Following the paper trail
WHETHER IT’S STEPHEN Harper famously saying “ordinary people” don’t care about the arts, or critically acclaimed Canadian dancer Margie Gillis getting slammed on Sun TV for defending artistic grants and subsidies, there is something about arts funding that sparks debate. The Fulcrum recently sat down with Grace Thrasher, public relations manager of the Canada Council for the Arts, a sector of the federal government that gives out grants, to discuss the merits of these subsidies.
“It’s a federal crown [corporation] … We report directly to the Minister of Canadian Heritage,” explains Thrasher. “We were originally established with an endowment of $100 million in 1957.
“Over time, as you can see, we’ve gotten additional parliamentary appropriation. Now we fund about 6,200 artists and arts organizations across the country in all disciplines, [such as] dance, theatre, music, media arts, and visual arts.”
The Canada Council for the Arts isn’t the only way for artists to get funding from the government. Arts grants are available at both the provincial and municipal level as well.
Earlier this year, when the federal government announced it was reducing expenditures with a long-term deficit planning goal, many were concerned with the cuts arts and culture would face. But Thrasher assures the Canada Council for the Arts isn’t facing more reductions than any other government sector.
“We’re affected by the same request everyone is … the [deficit reduction action plan], which is looking at the five or 10 per cent reduction. So, everybody in government has to come up with a plan for that, so that’s what we’ve done,” says Thrasher.
Kevin Orr, professional theatre director and theatre professor at the University of Ottawa, has received municipal and provincial grants in the past. He believes artists will continue to find other ways to fund themselves if these grants cease to exist.
“If they cut funding, artists will find a way to continue to make their art. It’s what we do,” he says.
“It’s like if they cut funding to education, will learning stop? If they cut funding to medicine, will curing or caring stop? No, of course not. What ends up happening is you degrade those systems to a point where they don’t do their functions very well anymore.”
The future of artistic budgets at the federal level remain unknown until February. While the artistic community holds its breath until the announcement, Thrasher explains how the grants give artists a chance to work on their craft.
“A good example we have is Patrick deWitt, who just won the Governor General’s Literary Award. He was writing his book The Sisters Brothers in 2009, [and] he got to a certain point where he had to go out and get another job because he couldn’t afford to stay home, write, and feed his family at the same time,” she says.
“He had applied for a Canada Council grant, and the grant came through—$12,000 was all it was, and it enabled him to actually finish his book.”
Thrasher argues an artist only makes about $23,000 a year, while it only costs taxpayers about $5 yearly to support these grants.
“People have made the argument that [artists] should be able to survive on their own. Selling the work is not always possible right away … Part of what the grant does is give [the artists] the ability to take the time and create the work, which then establishes them [in their] career,” she says.
Orr also states artists make living in Canada a better place.
“I’m going to [give a quote from] a book that I read: ‘Arts council grants don’t cure cancer; they don’t defend the country; they don’t help to make Canada a unified monolith in the world—but what they do help is to make living in Canada worthwhile.’ They make this place worth living in,” says Orr.
According to Thrasher, it’s these subsidies that help Canada be recognized on the international stage.
“It helps to build up that recognition factor and help people who have talent get a foot hold, build a career, and get international recognition. We become known as a country that has a very strong artistic component.”