Change, period.

Art. Future. Change. Canada Council for the Arts report on the state of the visual arts in Canada, 2015The Canada Council for the Arts’ new report on the state of the visual arts in Canada could well have used the imperative tense in its title, just plain “Change.” It’s a road map for the visual arts.

Based on extensive consultations over the past three years, “Art. Future. Change.” reflects current economic and cultural shifts. It also introduces the term “ecology” as a way of looking at the arts, to gently promote holistic and adaptive thinking.

Below are some highlights from the report, with added comments to bring out what I see to be the meanings between the lines:

“Pervasive in the consultations was a strong resistance to being viewed through business frameworks that are seen as insufficient representation of the arts sector. However, much can be learned from innovative strategies in start-up culture, social enterprise and experimental development; as well as emergent non-profit business models that are being explored across other sectors.”

The arts have for too long simultaneously spurned and feared business; mystification has kept both business and the arts from learning from each other. A business plan is neither sufficient nor insufficient, but a tool. Like a chisel or paintbrush, trowel or spade, the magic is in what you do with it.

The reference to social enterprise and startups is especially gratifying since we have been drawn into this sphere since 2012. What is a social enterprise? The most succinct definition I’ve found yet is: “a business that solves a social purpose,” which comes from this Reuter’s article about how Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre is raising funds via a social impact bond.

Read more about that project in relation to public art museums, with other examples inspired by the report, on our other blog: Four innovative social enterprise concepts for art museums.

“Organizations are motivated to do too much.”

Capacity has been identified as a critical issue in the arts for well over a decade now, and still it’s not going away. Organizations over-reach because they have so few options. Scaling up appears to be the only way to attract more resources. And it’s true; the bigger you are, the more resources you can attract. But not everyone gets to be the AGO. Some end up like the ROM. Growth cannot be an end in itself. Thinking ecologically, growth results from favourable conditions and should naturally produce greater impact too (more fruit, more shade).

“There is a strong fear of communicating failure.”

This is probably the most important insight of the report and also the most difficult. We don’t understand failure well, not just in the arts but everywhere. We avoid talking about it. (Why would we?) But this is changing: a fertile discourse is developing around what failure is and how important it is to success. The Harvard Business Review has embraced it. In Canada, there’s a brilliantly named project, Fail Forward, supported by the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation, that has this to say about failure:

“When everyone speaks openly about failures we can implicitly say ‘If you have no failure to discuss, you are not being honest, or you are not being innovative.’ It’s a paradigm shift. An acceptance of failure genuinely turns the concept of performance on its head: you aren’t under-performing if you fail; you’re under-performing if you don’t admit failure, because when we admit failure we all learn from it.”

“The sector has experienced a loss of long-term philanthropists.”

Baby boomers give differently than the industrialists of old. The generations coming after the baby boomers will give even more differently. It’s not that boomers don’t give, or that younger generations won’t when they get there, but attitudes to what is worthy of supporting are evolving. In the cultural ecosystem, institutional authority is decaying, fresh sprouts are springing up everywhere and those with means are noticing. Increasingly they want to see how their dollars are making a difference. The days of giving for the prestige of your name on a building or donor appreciation wall are numbered.

“There is a lack of evidence-based research on the arts.”

In the business world, a qualitative assumption about what should work will fail nine times out of ten. Nobody gets it right the first time, or forever. Entrepreneurs are people for whom the desire to succeed is greater than their attachment to a particular idea. They test, pivot, and test again. Artists do this in the studio every day, yet arts organizations find it difficult. This isn’t to say that there’s no a place for challenging, critical ideas, just that what is contrary can be self-serving; like advertising it often puts the impression ahead of the substance.

Evidence is about measurement. Measurement can’t tell you everything but everything can be measured. We learn by comparing things: measurement. But we also learn from the process itself. It is a mindset to focus on impact.

“Audiences are stressed and can’t afford to participate.”

This is a refreshingly frank acknowledgement that the arts aren’t just an ecology but also an economy, and part of the larger one. “Afford” is an interesting term for the report to use. I don’t think it’s meant literally but refers to the fact that many, if not most, people feel that high culture doesn’t address their real lives and in any event isn’t meant for them. As Jason Luckerhoff found in a study called Visiting Art Museums published in Québec in 2009 that the typical public art museum visitor is not defined so much by how much money they have but by other kinds of “capital”; in terms developed by the sociologist Pierre Bordieu, they have enough cultural, social and symbolic capital to feel entitled to enter the museum and participate in the art world. To understand what is going on here will take many kinds of measuring: either the amount of “capital” needed to gain entry to the museum needs to be reduced, the type of capital needs to change or people need help to develop the necessary capital.

“The public wants “social experiences” and not necessarily “arts experiences.”

This observation is not that unique or particularly surprising except that it comes so late to the arts; retailers have been selling “experiences” for years now. The “science” is telling us that everything we do is, at least partly if not primarily, motivated socially. The point of highlighting it here is to show how the report is persistently pointing out a need to look at things differently.

“Peer assessment’s influence has led to safer choices.”

Back in the day, peer assessment – the process of gathering groups of artists together to make grant decisions about each other – was indisputably a brilliant and disruptive innovation. It allowed a new generation to supplant an older one with reasoned selflessness. The principle is sound: so long as artists are gathered to sit on juries based on nominations and experience, the art they decide to fund should theoretically continue to evolve. Alas, no system is infallible. Which is not to say that a lot of brilliant art wasn’t supported thanks to the peer assessment process, only that limits were reached. There are a lot of ways to make grant decisions. How refreshing would it be for Council to itself innovate, trying out new grant assessment processes to capture the art that is truly outlying and deserving of support.

Some conclusions:
Canada Council’s budget has been frozen for years now. Calling for change feels something like a witch hunt: if she drowns, she’s innocent. But if anything can improve Council’s chances for increased funding, it is this report and the direction it stands for. It plainly states where change is needed. It acknowledges that culture looks different today than it did 50+ years ago. It suggests ways to address the differences: talking openly about failure, getting serious about measuring impacts, and trying out new things with the passion and agility of the entrepreneur.

Council isn’t just preaching. It’s setting an example by doing these things itself. More will be known this June, when Council intends to report details about how it is reshaping its programs.

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