Toward More Equitable and Sustainable Arts Funding

Canada Council for the Arts,
24 May 2023, Canada

A Final Blog Post from Simon Brault, Director and CEO of the Canada Council for the Arts

In my last weeks as Director and CEO of the Canada Council for the Arts, I’ve been meeting with arts funders from across Canada and around the world to talk about the major issues facing our work, issues that are redefining our relationship to society.

A few weeks ago, the Council hosted a gathering in Ottawa of arts funders from across Canada—municipal, provincial and territorial, foundations and more. It was the first gathering of its kind! It helped us name the complex issues we all face; identify opportunities to deepen our collaboration on several levels; and consider other ways to make equity and sustainability central to our respective work.

A week later, I went to Stockholm to attend the 9th World Summit on Arts and Culture, organized by the Swedish Arts Council and the International Federation of Arts Councils and Culture Agencies (IFACCA)—of which I’m the outgoing Chair. From there I went to the 2023 Venice Biennale of Architecture, where this year’s theme is “The Laboratory of the Future.” I met artists, architects, diplomats and cultural development specialists with an interest in the housing crisis, climate justice and other major issues that cannot be solved without a great deal of imagination and a willingness to act.

In all my conversations, one thing became clear: arts funders need to continue and accelerate their transformation to meet the realities of the 21st century and better our divided, impoverished, and endangered planet.

Many arts funders, like the Council, were created in the mid-twentieth century. We’re now almost a quarter into the twenty-first century, and the world has changed significantly. We’re now living in a period of multiple crises happening at the same time, including pandemics, global conflicts, threats to artistic freedom and other cultural and human rights, and mounting polarization and social isolation. Arts funders need to transform to meet this new context and redefine their field of work—or risk greater and greater irrelevance, if not their demise.

As I see it, arts funders need to accelerate four major transformations right now:

1. Putting equity, diversity, inclusion and access at the fore

The Council must respond to the needs of a broader and more diverse sector than the one that existed in Canada at the outset of the organization’s creation in 1957. Our funding needs to better reflect the diversity in the existing arts sector while also supporting the empowerment of artistic and cultural development by the many communities across Canada.

2. Decolonizing arts funding

Decolonization is an open-ended and evolving concept. It’s a complex and irreversible process. There is no roadmap for how to decolonize arts funding. That said, at the heart of decolonizing work is a deeply seated desire to redress the harm caused by the logic and systems of colonialism that influenced the creation of public arts funders, like the Canada Council for the Arts.

3. Breaking down silos and fostering connections

The major issues in our society—like the climate crises, social isolation, mental health, and international conflicts—cannot be addressed by a single sector in isolation from all others. Instead, an informed and concerted approach from many parts of society is needed. The arts certainly have a role to play in helping us address pressing issues. Artists may choose to be consciousness raisers, to change public opinion on the most troubling issues, and to help articulate new solutions to persistent and even systemic problems.

4. Playing a role beyond funding

While granting activities must always be a foundational part of what arts funders do, the arts sector needs us to undertake other roles. We have an increased role to play as an advocate—for issues like better working conditions and remuneration in the arts, a chronic problem that can’t be addressed without amplifying the voices of the people who made the choice to work in our sector. We also have a role to play as a partner, joining forces where we know our attention is needed but where we need additional knowledge and deeper connections with communities to guide our work. We can also convene, bringing together disparate parts of society who might not otherwise meet but who need to speak with one another to explore new and promising trajectories.

Fortunately, the Council is constantly trying to adapt and transform so that it can address needs and promote progress on the issues that artists and social movements are shedding light on. Over the last nine years, I had the immense honour and privilege to lead an organization willing to take the sometimes very challenging paths of decolonization, democratization and inclusion—all of which lead to a more equitable and sustainable use of public funds for the arts.

The Council’s transformation isn’t over yet—and it will continue beyond my mandate as Director and CEO. But I believe we have made significant strides with your support. We have a wonderful opportunity to promote and participate actively in the wider transformation of the arts funding ecosystem—here in Canada and around the world. We are part of a community of thought and action that has the power to bring about a better future for all. Let's rise to meet this collective challenge!