Box office democracy

Pleading with the old donors or courting the new, opera's got its work cut out for it in the new art economy. Scene from Carmen at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.

The Canadian literary magazine Descant is a gem. Not only are the writing and art generally good, but the distinguished crew that produces it are given space each issue to sound off on a special topic. The winter 2012 issue (Descant 159, Vol. 43, No. 4), themed “A writer’s guide to melancholia,” carries excellent essays by contributing editors Kay Armatage and Mark Kingwell. Both follow the melancholy theme, Kingwell on grammar, Armatage on arts funding. Kingwell mourns the passing of the serial comma, while Armatage laments the passing of the serial donor.

Armatage has been studying the Metropolitan Opera’s investment in high definition broadcasting to movie theatres and in so doing, uncovers some important aspects of the new art economy.

The Met broadcasts further the innovation of their famous Texaco-sponsored radio broadcasts, which, though highly successful in reaching audiences (11 million listeners in 42 countries), actually cost the Met money, buying air time on many stations.

By contrast, the cineplex broadcasts (cinecasts) are ticketed events, revenue generating for the theatres and for the Met. But, Armatage points out, the Met’s motivation can’t  only be to make money because after five years and 45 broadcasts costing about $1.1 million each, the Met has just begun to make a profit and a very modest one at that ($11 million in 2011), a “drop in the bucket” according to Armatage.

If it’s not about the money then, Armitage asks, are they perhaps striving after some ideal of democratization; bringing art to the masses, eliminating the distinctions between high and low? Closer to the mark, she says, but still not a bull’s eye. Radio is truly free, whereas the cinecasts, while not ultra expensive like attending the opera, are still far from free.

Armatage concludes the grail the Met is after is not exactly to be more inclusive so much as to find altogether new audiences. The need to do so is urgent: The average age of Met subscribers is 65, she notes.  Moreover, the regulars are not like you and me; they are rich, really rich, ponying up big bucks for box seats and making substantial donations to boot.

So the question the Met’s cinecasts are posed to answer seems to be how to replace this aging audience and their old-fashioned type of patronage. Armatage has to admit that the cinecast initiative shows promise: already reaching 2.4 million people through 1,500 theatres in 46 countries, and poised to expand into Russia and China.

And the money isn’t just in the ticketing. Donations have correspondingly increased, by 50% in 2012. Although half of that still comes from the Met’s board of directors, according to the Met’s CEO Peter Gelb, the new millionaire donors are going to be found in those new audiences.

A similar change in audience-economies can be seen in the film business. According to an article in The Economist (February 23rd-March 1st, 2013), Hollywood movie revenues are stagnating while TV is more popular and profitable than ever. This summer, for the first time in as long as I can remember, networks are introducing new programs and not just playing reruns.

To make up for  lost theatre revenues, Hollywood has come to rely on downstream revenue from DVD rentals, sales and now downloads through digital subscription services. But like with the Met’s cinecasts, this diversification doesn’t pay as much or as consistently as the old revenue models. According to analysts,”people are still watching the same amount of movies that they did a few years ago, They’re just spending $6 billion less a year to do it.”

Lower rates of return are endemic to the new media environment. In the same way that digital advertising rates for online magazines do not produce returns the way print advertising did, or ebook sales don’t yet make up for losses in hard copy book sales, movie distribution deals in new markets like Russia and China pay producers lower rates than the domestic standard percentage.

So here is the rub for the new art economy: new audiences promise to replace the disappearing, smaller but richer ones who paid more for tickets and donated more, but those new audiences typically pay less for digital delivered media. How much bigger the new audiences need to be, how much they’ll pay to be served and whether they will donate significantly all remain to be seen.

For the time being, producers, whether in the movie business or the opera business (or publishing for that matter) have little choice but to gamble on the new digital media: risking more, taking less profit while pushing their products further into unmapped territory.

While the revenue models are uncertain, there’s little doubt the wider audience is there.  It’s just a question of how to wring the right amount of money out of them. In 2012, Lionsgate, an independent movie studio and distribution company, made one of its movies available in theatres and on video-on-demand at the same time, with the happy result that it produced three times as much revenue as it would have done otherwise, because, in the words of Lionsgate chairman Michael Burns, it “found two different audiences”.

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To follow this topic on Twitter, search the hashtag #artecon.

 

Maxwell Anderson’s view of 2012: museums (and publishing)

Reproduction of Picasso linocut from the Remai collection.

