An ARC in 15 years
The future of Artist-Run culture: What will an Artist-Run Centre look like in 15 years (2023)?
from Hot Buttons/points chauds in Ottawa 7 - 10 November 2008
First of all I’d like to thank ARCCO for inviting me to be here, I feel very honoured. I’m sad that Emily vey Duke can’t be here because I think her presentation would have been really entertaining. And finally I’d like to mention that I have a few images to accompany my presentation but they were totally ripped off the Internet and I haven’t paid anyone reproduction rights.
Some centres managed to survive by finding wealthy patrons or partnering with businesses, while others became more commercial, selling their work or services. The bulk of centres folded after CC funding dried up in what the artist community called the Great Canadian Culture Wars of 2011. With a majority mandate, this is the period of time when Harper initiates widespread government review of all of the CCs programs, including funding to ARCs and the system of peer-reviewed grants.
Despite impassioned arguments from artists, the momentum had already swung. The 5-year economic recession that proceeded Harper’s first majority—known as the Downward Spiral—had spread fear and doubt in the public and Richard Florida’s theory of the creative economy vanished in a puff of smoke as health care, education, infrastructure and industry took priority. Art was again seen as a luxury, and artists could find no way to prove to the public otherwise. Harper deftly countered any resistance from artists because his cuts did not seem idealogically-motivated, but based on sound economics and concern for Canadian Values.
The sky did not fall on all artists or ARCs, however, as they proved to be resilient and highly adaptable. Private donations rose to fill some of the void, corporate sponsorship increased and some ARCs simply became more market-driven. Sales of contemporary art actually increased following the reduction of the grants system to a loans system. Rather than receive grants, artists could apply for loans to set up their studios and make work destined for commercial market. Buyers emerged for video and performance work. Galleries charged admission. More private companies jumped on the art-prize bandwagon. Of course, overall there were less artists at work in less fields producing less art, but no-one seemed to notice.
So of course all of this is just wild speculation and hyperbole. And I’ll admit a lot of my research in framing this imagined future comes from the Conservative Party of Canada Facebook group, whose members mostly represent a vocal minority of opinion even within conservative debate. But there are many reasons to believe that an outcome such as I’ve just described is quite probable.
This is not overt social conservatism, although it is there, just under the surface. Rather than openly attack content, funding is cut or “re-allocated” in the best interests of program delivery. The conservatives will take it upon themselves to re-define program objectives, and apply their own interpretation. If a program isn’t effective, administratively sound or meeting its objectives then it will be cut. And this all sounds great to the taxpayer, let’s refer to him as Joe the Plumber, who doesn’t want his tax dollars spent on art he doesn’t understand. In fact, Joe the Plumber doesn’t want his tax dollars spent on art, period. If he feels so inclined to take an interest in the arts, he’ll pay for it himself.
And this brings me to the core principle that could bolster Harpers’ eventual siphoning of arts funding to other areas, regardless of whether he gets a majority: and that is government should not be in the business of funding art, and that artists should be in business for themselves. Harper has learned that he shouldn’t equate funding to the arts with rich galas; next time he’ll use controversial works like those found in just about any ARC to help justify his cuts with the full support of Joe the Plumber. The majority of his supporters prefer a fiscal house in order, as opposed to art in disorder.
This is perhaps the defining attitude of conservatives; less government involvement in our lives, less taxes, and certainly no funding to the arts. Museums can be funded but only if they promote Canadian values and history, but certainly not tasteless art. For conservatives, the market itself should determine the quality of art. If it can’t sell, it isn’t any good, and therefore need not be made.
Artists and ARCs need to make a more vocal, sensible case for public funding of the arts, now, and not just to funding bodies, but to the general public, to Joe the Plumber. We’ve seen that despite our best efforts to mobilize, the artist vote itself is too small; we need Joe the Plumber on our side more than he needs us. The question is how to convince Joe that art is important in his life, whether he knows it or not.