A Case for Public Funding for the Arts

[What follows is a response to a post by playwright Daniel Karasik which lays out the conservative position against public funding of the arts in Canada. Karasik’s post was a response to a widely circulated open letter written on behalf of Canadian artists calling for politicians to put a greater emphasis on the arts in their plans for Canada’s future.

Karasik’s response is a lovely rhetorical device in which he adopts the position of (what I assume are) his ideological opponents on the issue, so as to aid artists in refining their pitch for greater public support. He mainly points out how the discussion around arts funding seems to mischaracterize the views of those who are opposed to greater public arts funding, which in turn makes artists’ arguments less convincing in the sense that they are being aimed at the wrong target.

In the spirit of Karasik’s post, I too am adopting the voice of a position I don’t (entirely) hold, as I tend to skew a bit more conservative than the usual arts advocates – or at least, more conservative than the sort of cartoonish, entrenched arts elites and undereducated young aspiring artists who tend to be the loudest advocates for the arts. My goal: to respond to the (fictional) conservative argument against public support using the language (actual) conservatives would understand.]

Dear Canadians and, in particular, Canadians who lean conservative and Conservative Party voters,

There’s been some recent discussion on the Internet about the value of public funding of the arts and why conservatives tend to oppose public support. It’s true that this is an issue that is poorly understood by a lot of Canadians and we’d like to take some time to clear the air and state our case for greater public support for the arts.

No, no, don’t get up. We promise this isn’t going to be a fire-breathing screed about the Conservative Party or a hail of snarky ad hominem attacks on conservative voters. Our goal is to build a consensus among all parties of the public value of the arts, so that would be counter-productive.

Let us begin by addressing your point that Canadians have not articulated a clear desire for strong support for the arts. While we may partially concede that Canadians are not (yet) taking to the streets demanding increased support for the arts, the record of Canadians interacting with domestic arts is pretty clear. Canadians are voracious consumers of arts products, including locally produced news, movies, television, books, documentaries, theatre, music, arts festivals, museums, and more.

Even within the political sphere, Canadians are electing local governments that are making record investments in local arts. Cuts to arts funding have started to spark movements to save the CBC, or protect the Nova Scotia film industry. We are getting the message out there and are starting to be heard.

We recognize that this alone may not be enough to completely justify public funding for the arts, but it clearly points to a great public desire for Canadian art and media.

Let’s take a moment here to clarify what we mean by the arts, because it’s a term that’s often confused and abused in order to satisfy whatever point the speaker wants to make. The arts as a whole is a huge sector, in which thousands of Canadians are employed in jobs that many people might not actually equate with “artists.” Given how the term is used, it seems to include everything from the lead tenor in the Canadian Opera Company to the person who built its website; it includes the CBC’s Republic of Doyle and The National, and the person who sells ads on both; it includes the Edmonton Fringe Festival and Toronto Pride (but we’ll be fair and *not* include the hotel staff who house the thousands of visitors who attend both); it includes Trailer Park Boys and Polka-Dot Door; it includes Macleans and Chatelaine and Oryx and Crake; it includes Degrassi and Drake and Celine Dion and Metric. It includes Porky’s and Air Bud and Air Bud: Seventh Inning Fetch and The Barbarian Invasions and the Les Boys franchise and everyone who worked in, promoted, and distributed those movies. It includes the AGO and the sculptor who leads a crafts workshop in your kids’ school. It includes high culture, pop culture, youth culture, minority culture, aspects of education, and some entirely private enterprises.

Public support for the arts comes in myriad forms, from direct grants to artists (which, by the way, are a much smaller amount of spending than you probably believe), to construction and maintenance of public arts infrastructure (e.g., theatres, opera houses, museums, libraries, a broadcast network, etc), to market-correcting regulations (e.g., Can-Con quotas, mandatory carriage, signal substitution), to publishing and distribution support for magazines, to operations grants to institutions, to tax credits to subsidize production/labour costs in the film/media industries.

We’d like to take a moment to stop and thank the public for all of this support so far. We probably don’t say that enough, but we really do appreciate all of these forms of support. It’s no excuse, but to explain, we work very hard and most of us have precarious incomes, and sometimes it slips our minds to just acknowledge how lucky and grateful we are for the help.