Picasso, Portrait de jeune fille d'après Cranach le jeune II, 1958, linocut on paper, Remai Art Gallery, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan

Evaluations of the previous year at the turn of the new year are generally popular, refreshing memory and promoting sober reflection. 2012 was, after a promising start, a miserable year by all accounts, including that of Maxwell Anderson, as expert and independent a thinker on the subject of art museums as one can find in the US of A.

Writing in the December issue of Artforum, Anderson observes an untoward over confidence and release of extravagance after years of measured caution and terrified parsimony brought on by the financial crisis of 2008. Anderson decries the financial short sightedness of museums, whose boards churn through directors while ignoring their fundamental missions and chasing trivial (and largely unattainable) goals like attendance to justify their institutiions.

Anderson usefully lists the criteria by which he believes boards should be evaluating their museums’ work: “the extent to which they care for our cultural heritage past and present and advance research, understanding, and awareness of the value of aesthetic endeavor.”

Anderson spends a lot of column inches on the most sensational news of 2012, how Jeffrey Deitch was challenged after his appointment to the directorship of the LA Museum of Contemporary Art when artists on his board abandoned ship after Deitch sacked veteran curator Paul Schimmel and dumped already scheduled projects for his own. Anderson’s piles on with the others, but his complaints sound shrill. If museums are stuck in various malaise, who better than Deitch, with his outsider status and dealer experience, to throw open the gates of privilege or try to develop more open and interesting relationships between museums and the market?

Acquisitions are another thing that make headlines in the museum world. Anderson notes a few of  what he calls marquee art acquisitions, transformative gifts and bequests, including 405 Picasso prints donated to Saskatoon’s civic gallery by the Frank and Ellen Remai Foundation, a gift substantial enough to bring the respectable, regional Mendel Art Gallery (now renamed the Remai Art Gallery of Saskatchewan) to the attention of the international art world.

Most interesting are Anderson’s compliments to the city of Detroit for instituting tax-based (mill rate) funding for the Detroit Institute of Arts, following a grassroots campaign that argued the  extrinsic benefits to the community, including the multiplier economic effect, programs for the disabled and safer streets. Solid municipal support like that is more common here in Canada but needs to be even more universal, and at consistent funding levels.

In conclusion, Anderson appeals for more thoughtful and substantive support for art museums’ intrinsic activities: research, collections care, publishing and conservation. But looking hard at those programs may turn up problems just like the equivocal attitude to museum leadership and the preoccupation with attendance, like the looming collections crisis: vaults over-crowded with indifferent works acquired in boom times, with no room left, or budgets to support, the art being made today, or the on-going problem of donations that look good in annual reports but saddle institutions with costs they can ill-afford, in perpetuity.

Similarly, publishing continues to be fraught with contradictions, as Anderson notes earlier in the article: Why do museums persist in spending lavishly for exhibition catalogues that sell few copies to only the very narrowest segment of museum patrons?

There are answers to that question (e.g. publishing contributes in a fundamental way to the integrity of an institution by manifesting its commitment to, and capacity for, top notch research), and to  others that address the core of the museum. Overall, Anderson’s year-end review calls for a refocusing on things that really matter. He has created a useful agenda to guide discussion and work in 2013.

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Maxwell Anderson is a highly respected thought-leader within the art museum community,  former director of the Whitney Museum of American Art, president of the Association of Art Museum Directors, and currently the director of the Dallas Museum of Art.

 

 

 

 

 

Kathleen Bartels vs. Bob Rennie: Both right.

Friday dance band at the de Young art museum in San Francisco

Dancing at the de Young: In the future, the exhibition and conservation of art may not be the only, or even the primary function of the art museum.

It is further evidence of the increased public awareness and popularity of the visual arts that the Globe and Mail should publish a cover feature story this past weekend about the effort to get a new building for the Vancouver Art Gallery (The Collector’s Gamble, G & M, August 11, 2012).

There has been talk of a new building for years, with updates periodically about possible locations. It doesn’t appear to be a question whether it is possible to raise the $300 million estimated to be needed given ever more gloomy economic forecasts. Rather, journalist Marsha Lederman sees the hold up in a struggle between gallery director Kathleen Bartels and Vancouver real estate developer and art  collector Bob Rennie, who are not merely vying to determine the best location for a new gallery building but debating matters much more fundamental to the role of the museum today.

