Why public funding of arts matters to all of us

National Post ,
22 September 2008, Canada

Let's play a little game. I'm going to say a couple of words that I think will make you sleepy or bored or cause your eyes to sarcastically roll. Ready? Here goes: Arts funding.

See? The words "arts funding" are even ahead of "Canadian election" as a yawn-inducing duet.


Because arts and culture funding only matters to a small and out-of-touch group of artists and supporters banking on government assistance to create works that, as our Prime Minister succinctly said last week, "people don't actually want."

Who cares about $45-million in cultural program cutbacks? Well, we know some protesters in Quebec had a march.

But really, the only Canadians affected are the pompous urban elite who fancy trips to the opera, wacky overpriced painters and, no doubt, perennially black-clad filmmeister Atom Egoyan.

Why should taxpayers foot the bill?

Indeed, based on this impression, ambivalence towards arts funding and cutbacks makes sense.

Except it doesn't. Because despite the best attempts by our PM and others to suggest that Canadian art is for a small elite, it's not.

That there has been such a disconnect created between creative culture and the stated identity of the majority of Canadians is as impressive a feat as it is outrageous.

How does a near $50-billion-per-year Canadian industry get cast as peripheral?

Some of the responsibility lies with artists and the arts community.

The word "arts" has become laced with exclusivity.

It desperately needs to be recaptured and reintroduced by the broader artistic community as something that is not just for people in tuxedos at the Four Seasons Centre. Culture is the face that Canada presents to the world.

To question whether the state should be involved in culture is like asking whether the government should play a role in roads or sidewalks. Like, yes.

But politicians of various stripes have preyed upon the idea of arts being for a privileged club. This is the opposite of the truth.

Regardless of your position on arts funding, we might stop pretending that culture is outside of the interests of Canadians.

Do you watch TV? Own an iPod? Listen to the radio? Enjoy comic books? Surf the Internet? Read novels? How about a night at the movies? Play video games? Check, check and check.

The benefits of arts funding are not particularly mysterious.

For instance, you'd be hard-pressed to find a Canadian who doesn't take some pride in this country's remarkable musical legacy.

We are currently, it may be argued, the most successful exporter of music in the world. From Neil to Nelly, Leonard to Rufus, Joni to Feist, Bachman to Buble, and Heppner, Celine or Arcade Fire, Canadian musicians are proudly wearing the maple leaf across the globe.

But the strength of the music industry in this country was built on the backs of government programs (see FACTOR) and regulations (see CanCon).

The Canadian music example proves that funding is effective and underscores the populist nature of our artists. That political parties have been barely talking about the arts in this election -- again -- is embarrassing.

Culture is not a sidebar or a place to "trim the fat." It works to get the state behind the state of the arts.

Article by Jan Ghomeshi, National Post