Ivan Habel speaks at the Arts Summit

I’ll start by clearly identifying myself as a non-expert.  I claim no special training or even any particular exceptional skills with respect to advocacy. I leave that to others. What I can claim is a few years of experience lobbying, begging, prodding or screaming for support for the arts which I believe is or should be a pillar of any reasonable society.

I should also, given the current sport climate draw a parallel to the world cup, advocacy like soccer may have room for the star striker, but it should brook no patience for the likes of behaviour exhibited by team France. That is to say that it should fundamentally be a team sport.  Let’s stick with the sport analogy for a minute, most team sports, the successful ones anyway, have leaders or stars which elevate them to championship levels.  The stars however universally depend on the support of their team mates without whom they would not be able to shine. 

Anyway - Now let’s talk about us.  As I said at the very beginning, I’m not here as an expert, just as a member of our community to share my views and experience. I hope to spark a little debate, some agreement and perhaps some strong dissent.  Continuous discussion, debate and the focusing of needs and priorities should I believe help lead us to a more concentrated and considered approach to advocate for the needs of our communities and ourselves.   I will qualify too that when I speak about advocacy today I will be focusing on advocacy toward government for funding support. There is of course an important part of what we do when advocating for our industry that is not directed at government. That is the work we do to build support in our communities, with foundations and with corporate partners. That discussion is for another day. Today it’s about government and particularly our provincial government.

The arts community has felt under siege or at least under-supported for a number of years.  Some, perhaps most, of us began to feel some relief as the Olympics approached and the government added us to their priorities, only to feel betrayed as the first line of expendables once the economy headed south.  The Olympics remained a spending priority - from some points of view necessarily so, from other points wastefully so.  Indeed part of the spending did benefit some organizations, at least with short term cash influx, as they were included in Olympic related activity.  That provides evidence for government that they were good to a broad community including the arts.  Strange how evidence can sometimes, like advocacy, have a point of view.  It is exactly this, that there must be a point of view for advocacy which must be explored in order to foster unity while not losing the individuality of our efforts.  For example while doing nothing to advance the interests of a small company like Green Thumb; I none the less support the goals for the Art Gallery in trying to obtain their complete vision in developing a new site. I however support it with some trepidation, as I believe that if successful, that one project will pull so much focus on the capital spending of government, that small organizations like mine stand little chance of notice.  Should I as a smaller organization then restrict my views only to my interests?

As a community we need to develop language that embraces multiple priorities with a common shared value.

Presently, current government focus for professional arts in BC seems to focus largely on cultural tourism. Larger companies can see opportunity in this focus, whereas I see only a way for government to pick and choose for political gain what and where to focus spending on creative industries; a means to insure a political quid pro quo for funding.  Even this I can excuse, why should government not look for a return on their investment?  They are paying the money after all so why should they not see political gain for the spending.  Of course the fact of the matter is they are not actually spending their money, they’re spending ours, and that should come with some very strict rules about providing benefit to us rather than political pay off to them. However we don’t live in a utopian world where greater good always outweighs personal benefit.   Political policy is somewhat different than public policy though the two are often so intertwined that they are seen as always being the same. Political policy is always developed for two purposes, public good and political benefit. While many who are better informed and educated in the field than I may disagree, my view is that pure public policy of its own accord exists only in text books. But that is a discussion for later or the bar and not for early morning thought.

Whether intended or accidental, providing benefit to selected recipients works to the advantage of governments because it serves a dual purpose of supporting and wedging. It provides support to some while disappointing others, making it more difficult to find a unified message of advocacy for support. Governments, and agencies, have for decades created new programs to address immediate needs, community priorities and political gain.  They do it because they believe that it will address needs and concerns they’ve heard; because it will satisfy at least some constituents; and to be fair, because they believe it is a right and good thing to do.  Let’s not kid ourselves though, they create new programs also because it is expedient, it answers short term needs and because it minimizes fall out.  Program creation accomplishes the added benefit of diffusing anger about changes in funding by creating anticipation or even satisfaction in targeted sections of the community.  It allows for the perfect proven strategy of divide and conquer. Another - less planned , but none the less effective result of program creation, priority selection and under funding is to create a multitude of views about what they should do to address our concerns and therefore create a multitude of views about where their priorities should focus.