According to Lederman, art collector Bob Rennie, who is now running his own art museum, thinks the $300 million would be better spent building eight or ten smaller venues dispersed throughout the city. Bartels disagrees, citing concerns about fractioning the visitor experience, stealing audiences away from local galleries, as well as increased operating costs and program challenges.

They’re both right.

Having recently visited the de Young Museum in San Francisco, a stunning building by Herzog and de Meuron, on a Friday night when the foyer was packed with people dancing to a live jazz band, one would be hard pressed not to favour Bartels viewpoint: without doubt Vancouver could use a piece of international celebrity architecture, even if there’s only a drop of “Bilbao effect” still to be wrung from the global cultural tourism market. People like to know where the action is and to get to it easily, and inner cities need constant reinforcement, all of which support a centralized approach.

Tate St. Ives

One of four Tates, Tate St. Ives looks out on Porthmeor Beach. The others are Tate Britain (the original), Tate Liverpool (1988) and Tate Modern (2000).

Bartels is also indisputably right about the management issues associated with operating multiple venues and running distinct programs in each. According the recent New Yorker profile of Tate director Nicholas Serota, he is an excellent delegator, charging his captains to run the four separate wings of the Tate. Bartels too is reputed to be a good delegator: letting her experienced and expert staff shape the VAG program. But running multiple venues on the scale Rennie is talking about calls for a different scale and type of management altogether; it’s something more like a franchise.

On the other hand, Rennie’s vision is timely as condo building and the real estate frenzy in Vancouver  continues unabated. Each jewel in his museum “necklace” would create a hub for investment, multiplying development opportunities. Rennie knows how museums make great anchors, attracting business and promoting gentrification. They can also be icons around which city and regional marketing campaigns gather momentum.

More fundamentally, the idea of bringing culture to where people are is an important one, hardly new but potentially game changing; Rennie proposes to make real a concept to which many people have been giving lip service for decades.

While many observers say the role of the museum is changing, conveying with some urgency that museums need to be proactively reinventing themselves if they hope to stay relevant, justifying sustained public and private investment, the shape and program of the museum of the future is as yet  unclear.

The art museum will always be an archive of culture, a trove of irreplaceable treasures that embody our history, thought and sensibilities. But the art museum is also, increasingly in our contemporary times, an active supporter of cultural production and arbiter of contemporary taste.

Bartels and Rennie are not vying merely over whether one spectacular jewel is better than a string of smaller gems. At the root is a question about how aggressively to move toward the inevitable future of more democratized, accessible, participatory culture, a future that will be full of unanticipated consequences for art museums and art collectors.

A slightly differently titled and edited version of this article has been cross posted to View on Canadian Art. Thank you to Andrea Carson Barker.

 

Buzz Hargrove or Lee Iococca: the search for business models in the arts.

Creative Enterprise book cover

ISBN-13: 978-1441188205

For decades now, everyone from artists to arts organizations to public and private galleries and arts councils has been under pressure to operate in a more transparent, business-like fashion. When combined with artists parallel creative pushing at the limits of the institutional and discursive frameworks that hold art apart from (and above) audiences, it is hardly surprising if traditional ways of explaining or justifying the arts look less and less convincing.

Two new books step towards the idea that it may be fruitful to start looking at the arts through the same lens as we look at other things people do; cost vs. benefit, profit vs. loss, labour vs. management.
Martha Buskirk’s Creative Enterprise: Contemporary Art between Museum and Marketplace, is characterized as “[a] dryly skeptical account of the nuanced and complex relationships between artists, museums and the marketplace.” – interview with Martha Buskirk here: http://hyperallergic.com/54766/arts-corrosive-success-an-interview-with-martha-buskirk

Buskirk focuses on roles and methodologies, relationships and institutional frameworks, basically the infrastructure of the arts,  attempting to identify the models that are at work. Among her observations:

