Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Royal Alberta Museum...we hope

After a weekend of finger-pointing and back-and-forthing and many members of the public and the press voicing their strong support for moving ahead with a badly-needed new building Royal Alberta Museum in Edmonton, there may be hope. Indications late this afternoon are that conversations are at least happening between the Province of Alberta and the Federal Government. The latest news (as of 6:30 pm Mountain Time, on November 2), from the Edmonton Journal, can be found here.

Although nothing is of course final yet, and funding still hangs in the balance as I write this, at least the finger-pointing seems - for the moment - to have stopped and politicians are trying to solve the problem.

In the meantime, several people have spoken up about this issue. Here are a few examples:

Edmonton Journal columnist Paula Simons, has been writing and blogging almost constantly on the subject. Some of this writing can be found here. Some of the latest work of her colleagues - with files from Ms. Simons, can also be found here and here.

...and former Mayor of Strathcona County Cathy Oleson, whose incredibly well-written Letter to the Editor was published in November 2's Edmonton Journal.

...and also Alice Major, Edmonton's former Poet Laureate, wrote an equally thoughtful and thought-provoking Letter to the Editor, also published in the November 2 Edmonton Journal.

...and let's not forget PACE, the Professional Arts Coalition of Edmonton, who sent letters to several top government officials at the federal and provincial levels, encouraging people to please just sit down and work it out so that this very valuable project could move forward. Check out their work on their facebook page.

As we all agree, the RAM's new building is long overdue. Fingers crossed that it will finally move forward.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

On Accountability...again...

Last week's Globe and Mail article on potential changes to the way the federal government deals with charities was quite disturbing. It appears that the federal government and in particular Minister of Human Resources Diane Finley does not feel that charities are accountable enough for the public monies they receive and that they cannot show adequate results or outcomes achieved through the use of this money.

As we all know, nothing is further from the truth, and this is certainly the case in the Arts. However, instead of me reiterating others' comments, I will simply point the way to responses to the article via the Globe's Letters to the Editor (and also the Letters here), as well as Imagine Canada's considered and thoughtful response. The only things I will add are that, at least for the Arts (and I'm sure other sectors of the charitable world), the accountability is already there, the reporting is thorough, and any new measures of accountability should be carefully considered before they are implemented. It's important for government and others to remember that, although most of us in the Arts and in the charitable sector have absolutely no problem being accountable for the money we receive from the public via government and donations, the time we spend doing this leaves us less time to focus on the missions this money supports.

I suggest that Minister Finley, her staff, and any other member of government and others who wish to know more about how accountable charities are should take some time and speak to their favourite Arts organization or other non-profit about how much time is spent on accountability. It is only through active, thoughtful communication and education that we can all really know and understand each other's worlds.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

For The Record

On Friday, September 2, in the lobby outside the Ledcor Theatre at the Art Gallery of Alberta, Hon. Rona Ambrose reaffirmed the Federal Government's support for the Arts through an announcement of grants to Edmonton Arts organizations from Canadian Heritage. Of course, all of these grants are via existing programs and there was no announcement of any new money for these programs or anything else. However, Minister Ambrose, in conversation with the writer and other Arts organization representatives, who expressed their sincere hope that at least current funding levels could be maintained in this climate of deficit-reduction, did say, "...and we will."

Let's all hope this will be true amid rumours of a 5-10% cut to Canadian Heritage...and across all government departments.

Advocacy and lobbying are well underway at the federal level. The Canadian Arts Coalition is working on its annual Arts Day On The Hill events and meetings and has also submitted a briefing to the Standing Committee on Finance , and both PACE and ArtsVote Calgary are working hard to let candidates for the leadership of the Alberta Conservatives know of the importance of the Arts not only to our quality of life, but to our economy and our society. Check out the websites of all of these organizations for information on their efforts, and in the case of PACE and ArtsVote Calgary, for notes on their conversations with leadership candidates of all political stripes.

It's a hugely busy time of year, with seasons and programs starting up after summer. If we can participate in whatever way we're able and encourage as many conversations as possible between our audiences, patrons, sponsors and their elected representatives on the importance of Art, we can minimize any damage and create a climate for progress in the future.

Sunday, September 4, 2011


I did not post in August, in large part because I took a longer holiday than normal, the better part of which was in Paris. I had never been and although I knew I was going to be blown away, I was still blown away by the sheer amount of awe an inspiration I encountered.

