Cultural institutions ready to play part in Canada’s diplomacy

From Left: Canada Council head Simon Brault, panel host Sarah Milroy, Chief Curator of the McMichael gallery, Sasha Suda, CEO of the National Gallery and Christopher Deacon, CEO of the NAC. Photo: Peter Robb

The world is in a disordered state with even the United States going its own way without much regard to the interests of allies.

In such a world, diplomacy becomes even more important. But diplomacy needs more that just government to government dialogue. It needs art and artists too, says Simon Brault, the head of the Canada Council.

Brault made his pitch for a new kind of cultural diplomacy at a Canadian Club luncheon in the Adam Room of the Château Laurier on Monday. He was joined on a panel by Sasha Suda, the CEO of the National Gallery of Canada and Christopher Deacon, the CEO of the National Arts Centre.

Brault told ARTSFILE in an interview that “Canada needs to be present and is present on the international diplomatic scene. It’s impossible to advance any of our objectives — commercial, trade, geopolitical — without good diplomacy. I can observe one of the weakest parts of  our public diplomacy is cultural diplomacy.

“There was a sense under the Harper government that cultural diplomacy was about cocktails. During those years at the Canada Council we were dealing with many embassies asking if (the council) could send them something.”

In this period “there was no means and there was no appetite and even worse than that, it was forbidden to talk about it.”

That is changing, he said. The Trudeau government wants to revive cultural diplomacy and that direction is in the mandate letters for Global Affairs minister François-Philippe Champagne and Heritage minister Steven Guilbeault.

This is important, Brault said, but he is asking that this government do cultural diplomacy better than it was done under previous Liberal governments led by Jean Chretien and Paul Martin.

In those days, he said, “it was always the same companies. It was very narrow. It needs to be much broader. It should be more sophisticated and I think we need to put in place a system where we really leverage our capacities.”

This means sending artists who might be critical of Canadian society abroad and it would include groups less well represented on mainstream stages, he said. It’s a matter of respecting artistic freedom, he added. It also means the artists themselves need to understand “what the contract is. It goes beyond just presenting your work.” It means working with diplomats to engage in conversations with people from other nations, he said.

The Canada Council shouldn’t lead this effort, he said. “Cultural diplomacy should be led by Global Affairs, but when it comes to which artists, what do we present, we can play a role as curators or co-curators.”

“About 99 per cent of the work that is presented on the world stage has already been funded by the Canada Council. We know the work.” Last year, Brault said, the council supported 1,700 activities worldwide in more than 100 countries.

“For instance, we just did, with Global Affairs, the Cervantino festival of the arts in Mexico. Canada was the guest of honour 14 years ago and I can se the difference between then and now. It was predictable work.” This time Canada presented a much broader range of artistic endeavour that better reflected the current scene in the country, he believes.

Cultural diplomacy is a hot topic among the cultural mandarins in Ottawa, Brault said. “Canadian artists want to be on the world stage. There is a real appetite. I’m not saying everything we do as a country should be cultural diplomacy. For that portion we want to play our role. We want it to be good diplomacy and feature good art.”

In the multipolar world how does culture play a role with countries that are not so friendly such as China.

“China is a good example. China, Russia and a lot of countries in the world where if you don’t have diplomacy through sport or through culture, not much is happening. Art and sport is playing a big role in our relationship with China. I think that in some cases it can be the rare channel by which countries can communicate.”

The National Arts Centre has a working relationship with the National Centre for the Performing Arts based on a memorandum of understanding dating back to the NAC Orchestra’s tour of China in 2013. As part of the relationship, Christopher Deacon was in China in June 2019, where he said he was welcomed as a colleague.

He says the National Arts Centre believes that “people to people contact and the presentation of Chinese artists in Canada and Canadian artists in China is a positive thing. It builds mutual understanding and strengthens relationships.

“I think it produces the opposite of the negative outcomes that we see right now.” Canada and China are at loggerheads over the detention of Meng Wanzhou, Huawei’s chief financial officer, who was in court Monday in Vancouver.

“It can be a modest, positive counter-measure.” He says he was welcomed when he went to China.

He also noted that “the previous Chinese ambassador and the current one have been very keen on cultural diplomacy.” Deacon noted that at last night’s performance by the Shenzhen Orchestra, the program contained a letter of welcome from the prime minister.

“We don’t presume to take on any of the responsibilities or mantel of the state.”

He said the MOU with the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing continues to be in place. The memorandum includes exchanges of administrators as well as artists. The exchange of administrators and young artists is not happening this year, Deacon said, because the centre is re-evaluating and retooling apprenticeship and internship programs. The NAC plans to present the NCPA’s orchestra in 2021, he said and NACO’s managing director Arna Einarsdottir was in Beijing last November.

“We continue to look for opportunities to collaborate with them.”

As for a tour of China by NACO, there isn’t one on the horizon.

Touring by NACO is dependent on private donation these days and it also needs partners on the ground, no matter where.

“We have been to China recently (2013) and we haven’t been to the U.S. for awhile, but absolutely a tour is part of the mix,” he said.

Over at the National Gallery, there was an exercise in cultural diplomacy in real time this past November when some 60 Indigenous artists from around the world to the opening of Àbadakone, an exhibition of Indigenous art from the four corners of the globe.

Suda told the packed luncheon the gallery is well placed to play a role on the world stage. It is something the staff is used to doing at the Canada Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. which the gallery manages.

She also mentioned the success of a National Gallery exhibition of the work of Canadian impressionists which has been touring Europe this past year. It will be in Ottawa next fall.

She said that she believed investment in Canada’s cultural institutions will bring benefits beyond the expansion of activity at home. But she worries that the arts are still viewed “as a nice to have” by decision makers, not as a necessity.

She said investment in the arts will also allow more work to be done with digital technology to advance the cause of Canadian artists and arts institutions as well as the Canadian brand internationally.

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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.