Letter to Canada Council by Judith Marcuse

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. 


2 November 2016

Dear members of the Board of Directors of the Canada Council for the Arts,

I am writing to you to express concerns, shared across the country, about the Council’s proposed policies and perspectives vis-à-vis the work of over 200 organizations and many more independent artists in Canada working in the field of community-engaged arts/arts for social change (ASC).

To clarify one significant aspect of these concerns, individuals and organizations will now be asked to self-identify in one more fields of practice as a first step in applications for funding. These fields include circus arts, disability arts, theatre, dance, visual arts, music, etc. Community-engaged arts do not appear in this list. Nowhere on the Council’s website is there any mention of this worldwide practice in which art, in all its forms, is co-created with community members in a spirit of shared ownership and responsibility, led by a professional and trained artist or group of artists, often in partnership with communitybased organizations. In the Council’s new Funding Model, all references to “community engagement” define communities exclusively as potential audience members. The site explicitly articulates the Council’s support for professional artists who will attract diverse audiences to enjoy and appreciate the work that the artists create.

The Council says that "this new suite of non-disciplinary and outcome-based programs have objectives and assessment criteria that are common for all art forms." However, community-engaged arts operate under fundamentally different objectives and assessment criteria. Anyone who sees the new website will have to assume that either the Canada Council is completely unaware of, or is dismissive of, community-engaged arts practices; the field has been erased from the website although it is established with a distinct history going back some 50 years, and expanding rapidly in every corner of our country as well as globally. It is considered a separate practice in most arts funding structures because it operates under its own objectives and assessment criteria, distinct from generating audiences and delivering work to them. There is no indication anywhere on the new website that community-engaged arts/ASC exists in Canada.

“Our colleagues in the global community are amazed that the Council has made these decisions despite the fact that many Canadian artists are acknowledged pioneers in the field and young, trained, professional artists around the world are growing the field exponentially.’”

In a recent email, Claude Schryer wrote that: “Community-engaged arts are considered as an established cross-cutting artistic practice that permeates all ‘fields of practices.’” This perception is accurate only to the extent that artists in this field work in a variety of art forms. Subsuming ASC within other categories virtually “disappears” it as a separate practice that is acknowledged worldwide and has had funding and extensive scholarly legitimacy as its own field for many decades. In the past, the Council had a dedicated and very small program called the Artists and Community Collaboration Fund (ACCP) which supported these forms of art work. The very low success rate of applicants (in one recent competition only five projects received funding) was a barrier for many to even consider applying. The Council has lagged behind both public/government and private sector funders, providing only 8% of funding for the sector in Canada. (I have attached a recent short report/overview about the field which may contain helpful information.)

Despite repeated and respectful attempts to continue dialogue (including a conference call that I moderated in July and my meeting with eight senior Council officials in Ottawa last month) our community has been told that the current policy will not be changed before the announcement of its new frameworks in December. Nor have very specific questions been addressed. Our field has been set back some 20 years in this current model.

A continuing national letter campaign has seen emails sent to Council officials from both Canadian and foreign colleagues. I have attached a letter from Arlene Goldbard, one of the world’s leading experts in the field (who created some of the earliest commentary about this work in books published by the Rockefeller Foundation), and who consults internationally. Our colleagues in the global community are amazed that the Council has made these decisions despite the fact that many Canadian artists are acknowledged pioneers in the field and young, trained, professional artists around the world are growing the field exponentially.

As someone who has received Council support for my work over some 50 years, has received a Council prize for that work, and has consulted for the Council in diverse contexts, I have profound respect for the organization. I believe, however, that its policy vis-à-vis our sector is deeply misguided.

I look forward to the possibility of productive exchange.

With best wishes,

Judith Marcuse, LL.D. (Hon.)
Artistic Producer, Judith Marcuse Projects|Founder
Co-Director, International Centre of Art for Social Change (ICASC)
Adjunct Professor/Artist in Residence, Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, BC | Senior Fellow, Ashoka International