  • It is  increasingly difficult to distinguish between art and other forms of commerce or production: Alan Kaprow called himself a “service provider,” a labourer in other words.
  • Artworks today are often iterative, meaning the artist changes them as they move to new venues. It is not a matter of a discrete object being produced in the studio and then sent out for display. It is more like how the marketplace works for other types of products, where design, packaging and promotion  evolve in response to demand. Creating and presenting artwork has always involved “management” – by the artist and by curators and dealers – but today that management is increasingly like management anywhere in the marketplace.
  • The visual art market, particularly since the bubble of the first decade of this century, has been increasingly revealed to be driven by the same things that drive business: profits and tax breaks. The language is shocking, but so is the idea that there might be pretty straight forward business model at work.
  • Artists today are more frequently invited to work in situ, to work withing a gallery context or other setting. They are increasingly seen as people who can be brought in to “fix” any range of institutional or corporate ills, from public profile or office culture. operate like management consultants, except they are paid far less.
  • Institutional critique has become popular even among public galleries, because it is popular with the public who like to see the inner workings of the musuem. The avant garde that once was tied to the ruling elite with a rope of gold (Greenberg) is effectively taking down the velvet
  • The explosion in collections, museums, galleries, no less than the number of art schools and art school  graduates add diversity of points of view and practices that will inevitably change the character of the field.
  • Artists like Murakami are brands, managing processes that have all the attributes of the industrial assembly line. The results are both hi art and low or no art. The gift shop item no less than the one off monumental sculpture being part of a conceptual project that challenges both the meaning of ownership and the value of the art object.

 

Claire Bishop's Artificial Hells book cover

ISBN-13: 978-1844676903

The second book, Claire Bishop’s Artificial Hells, further stirs the pot by examining the political effectiveness of social or “relational” art practices, provoking a similar kind of questioning of what models exactly are at work.

She looks at “the tensions between quality and equality, singular and collective authorship, and the ongoing struggle to find artistic equivalents for political positions.” http://hyperallergic.com/55068/claire-bishop-artificial-hells/

Bishop takes art practices that seek validity outside of the proper institutions and discourse of art at their word, as if to say, if your  first commitment is to social change, then put up or shut up. Don’t dress up like Buzz Hargrove if all you’re doing in the end is reinforcing the investments of Lee Iococca’s shareholders.

It’s a fair point – how can one champion the working stiff while also protecting the shareholders’ exclusive interest? – but only to the extent that the art falls so strictly along ideological lines, which most art, and most art institutions for that matter, do not.

While we may expect debate to rage now about what exactly Bishop is “for” or “against,” or thinks “better” or “worse,” and whether all that is still rooted in the same modernist cricial traditions it will be more interesting to consider what it means for  a critic of Bishop’s stature to be digging down to look at the foundations of current art practices, or what fresh hell she may excavate.

Bishop has provided an important spur to critical debate, which pretty well everyone has been saying for over a decade has become moribund: “boosterism is the only form of dialogue and lack of hype around an artist suffices for criticism.” Buskirk has similarly expanded the way in which we can speak about and analyze the infrastructure that validates and promotes certain practices and certain artists over others.

Whether looking at art or its context, the search for internal validation for art now seems not so much frustrating, even Quixotic, so much as misdirected. Validation occurs in art, just as in other kinds of human activity, in relatively predictable, but more importantly, knowable, describable ways.

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This article was first posted on View on Canadian Art. (Thanks to Andrea Carson.)

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Is the well of copyright dry? or poisoned?

Like poor Charlie Brown we are doomed to keep charging the copyright ball only to have it yanked away at the last minute by the remorseless Lucy.


Three new Rewriting the Cartoons comics show a few of the ridiculous dilemmas that currently mire copyright reform in permanent debate. You could draw comics like this for every conceivable position on Bill C-32 (in fact, to mash up your own just copy the blank strip below), which suggests to me that IF there’s something broken in how content gets from creators to consumers, it’s not something that can be fixed by copyright.

Copyright Debates (a la Peanuts) 1 - Publishers vs. Authors

Publishers vs. Authors - click to enlarge

Copyright Debates (a la Peanuts) 1 - Big Media and You

Big Media and You - click to enlarge

Copyright Debates (a la Peanuts) 3 - The Collecting Societies

The Collecting Societies - click to enlarge

But it will be a shame if Bill C-32 is never passed, for two reasons, neither of which ironically has to do with the substance of it. The first is that the preamble to the Bill proposes that the Copyright Act be revisited every five years. That’s an important idea given how quickly technology is changing how content is created and delivered. It’s been 14 years since the last round of amendments and each added year makes the existing Act more antiquated and the changes needed more drastic and more difficult to get agreement on. The second is that there has been more consultation during this round than ever before. Even if nobody really understands what the fuss is about, we are all more aware than ever that there is such a thing as copyright and that it affects our daily lives. Having been engaged, people naturally want to see something happen.

It’s pretty clear at this point that copyright as a regulatory regime – a system of rules to guide how content moves from creator to the public – is over. It’s now all about the market, who controls flow and access, and the Bill wants to let the market work it out while also taking a few important steps to balance public access against the skew towards creators and publishers the Act was given by the Brian Mulroney government in 1988.

It’s often said that something nobody likes is probably achieving balance and that is certainly true of Bill C-32: everyone has something to gain but also to risk. That’s good enough for me. Let’s get it done and move on. Please, let Charlie kick the ball Lucy!

If you want to make your own mash up using this classic Schulz strip, click to enlarge the pic with the partly blanked out word balloons below. If you do, please send me a copy and I’ll post it here.

If you want to read the original Peanuts strip, click to enlarge the one labeled “original.” Sorry, I do not have the date or location for this; clipped it ages ago.

Copyright Debates (a la Peanuts) blank base - use this to make up your own.
Charlie Brown, Lucy and the football, original

Original strip - click to enlarge

Food or thought: the arts in times of crisis

500-600 A.D., Teotihuacan

Consider this paragraph from Jared Diamond’s book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (2005):

“Like Easter Island chiefs erecting ever larger statues, eventually crowned by pukao, and like Anasazi elite treating themselves to necklaces of 2,000 turquoise beads, Maya kings sought to outdo each other with more and more impressive temples, covered with thicker and thicker plaster – reminiscent in turn of the extravagant conspicuous consumption by modern American CEOs. The passivity of Easter chiefs and Maya kings in the face of the real big threats to their societies completes our list of disquieting parallels.”

The preposterous bail outs of the past two years have a similar quality of unfathomable disregard for reality, denial really. In art, not so much but will we continue to see million dollar public art commissions or even the launch of the proposed Canada Prize? If we do, it will a little hard to be, like, “yeah baby!”

Of course trajectories leading to total collapse are not so easy to see up close. There are underlying logic(s) that seem to lock societies onto a conveyor belt to destruction. As Diamond illustrates: Mayan civilization was falling apart due to deforestation and resource depletion. People started fighting with each other over scant resources, and under those circumstances leaders turned to art – temples and status symbols – in an effort to hold things together, and hang onto their power.

The most important 158 pages you will ever read!

No Culture, No Future by Simon Brault, 2010The sensationalism of the title of this post is intended to demonstrate the kind of difficult questions facing the arts and culture sector today: a question like whether sensationalizing in order to attract audiences compromises core cultural values. Simon Brault’s book No Culture, No Future (Le Facteur C en français) sets out not so much answer this question, or questions like it, as re-frame the whole way we think about the place of culture in society.

Drawing on his extensive experience as CEO of the National Theatre School, spearheading the restoration of the Monument-National in Montréal, founding Les journées de la culture, and as Vice-Chair of the Canada Council for the Arts, Brault describes the various impasses the cultural community faces to achieving sustained support: we must, he argues, fundamentally question and then rebuild the relationship between the cultural sector and the public. Brault’s project is a road map to “democratization,” the kind of engagement in which the public does not merely “participate” as consumers but is so deeply connected to culture that it is an indispensable part of life.

For Brault it is not a question of finding better arguments for supporting the arts. He notes that we have ample evidence of the positive economic impact of museums, galleries, theatres, orchestras, festivals, etc., yet the arts and culture are still generally regarded as a luxury, affordable in good times but far from essential. Brault cautions against putting too much store in economic arguments; it is better to hang on to core values even if that necessitates underestimating the economic contribution of the arts and culture because the alternative: “one-dimensional and instrumental thinking that reduces cultural value to calculable economic impact,” risks shearing off the very core values that are the foundation of our best arguments.

Neither is it a question of simply increasing government funding. Brault reminds us that state funding of the arts and culture is purposive, based on philosophical principles and broad social objectives. In Canada there are two approaches, one in Quebec founded on France’s culture pour tous (culture for all), in which state investment in culture is understood as promoting democratic participation, and another in the rest of Canada based on the British system of autonomous arts councils which detaches culture from politics. For Brault, it is not a matter of which approach is better. The bigger issue, he argues, is the multiplication of programs to fund arts and culture among Ministries and departments and agencies at all levels: while this abundance promises greater independence from single-source funding, there is real danger of arbitrary retraction where policy objectives are vague and unaligned (something we are witnessing already as funding regimes threaten to topple like dominoes, starting with recent “clearcutting” of arts programs in B.C.).

Neither is it a question of cultural communities more strenuously or loudly asserting the importance of culture. For Brault this approach is crippled by contradictions and competition within the cultural field(s), the contradiction of cultural “experts” professing to know what’s best for the public and a public largely unconvinced but nevertheless expected to foot the bill, and competition that periodically erupts into skirmishes and fueding, for example between “universalists” who believe in hierarchies that produce “excellence” and “relativists” championing diverse, critical, independent voices. Brault again refuses to choose sides. Rather he focuses on the practical dilemma that despite remarkable growth, increasing diversity and powerful new communications tools, the cultural communities are unable to find a common voice or arguments that are broadly credible outside their own immediate spheres. This leads Brault to what is perhaps the most provocative assertion in the book: that cultural policy cannot be left to the cultural community itself.

Brault balances this assertion with a fair and impassioned plea to address the economic plight of working artists. Clearly creators are the foundation of the arts and Brault is sensitive to the failure of both market and state to build sustaining economic structures. Refus Global, the Kingston Conference of 1941, income disparity, and number of artists (142,000) are all discussed in the book, as are arts organizations.

At the end of the day, however, Brault asks us to look at the problems from a different perspective, to come at them not from the inside out but from the outside in. Great progress has been made, he notes, through international policy agreements like the UNESCO Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expression, which establishes culture as a universal right, and which has permitted governments to insulate their distinctive cultural production from the “pure” economic competition of free trade markets. The underlying concept of “culture as an essential dimension of human experience” is a foundation upon which we can begin to build a better integrated, stable and sustainable cultural field.

In Part 3 of the book, Brault puts forward a practical example of the kind of building he envisions, taking us through his experience restoring and re-purposing the Monument-National to the formation of Culture Montréal, a consortium of arts, government and business leaders whose singular mission was to join the words “cultural” and “metropolis” and make them synonymous with “Montréal.” Brault is frank about Culture Montreal’s ultimate failure to create a single new agency that would have been responsible for all cultural activity in Montréal, but undeterred from his conviction that cross-sector cooperation is the way to move culture from the margins to the centre of the public policy stage.

Here again, Brault’s is unafraid to court controversy; his ideas about centralization, working with but not being led by cultural producers alone, and overall emphasis on “leadership” rather than “governance” may rattle the chains of cultural workers rutted in certain ways of doing things, tethered to state funding, suspicious of the private sector and siloed by internal policy and politics. Brault is respectful of these constituencies, which he sees as “legitimate, necessary and [to be] sought after,” but asks again that we approach things differently: the key to moving forward, he argues, is the human factor—developing trust relationships between funders, sponsors, creators, producers, presenters, etc., building a common vision, “to imagine the city differently,” which then makes it possible to get things done.

Brault ends the book in the same tone of modest conviction that runs throughout: fixing the arts and culture will not solve all the problems of the world, but it may be an essential antidote to the overwhelming litany of disasters presented daily by the media. Culture is empowering. Wherever people struggle, there is culture. Song, dance, theatre, music, art give us solace, but more, they concretely improve our lives, allowing us to recover our sense of hope and work together. What we must form, he concludes, is a lasting pact between culture and the public, a common understanding that culture is essential, sustaining.

— Post Scripts —

Le Facteur C by Simon Brault, 2010Simon Brault’s book Le Facteur C was released in French in February and in English in May as No Culture, No Future. I found it somewhat difficult to get a copy of the English version. Amazon and Chapters weren’t stocking it; they said it would take 2-3 weeks to get a copy. My local bookstores, which, in my downtown Toronto “artsy” neighbourhood, you might expect to stock it, didn’t, or had sold the few copies they ordered and then didn’t re-order. I finally found a copy at BookCity, the remainder store, of all places. The publisher of the English version, Cormorant Books, reports that the book has almost sold out of its initial press run, 1000 copies, in 10 weeks, but they are uncertain whether to reprint. By comparison, 4000 copies of the French version were sold in Quebec in 10 months.

This is a book that should be dressing the windows of bookstores coast to coast to coast, that should be a hot topic of debate with copies being traded between friends and colleagues. If it is not, it is proof of the very challenge Brault describes in the book: until the public is truly, madly, deeply engaged with the arts and culture they will continue to be precarious (and, we might add, important books like this are not going to reach everyone they should reach).

Getting public commitment to the arts, the very subject of the book, is also the thing that will limit its reception in English-speaking Canada. In Quebec Brault’s book was a “cause célèbre” for months, with coverage in all the major newspapers. But then Quebec is Brault’s home turf, where he is very well known for his many accomplishments, including Les journées de la culture, a province wide arts festival.

Perhaps I am overstating this. Perhaps all the people that need to read this book already have. But I mention it because in the book trade there is a tendency to think that all books have to sell to the wide market for them to be successful when in reality most books have small but often dedicated audiences. The challenge is how to reach these “niche” audiences when the trend is, as Alberto Manguel lamented in his 2007 Massey Lecture, towards the “industrialization” of literature. Outside of Quebec where culture is a dominant force in public policy, books like Brault’s are too easily lost in the cacophony.

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I have a few criticisms of the physical book. The French version is published somewhat austerely like a policy treatise—in trade paperback format with a glossy cover, glossy interior pages and standard single line spaced typography—which it is, and is not. In fact Brault lays out complex policy ideas using accessible language that makes them easy to grasp. Clearly he is hoping for a wide readership. The English design is a little “friendlier:” slightly smaller, almost pocketbook size, with an attractive colour cover, elegant French flaps and easy to read 1 1/2 line spaced text. I especially like the short summary text at the beginning of each of the major sections (in both English and French versions).

There is no index, which is understandable because I know from experience that indexing is an intense, specialized task that is both costly and extends publication dates. However, it serves an author well to indicate succinctly what they feel is important enough to index and it serves readers to be able to quickly see from an index what has been included, and what left out.

I have only one other criticism and it is something of a “pet cause” for me. It’s about translation. Brault’s translator, Jonathan Kaplansky, is clearly a professional, as reflected by his rich vocabulary and stalwart effort to find equivalent English vernacular expressions to match Brault’s accessible writing style. However, if English were his first language, you would never encounter a phrase such as this: “… the daily commitment I’ve carried out for fifteen years to favour cultural democratization and bring the arts to the heart of urban developments.” This sounds pretty much like it’s been run through Babelfish. What he means to say, and it is not easy to capture in English, is something more like: “… my daily work over fifteen years promoting cultural democratization and bringing the arts to the heart of urban development. Is it a big difference? Not for those who are reading through to the ideas. But if the goal is to render a text seamlessly accessible to English-only audiences, then, forgive me for saying so, but francophone authors and publishers have to work harder at it. I understand the challenges; there are few thoroughly bilingual translators. Perhaps the answer is to use two translators or a translation team, a bilingual francophone to translate from French to English and another for whom English is their first language to polish that up to the standards of vernacular English. Would that double translation costs? Perhaps. But it is a cost that must be borne if treasures like Le Facteur C are to be widely read, appreciated and effective.

— drift —

Review in the Winnipeg Free Press.

Interview with Brault in the Nat’l Post.

New money for translation

Michel Houllebecq covers french and english

I wonder how France subsidizes translation, e.g. authors like Michel Houellebecq.

Here in Canada there’s an interesting development of the Conservative government’s platform on arts funding; $5m for translation. In fact there is a blizzard of new developments in arts funding; this is just one of them.

The translation money was actually allocated last year as part of the government’s Action Plan for Official Languages. What was decided more recently was who would actually handle the program, the Canada Council for the Arts.

Is the government thinking more books in English will flood the Quebec market diluting the nationalist literary cabal? Or the reverse, seducing Quebecois writers to abandon their nationalist leanings with promises of cracking the enormous Canada-US market?

Actually it’s neither of the above. According to industry sources, this program comes after much lobbying by Quebec publishers for subsidies that will enable them to bid against publishers in France for the translation rights to prominent English-language Canadian books. With the program, Quebec publishers may be able to secure rights and then take the books into distribution not just in Quebec but also in France and throughout francophonie, a very large and potentially lucrative market.

Does it matter that the program is restricted to translation French to English or English to French only? Already the Department of Canadian Heritage has programs to support translation into first nations languages.

According to the Canadian Encyclopedia:

Since the QUIET REVOLUTION of the 1960s and the work of the Royal Commission on BILINGUALISM AND BICULTURALISM, changes in the political balance between French and English have caused work [translations] from French to English to increase.

However they happen, it seems that shifts in political balance are always good for translation.

That the funds will be disseminated through the Canada Council for the Arts is also interesting; an important acknowledgement of Council’s artistic and managerial expertise.