Mind fights: The abolition of arts funding

By Sara Hanson

Pro: cash better elsewhere

Over the last couple weeks, arts funding has drawn much attention, more specifically, the $45 million cut to certain programs. Although the arts community loves to join hands and cry their outrage, it is actually a baseless attack.

Every four or five years, as requested by the treasury board president, all federal government departments go through a process called strategic review. Commonly, the president will request that each department analyze every program and see how well it performs according to its mandate. The point of the exercise is to identify programs that are the least effective and then use that funding for other projects, which may provide greater benefits to the Canadian people.

In the most recent strategic review, the president of the treasury board asked that all departments cut the worst five per cent of programs. With the help of her government workers, the deputy minister– the non-political head of the department– conducts this process. At the end of the procedure, the minister is presented with the departmental recommendations, which she then acts on.

This is exactly what happened with the so-called $45 million arts funding cuts. Those suggesting that politics played a role are misguided. In reality, the cuts are based on a broad, efficiency maximizing, strategic review process. Remember, the review applies to all departments, not just arts.

The government currently spends some $3 billion on arts funding. A $45 million cut is only 0.1 per cent of the entire budget. Further, in the last three years, arts funding has increased by eight per cent. In light of the fact that few Canadians experienced the same salary increase, the arts community should applaud this increase.

Some may argue that the programs cancelled had some great benefit for Canadians. This is highly questionable when Canadians are living on the streets, families are barely surviving and communities are still on boil water orders, yet we need to pay for Avi Lewis to attend film festivals in Australia and Argentina. Life is about priorities and one would be hard pressed to find people willing to support arts funding over programs helping low-income families and First Nation communities.

Some may argue that under the current government, funding has been shifted from one arts community to another, pandering for votes. This is about as surprising as extremely cold weather in Manitoba during winter. Every government uses programs to entice the electorate, moving funding around their political base, both Liberals and Conservatives alike. Although improper, it is a reality of our current democratic electoral system. Unless the Canadian voting system is changed, vote buying is here to stay. Attempting to stop politicians from thinking about votes when making funding decisions is like trying to stop gravity, futility at its finest.

At the heart of the matter, the government has increased arts funding by eight per cent, a dramatic increase. Sure, 0.1 per cent of current programs have been cut, but this was based on the recommendations of our great, non-partisan public service. Strategic review is essential in order to maximize taxpayers’ money.

If the arts community is upset about the $45 million cut to the “travel the world for free” program, they’ll have to get in line for government money behind low-income families, First Nations and towns with boil water orders.

Con: arts a good investment

In August, the Conservative government announced a number of program cuts within the arts and culture, freeing the federal budget of $45 million of what Prime Minister Harper deemed “unnecessary funding.” In response to the significant amount of protest generated by Canada’s artistic communities, Harper defended his government’s decision last week by stating that “ordinary people” don’t relate to such a “niche issue” as the arts.

Ordinary people? Niche issue? Have we not moved away from an understanding of culture which is solely concerned with elite attendance at fancy galas? Labelling the slashed programs unnecessary funding is one thing. Defining culture in such a reductionist manner is another issue altogether and one that should be sounding alarm bells for those of us who consider ourselves to be ordinary. Such a narrow view is not only insulting to the ordinary artists who are struggling to make ends meet, but also to all ordinary citizens who find meaningful ways to integrate some sort of cultural activity into their lives. The notion of culture existing outside the elite realms of society is nothing revolutionary, but rather an idea which provided the foundations for cultural studies in the 1960s. By moving the emphasis away from the high arts, cultural studies seeks to expose the meaning found in the everyday– what we now refer to as popular culture.

If the programs that were cut only served the interests of elite, well-established artists, then one might be able to find some logic in Harper’s defence, but unfortunately, the programs sacrificed in the name of fiscal conservatism were nothing out of the ordinary. Take for example Trade Routes– a $9 million program which works with different cultural groups, including the Canadian Independent Record Producers Association, to assist ordinary Canadian artists in marketing their cultural products both at home and abroad. Providing Canadian artists with the opportunity to market their products of artistic expression is integral for establishing a sense of identity to unite Canadians and prevent us from becoming culturally synonymous with our southern neighbour.

In addition to cultivating a sense of national identity, there is also an economic argument for supporting the growth and development of ordinary cultural activity. Responding specifically to the decision to eliminate Trade Routes, Canadian Conference of the Arts national director Alain Pineau suggested that the program holds the potential to deliver a 10-to-1 return on investment. While the Conservatives will continue to defend their decision based on economic rationale, when the potential for economic growth is added to the potential for social cohesion, it becomes much harder to be convinced that the Conservatives really understand what is best for ordinary Canadians.

In fact, the Conservatives’ inability to identify with ordinary Canadians was made explicit at the press conference held in reaction to the outcry generated by Harper’s initial comments on culture. Before defending the important role that music has played throughout his life, Harper was pictured sitting at the grand piano in 24 Sussex Drive. While this photo opportunity may have salvaged him from being permanently labelled a philistine, it is unlikely to have appealed to those ordinary Canadians for whom piano lessons are an expensive hobby reserved for the elite. When all was said and done, this publicity stunt did nothing more than perpetuate the Conservative’s apparent lack of respect for the arts.

If culture is ordinary, as cultural theorist Raymond Williams famously stated, then Harper’s conservatives have failed miserably in their attempt to appeal to ordinary Canadians. As long as we have a prime minister who is unable to express an idea of culture that extends beyond the grand piano, there remains nothing to protect the views of ordinary citizens from the threat of being wholly eclipsed by the views of the elite.

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