Closed doors, a secret report and a mystery advisory panel - all ingredients for a mess of mistrust surrounding changes at the Canada Council for the Arts. The wariness comes courtesy of a set of proposals that would make grants to artists contingent on exhibitions and drain funds from emerging and mid-career artists to pay big bucks to more established ones.
If this plan is implemented, Canadian artists should pay close attention to the lesson: government grants are there to reward those the market has already favoured, not the merits of those the market does not know.
To see the problem, take a look at the revised meat chart. If the proposals go forward, visual artists launching their first solo show will only be eligible for a $5,000 grant - a long way from the up to $9,000 currently available for those in the comparable emerging artist category. (In 2003, the last figures available, many more artists received funding in the visual arts section at the $9,000 range than lesser amounts.)
In the mid-career category (called exhibition grants in the new plan), cash grants will plummet from a maximum of $25,000 to $10,000. Importantly, funding for both these groupings will now be linked to career "key moments," that is, exhibition commitments from established venues.
That brings us to "mature artists with outstanding track records." Grants here used to range from $3,000 to $34,000 (2003 figures suggest the majority received the maximum), but now, 15 established artists each year will have their funding upped to $150,000 over three years.
Hence, in the proposed plan, out of the thousands of applicants, 15 artists will receive 64 per cent of the funder's total budget ($3.5 million), leaving the remaining applicants to scramble for the remaining 36 per cent.
Since a majority of artists and arts organizations have rejected this plan, the Council has now apparently gone on the defensive. François Lachapelle, head of the visual arts section, published a brief letter at the end of January 2005 indicating that the concerns of the arts community would be addressed, though he doesn't say how.
He suggests there was more concern about funding being tied to exhibitions than about the drastic cuts to grants for emerging and mid-career artists. In this ambiguous situation, and behind closed doors, the proposals went before an advisory panel of six arts professionals due to report by March 15. No one at the Council will say who these people are or what the final plan looks like, other than to say that whatever it is, it will be in place by fall.
According to Council spokesperson Donna Balkan, "The proposals have been revised, but I can't talk about the details of the revisions because the new plan hasn't been approved by the board yet. I don't even know myself who is on the committee."
Remember, the Council's funding has not increased over the years to keep up with inflation - but how does cutting developing artists' funding remedy this? One board member told me "sustainability" was the buzzword in discussions. But the two grants that individual artists can receive in four years could hardly sustain anyone at the old rates, let alone the proposed chopped ones.
Then there's the question of what one person at the Council called the "strategic impact" of changing the ratio of grants. According to Balkan, the Council wants to focus on "breakthrough" artists like Janet Cardiff.
While I agree that Cardiff is doing excellent work and deserves support, in the context of the proposed changes her selection raises some disturbing questions. Will we let an international system of biennales determine Canadian cultural value rather than Canadians themselves? Is an artistic criterion being established that equates technological progress with cultural value?
Cardiff's most celebrated creation, Forty-Part Motet, is a work of sound sculpture that surrounds the listener with 40 speakers, each one channelling a separate voice in a choral piece. While the idea is innovative, it's hard to ignore the technological emphasis of the piece. Apparently, one of the rationales for the drastic reallocation of funding to "senior" artists is the high cost of producing pieces like Cardiff's. This is art on the scale promoted by the international system in which countries send their representatives for collective mega-exhibitions.
Here, full-room "installations" of live nude female models or live tropical butterflies, à la Vanessa Beecroft, Matthew Barney or Damien Hirst, can easily cost tens of thousands of dollars to produce. How can Canadian artists, with a current meagre $34,000 in the senior category, "compete" with those who can mount works of such magnitude?
While gigantism and expensive technologies are all the rage at large exhibits, it's unclear how promoting Canada as a "global competitor" in the culture wars will benefit anyone here at home. Perhaps the idea is to garner established artists a higher profile and thereby raise the status of the discipline nationwide, hoping this will "trickle down" to the rest of us. But this is hypothetical. It's the young and less privileged artists who will suffer the financial brunt of the experiment.
If we acknowledge art as not only a contemporary process but also an historical one, then we should beware of making it too dependent on our newborn country's present cultural institutions. To tie artists' practices too closely to yearly public exhibition runs the risk of alienating artistic processes that are future-oriented and mature slowly over a long period outside of the hustle and bustle of the mainstream.
Overemphasizing "key moments" like exhibitions in "established" venues may stifle innovation. One need only look at the burgeoning universe of digital and Internet art to find innovations that originated completely outside the traditional gallery context.
The Council has been given an incredibly difficult task: how to make judgments of quality without creating a new dogma or arbitrary set of rules and categories. If you want to help ensure a more equitable grant system, send the Council's board of directors a message.