ARCA at the 17th Annual Canadian Arts Summit

The 17th Annual Canadian Arts Summit: Transformation – Evolution or Revolution, March 27-29 2014

Let’s mess with the plan and sit here, at the wrong table.

That was my exact thought when on the Saturday March 29, at the Canadian Arts Summit meeting held at the Banff Centre for the Arts, approximately 60 delegates, guests and fellows in attendance participated in a Charrette style session. As one of the invited “fellows”, i.e. non-members, I was paired with a member moderator (minder), and asked to take notes. Assigned the humbling role of secretary, I jumped at its subversive potential, trusted to record the discussions on two topics, picked for us among the many up for discussion: Engagement of the publics with the arts, and Planning succession.

Representing ARCA for the first time at the Canadian Arts Summit, I was invited, along with six other “fellows,” after responding to an open call with a letter listing my participation in various arts advocacy committees in the previous year. I had done the work. My preconception of the Summit was grounded in a vague impression of exclusivity, restricted to a circle of mostly Toronto-based arts establishments with budgets over 5M$. Face-to-face meetings are humanizing: the programming was solid and informative and the less formal conversations demystifying.

Widening the summit

Widening the Summit to include non-members, guests, panel and keynote speakers and debaters, as well as a public audience via live streaming, legitimizes the organisation in much the same way artist-run centres engage with community to remain relevant. In counterpart to this, getting an invitation confers legitimacy to artist-run culture from the arts establishment even if, as a note taker, I was not encouraged to speak. There were lots of informal opportunities to exchange and make ARCA’s specifics known.

Some high functioning individuals

The group made up of members representing institutions mostly from the performing arts from across Canada included CEOs, board members (also described as those who had not stepped away fast enough), artistic directors, business people and a few artists. Excellent methods are being employed or experimented by some high functioning individuals who are under constant pressure to demonstrate relevance and accountability for public funding despite the evidence that the arts are lucrative and benefit citizens everywhere. Governments don’t seem to base their funding decisions on evidence, however convincing or accurate. Instead, decisions seem grounded in ideology, and in accordance with the wider economic climate. The current discourse is on engagement with communities and being a good neighbour, more than about developing audiences, especially given the often central urban location of these institutions. Establishments are adapting to change by looking at their operations more critically, not necessarily by ramping up the wow factor but by encouraging feedback in order to better adapt programming to a changing demographic, by offering facilities and resources to the community and slowly reflecting cultural shifts on centre stage. Some organisations expressed no need to change anything as there is a continued good fit between the mandate, program, audience and community.

Succession planning

When debating succession planning, deemed one of the timeliest issues facing the arts sector, the possibility that the next generation of cultural workers may not even want these institutions is raised. Questions debated included if the next generation of arts CEO’s is to come from the business community, or be hired from outside of Canada or if enough is being done to nurture a new generation of board volunteers and philanthropists. The results of the Oxford debates confirmed the ongoing divide between the business and arts sectors most agreeing that arts institutions need to be managed by arts leaders. There was some objection to using the debate format that tends to polarize positions that, in practice, are probably not as confrontational. Just like there is little recognition of artists’ entrepreneurial abilities and expertise in management povera. Artist-run centres get together and have similar debates, of note the Oxford debates at the Institutions by Artists convention in October 2012.

2015, 2017…

When the subject of the upcoming anniversary of confederation in 2017 is raised, there is no evidence of a concerted vision or plan from the group. Will everyone do their own thing connected across nation-wide Culture Days extravaganza? Or is it because the Department of Canadian Heritage is not offering any programs for arts institutions such as those made available to celebrate the centennial in 1967. The portion of the meeting devoted to advocacy focuses on the 2015 elections and the recommendations for the more immediate upcoming pre-budget consultations deemed crucial for a pre-election year and where there is easy agreement on recommending the allocation to the Canada Council be increased, if not doubled.

This reminds me of the Québec provincial elections campaign of 2012, when the Mouvement pour les arts et les lettres (M.A.L.) put a few questions to the various parties at the core of which was the assertion that artists remain the weak link of cultural funding. If the arts institutions have made great advances, artists and their grassroots organisations remain extremely fragile. The data demonstrates that visual artists are among the most precarious workers of the arts sector and few will ever be able to retire comfortably, if at all.


Considering the Summit’s overarching theme of Transformation – Evolution or Revolution, inviting and trusting non-member organisations, including ARCA, to participate is a counter-intuitive but smart move. Whatever the motive, it is a calculated and necessary strategy especially at a time when Canada’s arts institutions are expected to lead sector-wide transformation and evolution in addition to supporting artistic excellence. The demonstration of trust had an instantly soothing effect, thwarting my compulsion to act out and disrupt. Fostering a climate of openness conducive to demystification and transformation in our highly competitive sector feels risky. It reminds me of the following passage written by Amy Fung on the Evolve or Perish: Media Arts Symposium organised by the Media Arts Network of Ontario (MANO/RAMO) held last fall in Ottawa: “Actively disengaging with hierarchical expectations is the first step towards valuing ourselves beyond the models that currently dominate our lives by prescribing standardized measurements of success”. I would argue that, as a network, artist-run centres, are an eligible member of the Canadian arts Summit representing a diverse, experimental structural layer faced with many of the same challenges with a fraction of the resources and assets. It is precisely their light and reversible structure that makes them fit for experimentation, unhindered by excess policy yet structured and safe. And, as I’m reminded by one of the members that what is discussed at the Summit, stays at the Summit – Live streaming the keynote presentations, debates and panels to an audience of approximately 600 people and a trending twitter hashtag #2014artssummit provided our community with a mirror, even if slightly warped and a partial view in to get a glimpse of the larger arts institutions’ current stakes, and our communities ongoing need to introspect.  So long and thanks for all the shrimp! – Anne Bertrand, April 2014