Despite this, contrary to the typical image presented of us, we certainly don’t feel entitled to your money, nor do we feel we are owed any special treatment compared to you. We certainly don’t expect to receive a public income and the adoration of millions of Canadians simply because we’ve picked up a paintbrush or walked on a stage and called ourselves artists.

We understand you work hard, and you value your tax dollars. So do we, by the way! Most of us work multiple jobs and pay taxes, despite the “starving artist” stereotype. We, like you, want to make sure our tax dollars are well spent.

We believe, as most people do, in individual liberty, in freedom of choice, and freedom of enterprise (we’re all entrepreneurs, at least at some point in our careers). We believe that government resources are best used towards two main general purposes:

  • Creating public goods that are enjoyed by the general public, but which would not be efficiently or equitably produced by the private market. Roads, hospitals, parks, schools, police, defence, and water works are the classic examples here.
  • Mitigating the tyranny of market forces that may limit consumer options or create unwanted outcomes. Anti-trust laws, tariffs, environmental regulations, etc.

When we talk about public funding for the arts, we are generally talking about programs that satisfy one or both of the above criteria.

While it’s true that art can be a private good (in that it is most enjoyed by the individual person who is being entertained by it, whether they’re a concert ticket holder or the person reading a novel), it has aspects of public importance. Art – the telling of Canadian stories – helps shape the public notion of what Canada is in very real ways. It tells us who we are as a nation by reflecting our commonalities and differences. In very real ways, it helps us experience aspects of our shared Canadian life that we individually are unlikely to see or experience directly. Millions of people who’ll never set foot on Newfoundland learned about it by watching Republic of Doyle; millions more got a window into Canada’s minority communities by watching Da Kink in My Hair, Kim’s Convenience, and Steven & Chris. Millions of Canadians formed a common bond through their earliest years by reading the books of Robert Munch, or by watching educational shows like Mr. Dressup or Téléfrançais. Canadians in my age group have a common musical frame of reference thanks to Our Lady Peace, Chris Sheppard, Maestro, and I Mother Earth videos on MuchMusic.

This is how I learned that Newfoundlanders are dreamy.

There is a value to forming these common bonds with each other, to knowing what our identity is. There is also a value in showing our fellow Canadians that creativity and talent is valued here – it encourages all of us to be creative, entrepreneurial, and take risks. These are the building blocks for a successful society.

Beyond our shores, Canadian art also has the benefit of telling the rest of the world who we are. The success of our authors, actors, comedians, painters, musicians, etc., tells the world a lot about Canada. The artworks themselves often paint a picture or tell a story about Canadian life, certainly. But perhaps even more important is that they let the world know that Canada is a place where work like this gets made. Where people are free to be expressive, to take risks, to perform, to be creative – and where people are educated or nurtured or predisposed to be talented and entertaining. That Canada enjoys this reputation is a great source of pride for Canadians.

If we can take a moment to speak in more mercenary terms, this is also a great tool for Canada. Our public identity as an exciting, inspiring place is part of what attracts thousands of tourists and immigrants to come here. It attracts business investment from people who see value in a creative nation, and who want to be part of the action. On a more instrumental level, this strong and positive sense of our identity in the world is a kind of soft power that can be used to help achieve our diplomatic goals.

If Canadians can do this, we can do anything. (From Cirque Du Soleil, TOTEM)

But like we said, it’s not enough to simply say that art is desirable. We see value in public support for the arts because we truly believe that we would not have the art scene we do without that public support.

Now, we’re not speaking in apocalyptic terms here. Artists aren’t going to stop writing or painting just because the grants dry up – after all, the vast, vast majority of artists don’t receive direct public support but keep on working away. What public support does is help create the critical mass of art that creates the shared Canadian experience that we value.