But our problems are not all created by government or agencies. Some of our problems are of our own making. Some here may feel there is unity within the community, I would beg to differ.  I’m not sure that there can be clear unity in a creative community who’s very reason to exist is to explore new and unique ways of looking at ourselves and the world around us.  We each have varying needs and priorities about funding.  I certainly don’t believe the Olympics were good for the arts community in BC, but my company did not get programming benefit directly from during or around the event. I also don’t believe that they will provide much in the way of sustained improvement in the arts community in BC, but again my company did not get venue improvements or other capital investment from them.  So as an advocate, given the circumstances repeating themselves, do I support a major event like the Olympics or oppose them? While they will provide a level of benefit, perhaps no more biased or tilted than any other spending initiative, they likely will not provide direct benefit to me, so why should I?  That question can be asked of course in many ways. If I receive operating support should I support the inclusion of more organizations and even, heaven forbid, individual artists in that pool, or should I oppose any further inclusions in the hopes of protecting my territory. It’s a hard question. I have an obligation to act in the best interests of my company. That is contractual and personal. It is my imperative; however I also have a moral duty to support my community at large.  Does that moral duty include supporting organizations who are healthy financially if that means sacrificing an independent company or a small community organization or independent artist.  Do I have the capacity and information to make a judgement like that?  Why should the large organizations get more dollar support than smaller ones in the province? Then again given the history, size, complexity and other factors of their operations, why shouldn’t they?

Why should a company or artist who does not receive support from the Arts Council advocate for increased funding for the Council and why and how do those of us as clients ask them to support this?  We do so as members of a larger community. As a member of the inside club, a professional organization who receives operating support, I have a vested interest in ensuring that demands for increased funding to the Arts Council continues.  But do I do that and forget about community based activity, or professional based activity that relies solely on gaming and miscellaneous sources of funding?  As a community we must analyze and explore our shared interests as well as our individual ones or I believe our advocacy will always work against us. 

Have we ever really had the discussion, with ourselves, about what support would look like if we started over? 

We know that there are divergent interests at play. I have a greater interest in professional arts than in community based arts.  I also have a stronger interest in organizational support than an independent artist is likely to have.  I have no interest in cultural tourism, I think it a crock.  That’s not to say there are no cultural tourism organizations, the Louvre in Paris would be an obvious example, as would the Stratford Festival in Canada, who draw audiences specifically to them not as part of a larger tour but that does not make them a reason for cultural policy. 

So if these biases exist, how then to find the unified approach. For us it should be relatively easy, almost all art is a collaboration. Whether between a visual artist and her subject or medium, a writer and his world experiences, or the performer and her fellow performers, we all collaborate with objects or others, and always with an audience.  I believe that advocacy should be about a larger strategic vision than the immediate. We need to act and speak together and in order to minimize division, and I stress minimize, we need as a community to see a larger view than politicians who live in mandate time, and then to agree to our priorities. We need opportunity to voice our concern about whether a particular sector, discipline, or activity will hurt our long term plans for ourselves.  Those conversations are internal to our community so that our public voice remains unified.  I would like to say that we have had these conversations, but as much as we can accuse government of not consulting with us, we have to ask, have WE consulted with ourselves?

Ultimately though I don’t believe there can be a totally unified approach to advocacy - we need to act in the best interests of our own particular community - but that does not mean we need to act against others with differing priorities.  A large strategic plan for the arts in BC is what is called for in times of adversity - that plan should direct its question at fundamentals. What is it the community needs from government and how can it get that WHILE serving the needs of government?   And yes we need to serve government at some level - just as they must serve the needs of at least some of their constituents.  We don’t have to like it, and we should always do so compelled by and within the confines of the art we create and serve.

As I said a short moment ago - government exists in its own time frame, life is measured in mandate and from mandate to mandate. Is there a fundamental public policy for which we can advocate that will in the long term fulfill the needs of the community? That is what I believe we need to focus on.  I for Green Thumb will advocate for stronger organizational and touring support, while an organization like the Cultch may wish to state a stronger case for increased venue and presentation support and a composer may argue for increased individual support and we need to accept that those asks can appear to be in conflict. They need not be conflicting however if they are presented as component parts of our large picture view of the role of government in the arts. If we each know what it is that our priorities are, then we don’t have to homogenize them, we can instead support conflicting priorities within the context of our communal expectations. Large and small, operating and project can indeed exist together in advocating for support for the arts by understanding as much as possible the broad needs of the community within the immediacy of our own.

I will - to your relief I’m sure - move to end this op ed piece. My view is that more we know about what we individually are advocating for, the easier it will be for us to advocate for our needs within the large context of the greater community.  While I strongly believe that joint and unified advocacy is crucial, the passion of our own advocacy for our own needs will always have greater strength and impact.  We don’t need to surrender our priority to the larger community, we need include the larger community in our priorities.  We can use gatherings like this to discuss what it is, specifically and exactly we want from government as a community as a whole, so that our own plans are operating models using the larger strategic communal view.

A last remark from someone who is definitely smarter and more creative than I - though I’m unsure who has a more boring voice  Margaret Atwood once said:  “If you’re not annoying somebody, you’re not really alive.” 



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