How artist-run centres fared: Observations

Observations by members of the ARCA board of directors on how artist-run centres fared in the 2014-2017 Canada Council for the Arts operating program competition

The members of the Artist-Run Centres and Collectives Conference met recently to debrief the results of the latest Artist-Run Centres multi-year operating program peer evaluation for 2014-2017. The following is an overview of their observations and the basis for further discussions and actions.

At a glance

Before applying to the program last fall, centres were informed that there would be no increase to the program budget and that members of the assessment committee would be instructed to recommend adjustments of up to 20% as per an existing policy, developed a few years earlier to distribute new funds. In this case, the policy was used to award increases to 19 centres ranging from 5,000$ to 12,000$, and recommend cuts of up to 20% to 29 centres out of 78 successful applicants. Thirty (30) centres received the same amount of funding as in the 2011 evaluation which in effect is a reduction of funding when factoring in inflation.

One new centre

Among the twenty (20) new applicants to the operating program, only one new centre was admitted into the fold. ARCA wishes to congratulate artist-run centre 221A of Vancouver on achieving this status even as the new found stability of operating support comes at a cost as they will no longer be eligible for project funding from the Canada Council. This restriction has been repeatedly deplored and the community is left to speculate on the impact this is having on centres with operating grants at the lower end of the spectrum. Choosing stability over budget reconfirms the value of our operating program and its currency in the validation process of our organisations. It proves that some members of the next generation of cultural workers believe in, and continue to strive for operating funding even though many emerging organisations are discouraged from applying as there are no new funds.

Nurturing success?

When reporting on their members’ results, the artist-run associations regret the divisive climate engendered by the latest movement of funds that both addresses and exacerbates some historical disparities. It also serves as a reminder that this source of funding is a continually shrinking investment that causes potential misunderstanding and negative inter-sector competition. Receiving a cut, no matter how little, is considered a poor way of providing feedback, when considering, in some cases, the small amounts at stake. Members are left speculating about future adjustments, namely to centres who received notices to reapply in the spring of 2015, one year from now, and who could experience a grant reduction of more than 20 % as per the Fair Notice Policy. Those invited to reapply next spring will be evaluated by the visual arts section, with the assistance of one external juror.

Operating program funds shifted to project grants

Although there has been an increase to the overall budget allocation to the artist-run multi-year operating program since 2006, resulting in gradual increases to average funding levels in each artist-run association, a 47 300$ attrition in the program, when compared to 2011, is flagged; ARCA is informed by the visual arts section that these funds were diverted to the project grants for organizations program. When asked if funds resulting from further cuts would be re-invested into the operating program, the visual arts section confirms that these funds will also be diverted to the project grants for organizations program. Members are left wondering if this money could have supported an additional centre or provided one-time funding support for centres who, in this evaluation, fell just below the cut-off line. Moving these funds from the artist-run centres multi-year operating program into project grants is perceived as going against the spirit of decisions previously negotiated.

Evaluating merit

The results have raised questions about the standards and values being used by the assessment committee in evaluating merit. How are their decisions reflecting or compensating for varying funding levels at the provincial and municipal levels? The results in some cases highlight some persistent historical asymmetries: among regions, due to the uneven development of regional public funding bodies whether provincial or municipal, and among linguistic and Aboriginal groups, due to uneven cultural and demographic challenges experienced by minority groups.

Another point raised has to do with the interpretation of the Canada Council’s agendas and priorities: the third direction of Council’s strategic plan 2011-2016 focuses on promoting equity as a critical priority and states “it will actively intervene in circumstances which it believes require special action.” It is not clear, when examining the results, that the objectives of Council’s strategic plan are being reflected in the decision processes. Yet, applicants will try to address those priorities in their applications. When asked, the visual arts section states that questions of equity are presented to the peer assessment committee by the program officer and used to ensure that applications are treated without prejudice. Ultimately, recommendations are based on the program’s objectives and the assessment criteria, as per the program’s guidelines. Greater research in this area might serve to unpack and deepen our understanding of the stakes related to issues of equity in the network.

Upcoming operating program review

Considering the insistence in recent years on “change” at the Canada Council, will changes be left to individual sections to decide in upcoming review processes? Some members believe it would be better to revise funding programs now, at a time when funding is stagnant thus avoiding putting more money into a system that is failing some of its members. Others believe it would be better to increase operating funding to impoverished centres suggesting greater equity would make everyone more competitive and stimulate greater innovation. And some have expressed reservations about conducting a program review as it is feared it will lead to further movements of funds away from the operating program. Whatever the section’s decision and consultation method, ARCA will want to be part of the conversation.

In light of these mixed observations from its membership, ARCA will request that any movement of funds away from the operating program to artist-run centres be suspended until such movements can be examined in the context of a formal consultation process with the community. Pending this, Todd Janes, president of ARCA commends members on their dynamism, engagement and professional standards adding “we should expect our colleagues at the Canada Council for the Arts to be leaders in capacity building and stalwarts of the Council’s strategic initiatives rather than incite fear and division!”

The ARCA membership, as a group, will continue to pledge its support to the Canada Council for the Arts by engaging in advocacy efforts aiming to increase Council’s total budget allocation as growing the pie is understood to be essential for the longer term stability of artist-run centres.