VIEWPOINT: Why We Need Art Policy More Than Money

By Chris Tyrell:  Thank God some arts funding is restored. But what does the future have in store? There is nothing but uncertainty ahead.

It is my thesis that artists who truly care about the arts should be fighting for policy and not simply money. For me, the greater problem is that the government does not know why it is funding the arts; it needs to say so! The “why” of arts funding should be the basis of its arts policy.

When arts groups get grants, they are not provided with measurable expected outcomes. The “peer review” system of juries focuses on artistic output and not fiscal prudence or best practices. In fact, for decades, governments rewarded poor performers with financial “bail outs,” thereby passively punishing success.

Vancouver City also supports poor performance. Their policy of granting residence status to, for example, the Vancouver Playhouse to the exclusion of other groups is not good policy. In spite of all three governments advantaging the Playhouse, the Arts Club has grown to three stages plus regular tours and year-round operation. And, the Arts Club owns its assets whereas the Playhouse does not. The Arts Club is proof that government “resident theatre” policies are fallible.

Governments, by not defining the purpose of the arts funding programs, have no “exit policy;” they cannot stop funding a client. Without establishing objectives for the funding they provide governments cannot measure performance and stop the funding when objectives are not met. And by not stating why they fund the arts in the first place, the delivery programs cannot be properly evaluated.

We need to know if, for example, the government values arts for everyone including the poor. If they do, access policies should be part of the formula for assessing its grant recipients. Or, we should know if the funding to the professional arts is for experimentation, risk and advancement: the forum for artistic R & D. Whatever our funding is for, we need to know.

Current policies with their orientation to perpetual funding cause our arts organizations to be arrested in their development. Instead of striving for a high degree of self-sufficiency, as some art organizations do (Theatre Sports, Arts Club Theatre, Cirque du Soleil), many accept a kind of permanent adolescence dependent on an allowance from a paternalistic government.

Imagine you have twin boys named John and James. You and your partner are having dinner one night and John comes in full of enthusiasm about a trip to Europe he wants to take with some friends. John asks you for $3,000 to fund the trip, saying it will give him a focus for his life when he gets back.

Imagine a week later and you and your partner are having dinner again and James comes in full of excitement about a possible trip to Europe that would cost him $3,000 and he says: “But get this, “Ace of Skates” will pay me $1,500 if I visit the skateboard parks in every city I go to and write up a report for them. Could you lend me $1,500?”

Who are you going to want to help most? If I were James and John’s parent, I would give them each $1,500, but if I could only afford to pay for one it would most definitely be James.

I believe good arts policy rewards values such as true innovation, universal access, fiscal best practices and minority expression. It also recognizes the value of participating in art making as well as viewing professional cultural products.

Going forward, we must use our creativity collectively to behave like James. Here in Vancouver, it is time to create and consider something brave to help ourselves and, like James, then ask for help.

It is time, for example, to consider having skilled professionals manage our collective mailing list to develop the whole of the Vancouver audience — this is something Vancouver arts organizations were not prepared to do when I co-founded the Alliance. The collapse of print and broadcast media, the shattering of audience cohesion, has had a dramatic and costly impact on arts groups who struggle for visibility in a very expensive city with dying media.

It is time for something even braver. Emily Carr University of Art and Design is scheduled to vacate an enormous purpose-built educational institution in Vancouver’s cultural heartland. What if the city’s leading art institutions and their visiting guests were able to run a profitable post secondary arts institute to their economic advantage?

I don’t know what the answer is, but if we want the public on our side we have to earn the supportive policy we want.

To make brave moves; to take risks. We need to act like James as we struggle to make art in a world that is increasingly urban, suffering economically, increasingly polluted and undemocratic in terms of distribution of economic wealth. We need to act like adults not dependent children.

More than ever, an all-discipline, all-sector conference on arts policy like Arts Access in 1973 is something that could produce inspiring collective innovation that would attract the funding we want.


Opinions expressed in Viewpoint blog items are those of the authors and are not necessarily shared by the Alliance for Arts and Culture, its board of directors, or its members.


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