The city, of course, beautiful. The architecture, of course, stunning. The Arts, even in August, during the traditional "vacances," were incredible and beautiful. Here I was standing in the middle of a society that values the Arts as the thing that truly identifies itself - the thing that makes it "tick." Beauty and thought resonated everywhere, in everything. It was transcendent and it reminded me that such a society is possible and desirable and not a mere dream.

I was also so impressed by a society that didn't feel it had to be open for business 24/7. Sundays (or another day/s of the week) are still closing days for many. People are unashamed of closing at closing time, as they are unashamed of taking a proper lunch break and closing up for a well-deserved vacation once a year. I love these qualities and I think they should be encouraged. In the end, I believe that society is richer for taking breaks and exploring life to its fullest. This is what gives us time for Art and makes us richer, fairer, better.

It sounds very romantic and idealistic to say this, but, like most people, I am in love with Paris and being there changed me. I really hope I can hold onto those changes and I really hope they make me better. What better way to kick off the fall season than with hope?

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Fair Notice is just fair

Summerworks has lost their Canadian Heritage funding this year and the only reason that has so far been made public is that the festival presented a play in 2010 that dealt with terrorism in a way that the Harper government didn't approve of, even though none of them actually saw the play. Canadian Heritage has not rushed to deny this charge of censorship thus leading us all to believe it is true.

I think it is very clear that this method of making funding decisions is wrong in a society that has enshrined freedom of expression in its constitution, so I won't belabour the point here except to say that I wholeheartedly endorse this freedom, especially as it pertains to Art and believe that censorship is wrong. I also won't belabour the point that our governments at all levels choose to fund a myriad of ventures that the majority of Canadians may or may not agree with, many times turning a blind eye to whether it is right or wrong morally (the export of asbestos to the third world, for example). That they have chosen to try to position themselves as some sort of moral guardian at this point is simply wrong headed. But enough said...this isn't what this post is really about.

This post is really about Finance Minister Jim Flaherty's statement, recently published in the Globe and Mail, that, "...No organization should assume in their budgeting that every year the government of Canada is going to give them grants..." Minister Flaherty, let's talk about a little concept known by funding agencies across the nation, at every level of government, as "Fair Notice".

Fair Notice is the way funding agencies let operating funding clients know that their grant may be reduced, the reasons why, and how much time they have to correct the identified issue. These reasons and the methods for dealing with them vary from agency to agency, according to their mandates, but one thing is common: these policies are designed as a warning system. Whether you agree with the principles behind the various Fair Notice policies or not, these policies usually ensure that there is time for discussion and dialogue and at the very least, for organizations to decide whether they can or want to rectify whatever issue has been identified. The idea is to give Arts organizations a chance to continue to make Art and a shot a some kind of stability. This is what operating grants were designed for in the first place and this is essentially at the heart of every funding agency's mandate. You may or may not agree with the methods, the criteria or the funding model, but at least the criteria are clear and the Fair Notice policies are in place and it's all in writing. Clarity and the potential for stability all around - at least as much as is possible in an ever changing political climate.

The other point I'd like to make about Minister Flaherty's comments is that they fly in the face of responsible planning. An application to the Canada Arts Presentation Fund, as we all know, takes many, many hours to complete. Why would any responsible Arts executive invest that much time if chance of any return on that investment is so risky? Admittedly it is very clear on all operating grant applications for Canadian Heritage that receiving funding one year does not guarantee funding in the future (and in fact you must sign a declaration that you understand this). However, this is rarely, if ever, the case in practice unless an organization is very clearly in danger or very badly managed. If it were not, the very idea of the Canada Arts Presentation Fund, or the Canada Arts Training Fund, for that matter, would be moot. It is impossible to "give Canadians access to a variety of artistic experiences in their communities," as the objective of the Canada Arts Presentation Fund states, if there are no stable organizations to do so. Nor is variety possible, for that matter, without the ability to take risk, including the presentation of Art about provocative and potentially controversial topics.

The third thing I'd like to point out to Minister Flaherty is that in the world of business, it is not generally deemed responsible to back out of a deal or to give notice that you won't be a part of a deal at the last minute, especially if you know that the train has already pretty much left the station, as it will have for Summerworks 39 days out of their festival. We are all very lucky indeed that this didn't shut the Festival down completely and that they are nimble enough to be able to respond quickly. Not every organization is. With that said, we don't yet know what the long term impact of this will be or how it will affect Summerworks' bottom line. Responsible organizations need responsible partners to deal with. In this respect, the long assessment time and late notification jeopardizes every CATF client every year unless there is a knowledge and respect for the need for Fair Notice.