Essentially, we’re arguing that market forces do not and cannot produce a large quantity of Canadian art. This is true for a number of key reasons:

  1. Canada is enormous geographically yet a rather small market, population-wise. This makes distribution and touring of art prohibitively expensive for most ventures. It also makes it difficult to spread the cost of creating expensive pieces of art, like a television show or film, across a large number of patrons.
  2. Canada sits next to the enormous US market that dumps its cultural products here for much less than the cost to produce them (private Americans can afford to invest more in arts enterprises because their large, highly concentrated market affords greater rewards for big risks).
    1. While the US market also poses as an opportunity for Canadian artists to see additional income and exposure, it is effectively closed to most artists because of its highly concentrated market structure in many fields (i.e., media concentration), and because of poor labour mobility across the border.
  3. Sharply rising real estate costs in our largest cities are making it very difficult to open and maintain cultural venues in our largest markets, while charging rates that are consistent with what patrons can afford and are willing to pay.

You’ll notice that nowhere do we disdain market forces for tending to lower the quality of art through their bias toward popular or “low” tastes. We’re suspicious of elitist arguments like that. We value the work of all our fellow artists and the tastes of all audiences. Moreover, history has shown over and over that pop culture is one of the most important binding forces of a society, and that it often stands the test of time better than “high” culture that has a more limited appeal. In fact, believe it or not, most of us are very concerned with what market forces are telling us that audiences want, and market metrics help us gauge how well we’re reaching our audiences.

Public support helps mitigate these market forces that would tend to keep us from getting our work out at all. Some are relatively low-cost, like Can-con regulations on radio and television – these regulations help ensure that there will be a demand in the distribution network for Canadian art, and consequently that Canadians will have the ability to find Canadian art. We can see how these regulations have worked, because Canadian radio and television are full of original Canadian content; on the other hand, Canada has never instituted cinema quotas like European countries did, and now the English Canadian film industry is virtually invisible in cinemas.

Other policies – such as building and maintaining venues, grants to artists and companies, and tax credits for cultural production – are admittedly more expensive, but they have proven just as necessary to get Canadian art produced and distributed to Canadians. Virtually every artist who has earned mainstream success in Canada – even Canadians who have achieved such success abroad – has done so with the direct or indirect support of public funding along the way.

We want to emphasize again that we don’t feel entitled to this support, or for support to continue in the same way forever over time. As our patron, we expect you, the public, to evaluate your options and needs from time to time and adjust your types of support with changing times and necessities.

Heck, most artists could give you an earful about how they’d like to see the granting and support systems changed and evolved. Maybe conservatives are right that the CBC distorts the television market by competing with the private sector for advertisers – perhaps a solution would involve eliminating ads entirely so it can focus solely on a public service mandate? Or maybe it’s time for the CBC to get out of broadcasting altogether and focus on content creation and delivery along a lines of a (free) Netflix-like service? We’d certainly like to see the CBC take more risks with its dramatic programming.

Some would really like to see the granting system refocused on emerging and early-career artists and minority artists, rather than on the established artists and organizations who seem to dominate the results lists, as these organizations are better placed to find other patrons and revenue streams. Some artists are very strongly critical of the support that seems to go to well connected (and well paid) people at large arts organizations like Luminato, when smaller arts organizations go wanting. And you know, sometimes the public spends huge sums of money building big cultural venues of dubious value that are wholly inappropriate to the community needs (the Sony Centre in Toronto is a good example) – that sort of thing should really be addressed.

At least one politician has proposed creating a complicated tax scheme that would make life a little easier for some artists at great public cost and at the risk of creating exactly the type of entitlement that we have been telling you we don’t really believe in.

The important thing is that we want you, the public, to understand that the actions your government takes with regard to arts funding have actual consequences on the things you enjoy. We would like to see parties come forward not only with plans to spend less or spend more, but with a positive agenda for the arts – because there is something of value there that Canadians want to see nurtured and shared with their fellow citizens and with the rest of the world, and there is an important role for government to fill.

How would your government help improve all Canadians’ access to Canadian stories and art? What can be done to increase the presence of minority, youth, and Aboriginal arts in the Canadian cultural landscape? How would your government improve access for Canadian artists into foreign markets? How would you help artists develop more secure incomes? How would you help develop more Canadian talent?

Thanks for your time and support. We look forward to hearing your plans.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *