ARCA at The RCAAQ’s AGM and Congress on Social Economy

Axe Néo-7, June 6-7, 2013, Gatineau, Québec – Members of the Regroupement des centres d’artistes autogérés du Québec (RCAAQ) met over the course of two days on the topic of self-financing – a topic that has, over the course of the last years, increasingly infiltrated, if not monopolized conversations in boards across the ARC network. The meeting started with a line by line examination of Council’s Backgrounder: Review of Operating Grant Programs published on Council’s Executive Director’s blog and provides the “management” framework for the upcoming review exercise. Some of the premises and shifts in language predictably produce concern among the membership, leading the assembly to propose a letter to Council expressing their concern, adding that the cultural shifts at Council should not be minimized. Of note, a shift away from the “comparative” to the “competitive” paradigm even as Visual Arts section head Sylvie Gilbert was persuasive in reassuring the gathered assembly that Council’s aim was to encourage greater diversity of models and more flexibility in funding programs. In that sense, ARCs’ missions, in theory, are the closest to the Council’s traditional raison d’être.

The congress opened with a keynote by Nancy Neamtan, Executive Director of Le Chantier de l’économie sociale, a social economic model that belongs to the wider Community Economic Development sector, who presented some of the financial tools available to the cultural sector, including “patient” low interest capital investments for various phases of projects. The presentation was followed by a more in depth look into practicing the social economy, including some much needed arguments for debunking the stigma of public funding vs private: private enterprise receives infinitely larger sums of public funding under the guise of “contracts”. Among the suggestions for raising money without denaturing our missions: equipment and gallery rentals, publications sales, fund-raising events – methods already employed by members, often with modest results. Granted the social economy is more closely aligned with our not-for-profit culture and values by prioritizing people over capital, and rooting economy in local community, it’s still grounded in the regular economy’s logic of growth.

A panel moderated by Bastien Gilbert brought together Natalie Chapdelaine, the project manager of The Arts and Business section of the Montréal Arts Council, Louise Hodder, an economist and president of Ateliers créatifs à Montréal, a not-for-profit that advocates for the preservation of accessible studio spaces in gentrified neighborhoods of the island of Montreal, as well as AxeNéo7 director Jonathan Demers and SAW member and independent curator Stefan St-Laurent who spoke of their respective experiences and approaches around the economic development of artists and their organizations. Hodder’s humane and profound understanding of the stakes faced by artists, and her words of encouragement to resist the business imperatives were welcome as were the narratives of inspiring fundraisers developed by local ARCs. Hearing of the shortcomings of working with organizations that promote networking with the the “young” business community who sadly look to the arts as a source of “fun” to use the words of Chapdelaine, Montreal Arts Council project manager, led ARCA to ask how her office could encourage the business community, who claims to be genuinely interested in connecting with the arts, to greater reciprocity. When speaking of business relations and partnerships, how could the business community be encouraged to respond to the not-for-profits’ outreach efforts by also inviting artists to sit on their boards and work groups? And, how could the business community assist in advocating for more arts education, considering her own admission of shortcomings when visiting art exhibitions.

The Congress closed with a presentation by art historian Vincent Bonin invited to attend and comment on a series of Salons organized by AxeNéo7 to commemorate their 30th anniversary. Even as Bonin’s text zeroed in on some of our networks’ well known paradoxes and ongoing complicity in perpetuating unacceptable situations, the audience appreciated the critical perspective as necessary, and welcome, especially in these times of what British scholar Mark Fisher calls the current “business ontology”.

I would argue that the organizers of the congress (RCAAQ board members and amorous duo Julie Tremble & Jonathan Demers and the RCAAQ power staff) were most successful in providing diverse perspectives on the subject of financing at a time when ARCs are under increased pressure to compete and perform in what are referred to as funding competitions. In his closing address, long time RCAAQ member and current director of Espace F in Matane, Gilles Arteau, deplores the  objective “to dominate and grab something away from others”. He further suggests that our grants are in fact self-generated revenues, and surmises that the social economy is unwillingly enabling a two tier economy that legitimates precarity by creating a minimum wage service economy, namely in the community and cultural sectors. He closes with the suggestion that we consider joining forces with the community sector to advocate for better wages and work conditions.

Such meetings hopefully provide the ARC community – a cultural and political force – with the renewed confidence to assert its own role and purpose at the core of the “industry”. Anne Bertrand, June 2013

Listen: Regards sur l’économie sociale et l’autofinancement. Diversité et consolidation — un congrès du RCAAQ by Réseau Art Actuel