Things need to change at Canadian Heritage. Turnaround and notification to organizations needs to happen faster, there needs to be a clear Fair Notice Policy, and if the goal is to provide operating funding, there needs to be a stable commitment to organizations so that they can plan responsibly for the future. Ultimately, though, I recommend that the Canada Council for the Arts be given the opportunity and the funding to oversee these grants. This is an agency that is well-known for its efficiency and its diligent stewardship of taxpayers' money in the service of the growth of Art and Artists in this country. It's arms length status will ensure that our right to freedom of expression under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms is preserved and that Canadian Artists will have the opportunity to create and take their place, as they should, on the world stage.

All Canadians have a right to express themselves - and Canadian Artists share this right. It's time our government supported it properly and fairly.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Time for Advocacy is Now

The election has come and gone, the Conservatives now have a majority, the NDP is the Official Opposition, the Hon. James Moore is still the Minister of Canadian Heritage, and the federal budget is about to be re-introduced. Despite the fact that a majority government usually doesn't have to worry about the opposition bringing it down, and that, in contrast to previous minority governments, it is likely to become less responsive and more ideological, it is important to remember that they are our government and that they work for us - for the good of the people of Canada.

Why am I saying this? The re-introduced budget is unlikely to contain anything different in respect of the Arts, and it will broaden the Child Fitness Tax Credit to include Arts activities. This is not bad news at all. However, that is this year's budget. What happens next year, especially in view of the Conservatives' election promise to eliminate the deficit in four years - instead of five, as in the pre-election budget forecast? Where will that money come from? Rumours already abound regarding potential program cuts, corresponding with the repeated election promise that this government will achieve the necessary "savings" without raising taxes.

Thus, the need for advocacy continues. The need for dialogue - open, honest, dialogue - remains. And not just for us - we as organizations must learn how to use our creative power to encourage our audiences, our sponsors and donors, our board members, and our volunteers to raise this issue every time they happen to have contact with a politician. We, as Arts workers, know the benefit we bring to our communities. We know, for example, that in Alberta, according to the Alberta Foundation for the Arts' own statistics (see page 6 of the report at this link), that for every government dollar that goes to the Arts, TWELVE dollars (yes, 12) are returned, directly and indirectly to the economy. We know that the Cultural Industries in Canada employ over 630,000 people and return over $46 billion to our economy (as quoted from Minister Moore himself on The Arts Advocate Blog - April 20, 2011 post). And we know that Minister Moore himself (via that same blog and also in Edmonton at Winspear Centre in January of this year) has said,

"In our Economic Action Plan, we stood up for and stood with our cultural communities and increased our support to record levels.

We did so because we know how fragile arts organizations are. How quickly they can disappear if support isn't there.

And, also, we increased our support because we know how much Canadian artists do for Canada. "

In Edmonton at that Winspear speech, my colleagues and I also heard Minister Moore pledge stable funding for the Arts for the next five years. This makes a lot of sense, both for our economy and for our society, and at the time, I was very heartened to hear it. However, I am traditionally skeptical of all things political, and in the face of a potential double-dip recession, and governments who now think that speedy deficit reduction will save the day, I remain so.

With that said, a promise is a promise, and I strongly feel that the only way to ensure that this promise is kept is to keep reminding Minister Moore and his colleagues that this one is important. The more our politicians hear this from us, and especially from our audiences, the better our chances at ensuring this is one promise that is kept.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

On the Eve of an Election

I have been quite silent throughout the election campaign, which is odd, since I usually have strong opinions about the necessity of participation in the democratic process. With that said, I write today with the simple message that it's important not only to vote, but to cast a thoughtful, informed vote. As Artists and stewards of the Art (which is what we as administrators essentially are) it's important for us to say what we think, not only about the Arts, but about our society as a whole. This is, after all, the purpose of artistic expression in many ways.

Some of my colleagues have been asked why Artists have been less vocal this election. I believe there are two main factors:

1)  Current federal funding levels are not openly threatened and for the Arts to lobby for increases in a time of restraint among governments will very likely make us look like whiners. Nevertheless, many groups, including PACE and the Canadian Arts Coalition, among others, continue to pursue an ongoing dialogue with politicians at all levels of government. This helps not only to raise awareness and educate them about the intrinsic value of what we do, but also serves to remind politicians that their constituents care about the Arts.

