assume they are entitled to a grant. The CAEA has condemned these remarks as an “ideological” attack on the arts. Meanwhile, the battered Summerworks Festival are preparing to scrape by even as other Canadian theatres, festivals and artists have become fearful that their own grants are in jeopardy.
The incident is a much needed wake up call for Canada’s artistic scene, which has existed for too long under the blissful assumption that public funding of the arts is a right rather then a blessing. A government may promote freedom of speech, but it is foolhardy and dangerous to expect them to finance it. Nor should we want it to. When we expect our government to finance free speech, we should not be surprised when they begin to censor it.
Government funding, after all, is not a lottery where money is doled out to whoever gets their application in on time...
As a theatre producer I always graciously accepted public funds when they were offered, but I also relied on alternative sources of funding (usually my bar mitzvah money). While I agree that it is in society’s interest to promote a healthy cultural community, we should remember that a government is not accountable to the artist it funds but rather the society that artist works to entertain.
The public funding of cultural institutions has ensured that the perceived cultural value of a show, festival or individual project has precedent over its commercial appeal. While this means that artists can get financing for individual exploration – a process which does not even have to have a definitive end product – it also means that we have allowed our government to become the permanent overseers of what direction our culture should take. By relying so heavily on public funds, artists are giving the provincial and federal governments the sole ability to decide what productions, festivals and artists receive funding. Government funding, after all, is not a lottery where money is doled out to whoever gets their application in on time; it is decided by a jury who weigh the merits of a proposal against its impact for both the artist and the culture at large.
In asking our government to fund festivals devoted to new works, such as Summerworks, we run the risk of them deciding they have a right to an opinion about what new works that festival chooses to promote (whether or not they do is debatable). Such was the problem Summerworks ran into last year when they accepted the play Homegrown, a work that detailed the friendship between playwright Catherine Frid and the so-called Toronto 18 (who were convicted of terrorist activities in 2006). Lots of editorial space was spent asking if taxpayer dollars should be used to fund a play that, in the opinions of the play’s detractors, “glorified terrorism” (some are convinced that the cuts are the climax to this controversy)
What this means for the future of Canadian art is unclear: no doubt, all of us are in for a rocky road.
Having never seen Homegrown, I can’t comment on the controversy surrounding it; however I can say that regardless of its political slant, it is the perfect example of why theatre cannot and should not ever rely solely on public funding. Yes, it is in the public interest to promote culture but it is also in the public interest for us to have artists who do not rely solely on public funds to do so. Public funding of the arts is always politically motivated - few governments enjoy promoting cultural expression that may be anathema to its own goals.
What this means for the future of Canadian art is unclear: no doubt, all of us are in for a rocky road. But hopefully the end will justify the journey; hopefully some day, a play like Homegrown will be debated for its merits and not on the question on who was footing the bill.