Canada Council’s Simon Brault wants to build on the past with new voices for the future

Simon Brault. Photo: Martin Lipman

For 60 years, the Canada Council for the Arts has helped culture in this country flourish, but, says the director and CEO, this is no time to rest on past successes.

It’s mission now, says Simon Brault, is to bring forward new voices and new ideas.

“You can not ignore the past,” he said in a wide ranging interview. “But, this is probably the biggest challenge for any organization like the Canada Council: How do you nurture, encourage, support and enhance new voices … because we need new artistic and literary voices.”

It can be a tough circle to square with the fact that the Council, he says, also has a responsibility to more mature voices, those organizations and artists that have built the culture we have today.

“How do you … continue to support (these) organizations and voices and encourage them?” But with “many mature artists possibly leaving the stage over the next 15 years, renewal is needed in the ecology of the arts sector. We need new leaders who will come with new business models.”

Navigating change is always tricky, something Brault seems well aware of. And he doesn’t want to be seen imposing a view on an evolving landscape.

“For me, the most important thing right now is for the Canada Council not to be overly prescriptive about the models for the future because nobody really knows what those will be.”

Into this uncertain landscape the Council has been blessed with a major injection of federal cash which began last year and will continue for four more years.

“We are in year two of the progressive doubling of our budget over five years,” he says. The Council’s wallet will rise from $180 million to $360 million, most of which will be directly invested in the arts.

This massive commitment “will reshape a big part of the landscape of the arts sector.”

Still, you can’t just throw money against the wall and make it stick.

“There are daunting questions in Canada,” he says. But one thing seems to be constant and that is the essence of artistic creation and literary creation.

“In fact,” Brault says, “it doesn’t take less time to craft a fantastic dancer or an actor than it took two centuries ago. You cannot compress this time that much.”

And many decision makers are “absolutely distracted, disrupted and disorganized because they have tried to see what they can do to have an instant economic success.

“What we have seen in many countries around the world over the past 20 years is that a lot of attention and money moved from investments in the arts and culture to the creative economy. Everybody has been trying to do more or less the same thing … with very uneven results.”

Brault says “we know that we will need artists. We will need trailblazers. We will need new voices.”

And to get there the Canada Council needs to stay the course, he says, and make sure “we are there and people see us and understand us. We need to protect a space where artists and arts organizations can do R&D and can try and fail until the moment when they become world class.”

It is clear, he says, that, after 60 years, persistence pays off.

“What is predictable is that if you invest in authentic research of meaning and reflection, eventually some of it will resonate.”

Money helps too.

“Right now we are the only arts council in the world enjoying this level of reinvestment by government. Everyone is watching us.

“I feel that one of responsibilities for us is demonstrate that this model is still relevant.” A lot of people, he says, would have questioned five years ago, how long it would last.

One of the steps taken has involved reducing the number of granting categories from 156 programs to six broad areas.

Now the reinvestment in the sector has begun. One thing that has not meant is an automatic doubling to existing organizations.

“We said ‘No’ to that. We need new voices. We need to explore new territories. We need to find new business models. We also need to make sure we still support the best of the best.

“We won’t cut anyone, but there will be organizations who will receive more because they are more future oriented. I’m very excited because I can see there is a huge appetite from artists to explore and take more risks. It’s where we can make difference now. We need to subsidize risk takers.”

In the bad old days, when money was tight, arts organizations were risk-averse. “That’s the beginning of the end when that happens,” Brault says.

Now “you can see in the plans of many organizations, they are ready to change what they do.”

Brault has also been encouraged by statements by the prime minister during a recent town hall in Halifax. Justin Trudeau made a passionate defence of arts councils.

“It’s not happening in any other country where the head of a government speaks about the importance of the arts”

Recently the Council’s board of directors voted down a planned $375,000 increase in funding for Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre in the wake of sexual harassment allegations directed against the company’s found Albert Schultz. The core funding of $184,500 “core grant” was left intact.

It’s a message from the Council.

In the interview with ARTSFILE, which took place before the recent Soulpepper decision, Brault said: “When the allegations became public about Soulpepper, the Canada Council was the first body to react. What we said immediately is we cannot tolerate abuse of power or sexual harassment … all of that.”

He added that the Council has decided to do two things: continue to support the movement for more secure work places for artists and also make this commitment more explicit.

Brault is well aware of the fragility of arts organizations.

“I don’t know how Soulpepper will recover,” he said, adding the Council, as an arts funder, can’t support an artistic institution at the expense of the well-being of artists.

“We are at the beginning of difficult conversations in the arts sector and the Canada Council cannot stay neutral. It’s important to understand it’s a cultural shift.

“We need codes of ethics and rules and all that but we also need the courage to fight for our values in an open way and to not accept things. This is profoundly affecting the whole sector.”

Another thing that is changing the way art is made is technology and that’s something the Council is also trying to encourage with a new digital fund that will invest $88.5 million from 2017 to 2021.

About 250 projects have been submitted to the first year of the fund and the jury has begun deliberations over who will draw from the $10 million available.

“For the first time the juries that we have aren’t (all) peers. There are some artists, but we chose the jurors because of their knowledge of technology.

“What we are judging is not artistic merit, it is the capacity for innovation. There is a huge confusion in arts sector. They think because they are creative they are innovating. We are still (basically) doing theatre the way the Greeks did it. It’s still creation but it’s not innovation.

“I hope the digital fund will be, for the Canada Council, a big laboratory that will change the way we work. The arts sector is working in an ultra-competitive world where everybody is in their own bubble. In digital the only way to progress is to share your findings, to collaborate and co-operate.”

It’s a risky venture, he says.

“There have been investments in many countries of a similar nature with unconvincing results. In England, for example, they have realized that after years of investment, the arts sector is even in a worse state in terms of digital than it was five years ago.”

The British failed to collaborate, he says. Lessons learned.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.