2)  This year there has been a greater need to focus on survival. Many Artists and Arts organizations across North America (and beyond) have faced severe revenue challenges from several quarters. It seems that no one is immune. Many have faced declines in donations, sponsorships, grants, and earned revenue as the economy remains tight, despite the optimism from time to time in much of the media. With expenses already cut to the bone, there have already been hard decisions to make. After such a dramatic economic downturn, recovery is slow and cautious. The world - and audiences - are changing in ways we couldn't have predicted even 5 years ago, and it is taking time and vast amounts of energy to adapt. I, for one, am tired as I near the end of a long season, and I'm sure I'm not alone. All of this has left little room to focus on anything but the task at hand, despite the need.

Of course, this probably sounds overly dramatic and indeed things aren't completely hopeless. Adaptation isn't, after all, a bad thing. However, realities remain and the one way we can all effect change is to get out and cast a thoughtful vote. Thankfully, there are organizations such as the Canadian Arts Coalition (see link above), who have put together good information to make sure we can head to the polls with the right information. Along with the websites, don't hesitate to check out each organization on facebook, and/or follow them on Twitter. There's also this lively political debate on Arts from Thursday's edition of Q, on CBC.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

This Man Will Rock Your World

I don't know what rock I've living been under, but I'm really glad I just crawled out from under it, because Ben Cameron has just rocked my world with this Ted talk.

He's speaking in Edmonton next Monday night, March 14. Details are here.

If you're in Edmonton that night, you should go.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Advocacy and Some New Websites to Check Out

I have long been a proponent of initiating an open, frank, constructive and positive dialogue with our communities and politicians about the importance of the Arts to our society. I've also spoken with colleagues about the importance of this becoming part of the training of new Arts Administrators, so that they become aware of the issues and can engage constructively.

There are currently two advocacy organizations in Alberta who have undertaken what I believe are constructive, positive campaigns to let politicians know that the Arts really matters to Albertans. If you're interested in supporting these campaigns (and I sincerely hope you are, particularly if you live and work in Alberta), check out the I Love Alberta Arts campaign by the Professional Arts Coalition of Edmonton and the work underway at Save Our Fine Arts.

Thanks to Wolf Brown's bi-weekly On Our Minds newsletter - you can sign up via their site to receive your own copy - I also discovered an amazing American Arts blog, Createquity. It's a fascinating read and a great resource for the latest in US policy and research. It's a truly inspiring model that one day I hope I can emulate through this blog - if I ever have time...

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

On Speaking The Truth

A colleague said in a meeting last week that we must be able to speak the truth to each other and to those we enter into dialogue with. In this climate of hard times, where we are constantly trying to maintain good relationships, survive and ensure sustainability into the future, it's something all of us can and should carry with us.

But what does speaking the truth mean? To me, the truth:

  • is what the speaker believes to be the honest, clear reality at the time he or she speaks it;
  • is frank, open and honest;
  • is not always easy to hear or to speak;
  • is not spoken in a mean or mean-spirited way;
  • can change during a dialogue, if the discourse is open-minded and ego-free;
  • is not taken personally by the listener, although it can be challenged providing the listener is also frank, open and honest, and willing to be open-minded and ego-free.
We work with and for Artists, who speak their own truths through their work all the time. We want them to do this. It is what Art is for. As a society, we rely on them to do exactly this, illuminating both the pleasant and unpleasant truths. Now, more than ever, we need to not be afraid to follow their example and speak our own truths - have our own dialogues with those who need to hear our message, be they other Artists, Organizations, Patrons, Sponsors, Funders or Colleagues. This is the only way we will progress and the only way we can survive.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Happy New Year!

When it seems as though things will never go well, disaster is all around me, and those around me are also down, I am often fond of saying, "It's only theatre/a festival/ballet! It's not world peace." And this is true. Nobody will die or lose a limb because of what I do or don't do that day - things are rarely that urgent. HOWEVER, what we do in the Arts is vital for our society and I feel truly fortunate to be able to work towards this every day and be a part of the transcendent, joyous, profound and beautiful process that is ART.

Wising everyone the very best for 2011. May better times be ahead.