Letter to Canada Council from Arlene Goldbard

In our series of posts expressing concern about the Canada Council's proposed policies, we share the letters, thoughts and opinions of our colleagues and supporters on this important issue. 


24 October 2016

Simon Brault, Director and CEO
Canada Council for the Arts

Dear Simon: I hope you will recall our having met in Toronto several years ago, when we both offered keynotes for the Staging Sustainability conference sponsored by York University. At that time, I spoke of the importance of participatory arts work in cultivating awareness leading to action with respect to climate crisis and other environmental challenges. As we have learned from cognitive science and other fields of study, how people frame and feel about something—the stories we tell ourselves to give shape to experience—shapes not only our understanding, but our actions.

I’m writing today in my official capacity as Chief Policy Wonk of the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture, a grassroots action network inciting creativity and social imagination to shape a culture of empathy, equity, and belonging. Although the United States is our purview, we also work with international allies sharing our commitment to democratic cultural policy. I feel an especial closeness with our colleagues in Canada, as I have the honor of serving as an advisor to the ASC! Project, conducting SSHRC-funded research into the scope and efficacy of Art for Social Change, with projects based at six Canadian universities. The ASC! Project is bringing rigorous research methods to the challenge of describing the scope, character, values, skills, and impact of this dynamic field of arts practice, creating resources for practitioners, scholars, and policymakers alike.

The fact that there is no designated heading for what was formerly supported through the Artists and Communities Collaborative Program and similar initiatives is disturbing, as it fails to give this work its proper place in the Canadian cultural landscape as a distinct field of practice and study with a unique character.

I would like you to know that along with many U.S.-based colleagues involved in communityengaged/art for social change, I am alarmed at the impact the Canada Council’s incipient New Funding Model will have on the well-being of this field. The fact that there is no designated heading for what was formerly supported through the Artists and Communities Collaborative Program and similar initiatives is disturbing, as it fails to give this work its proper place in the Canadian cultural landscape as a distinct field of practice and study with a unique character. 

Treating community-engaged art as a subset of other disciplines in The Canada Council’s New Funding Model (i.e., requiring applicants to designate a primary Artistic Field of Practice, such as dance or music, and then compete with conventional one-discipline non-collaborative projects) makes a strong cultural policy statement implicitly belittling this important arts practice. It also makes very little practical sense in a world in which so many artists have all but abandoned the conventional arts discipline categories for an infinitely richer freedom to create.

In support of our Canadian colleagues, on behalf of the USDAC, I urge you to designate community-engaged art/art for social change as a primary Artistic Field of Practice, granting it the same status as other fields, with the same clear articulations of its guiding principles, objectives, criteria, and ethical considerations. A fair share of resources should be allocated to the work, using the same careful peer assessment processes deployed in judging art for social change as in other fields of practice.

With the ASC! project and other notable developments in Canadian art for social change, increasing attention is being directed to the community-engaged and participatory, collaborative arts work of your nation. Surely it would be far preferable if the result were to be kudos for undertaking a slight redesign of your New Funding Model to embody the true nature and importance of this work within the national arts landscape rather than disapprobation for policy decisions that effectively disparage this work.

I’d be glad to discuss this, so please feel free to ask for any further information needed.


Sincerely,

Arlene Goldbard
Chief Policy Wonk