Home » Government Grants: Preaching to the Choir?

Government Grants: Preaching to the Choir?

I’ve been thinking recently about Canada’s arts granting system. With all this talk of financial reform, from the global to the municipal levels (hello, Rob Ford), maybe it’s time we looked at whether the granting system in Canada could use some reform of its own.

Image: canadianart.ca

Federal, provincial and municipal arts councils are all arms length agencies of the government. The Canada Council for the Arts is a crown corporation chaired by Joseph Rotman, which is funded from parliament along with endowments and donations. The visual arts are one division, the other five are media arts, dance, music, theatre and writing/publishing. The Ontario Arts Council is a publicly funded agency of the ministry of culture, and the Toronto Arts Council is funded by the City of Toronto.

These granting bodies are necessary to the visual arts community in Canada. We have excellent programs and opportunities for artists because of them. And there are many excellent, even world class artists who use grants for research, travel and production. Grants allow them to advance their careers and to create ambitious, intelligent works of art that the public gets to enjoy. And for many important cultural organizations government grants form only a part of their funding, much of which comes from private and corporate donors.

From my perspective – I’ve never applied for a grant, though I’ve written many (successfully) on behalf of others, and have benefited from organizations who receive grants (the Canadian Art Foundation, where I used to work, for one) our granting system is a pretty decent one, but it’s by no means as good as it could be.

Image: caribbeantales-worldwide.com

One question that occurs to me is who benefits from the granting system? The gallery-going public benefits from grants to galleries, and dance and theatre audiences likewise, and we benefit from many of the cultural organizations whose support comes from grants, but with grants given to individual artists, there isn’t always a direct correlation. The system supports artists, but artists come into public view only when their work is exhibited, by a museum, a commercial gallery or within the arts community itself.

In other words, the result of the grant (the artwork) doesn’t always have the broad reach with mainstream audiences that it might have. Following are my thoughts on why this may be the case:

The art market (or lack thereof)
Most artists would love to have their work sold by a commercial gallery, make a living and not have to apply for grants. But they can’t because we don’t have a strong market here. There are far more artists than there are commercial exhibition opportunities. And, the art world isn’t democratic. Not every artist makes work that the market considers desirable.

A recent Sol Lewitt exhibition at the artist-run centre Mercer Union (where I used to be on the Board of Directors.) Image: VoCA

The artist-run centre
Most people I know who are not in the art world don’t know what an artist-run centre is, or that they exist. Is this a good thing? Artist-run centres are at least partly government funded spaces for the exhibition of works by artists who are often funded by the government. The audience tends to be, with rare exception, more of these artists and collectors who are already within the arts community. The challenge is in attracting new audiences, and with the rise of Young Patron groups in Toronto, this may be changing.

The media
The other thing that I’ve noticed changing over the past decade is the profile of the visual arts within the mainstream media. This month, Toronto Life has a feature article on the painter Kent Monkman, and emerging filmmaker Daniel Cockburn was interviewed in the Globe and Mail recently. In general, the media seems to be celebrating Toronto’s cultural community, which is fantastic, and a long time coming. The more this happens, the more involved and aware of the arts the public will be.

Again, many artists use grants to create work that they then exhibit widely, but I know of other artists for whom grants seem to be a kind of supplementary income. They make work, but it rarely, if ever gets shown. And some of it is brilliant work. If the public can’t access the work that grants make possible, isn’t there something wrong with the system?

With the notable exceptions of MOCCA and the Art Gallery of York University (not a major museum), Toronto’s public art spaces rarely exhibit work by local artists. Sure, there’s a project room – Toronto Now – at the AGO, but compared to Montreal and Vancouver, both of whom have had large-scale, well-publicized celebratory and very memorable exhibitions of local artists, this city is deplorable.

What do you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Is our government granting system satisfactory or could it (should it) be improved? What’s the purpose of government grants, to and is this purpose being fulfilled?

The granting system is doing a good job at bringing the arts to the art community. But is it doing a good job at bringing the arts to a larger general audience?

4 Responses to “Government Grants: Preaching to the Choir?”

  1. Svava says:

    Dear Andrea,

    Thanks for this very thorough overview of the gallery and granting system in Canada. In response to your point about funding work that may not be brought to a larger, or any audience, and whether this an indicator of flaw in the granting system, I just want to point out that there are many different types of grants available. Like in other fields, for example science and humanities, funding is provided for research. Research grants, of which I have been a fortunate and grateful recipient, create an environment whereby the artist’s studio becomes a laboratory of sorts. The immediate results of this type of exploration/research may not make it’s way into a public gallery, but I can almost guarantee that the impact of having time in the studio to investigate, will lead to the public presentation of objects or ideas at some point in the artist’s career.

    Support for Artist-run-centres can be looked at similarly. The conversation that happens throughout the ARC system in Canada , though often limited it to artists talking to other artists, is equally important, as it is there that the early stages of an artist’s research is vetted and discussed. Many of our more well known Canadian artists had their start on the ARC circuit. The collected archives over exhibitions and writings about artist’s work, which are contained at places such as Eyelevel gallery, are a testament to the voracity of research that Canadian artists have produced over the past 40 years. (http://www.eyelevelgallery.ca/exhibitions/archive)

    The issue of ‘bums in seats’ or audience building is a whole other conundrum, which may not really have much to do with the granting system. It may be a chicken or egg sort of question.

  2. Hi again Andrea. I appreciate your comments. I am director/co-owner at ABC Art Books Canada, a privately held company specializing in the international promotion and distribution of Canadian exhibition catalogues. The direction of the Canadian Art Museum Directors Organization (CAMDO) is attempting to set up a 100% funded entity run by bureaucrats to do the same thing. It’s not that we mind the competition (a backwards compliment) but we believe such an organization will not be able to succeed in the international world of book retailing. We believe it will turn in upon itself and promote and sell (although not much) strictly to the arts milieu to the detriment of the real outreach that a professional book distributor can achieve. You mention preaching to the choir. In this case even the choir is absent. We have outlined their ambitions and our analysis on the document entitled ABC Responds to CAMDO. http://abcartbookscanada.com/ABCresponds.pdf

  3. Melinda Hunt says:

    What Canadians may not realize is that Canada Council provides seed money for works that are never even in Canada. This allows Canadian artists to serve as cultural ambassadors. The trouble is that Canadian press doesn’t cover art abroad other than that which is already highly visible. There is no place on the Canada Council website for grant recipients to post what is happening as a result of grants abroad and to connect with audiences in Canada.

  4. Hi
    thank you very much for this opportunity
    my name is Simion N.Faget(pron.Fuh-Jet)
    I’m selling my artworks through facebook(only recently)and directly from my studio in the past,and is not sustainable…but i love what i do(for almost 40 years now) and people love my art too, but everybody calls me a starving artist
    because i give away art(donations,gifts) literally to not spoil the art market by underpricing
    beside that I would love to try other means of selling my artworks through
    an agent lets say… but i do not prefer galleries because as of today less and less
    people visits them and the artworks hangs in there for years for only a few locals passing by

    I dedicate most of my time to work on my paintings and
    I have less time left to take care of sales which is in fact a matchmaker job
    matching the one-of-a-kind artwork to the only one right buyer

    There is always only one buyer out there for the only one artwork out there
    that is why more and more virtual galleries gets on the world wide web
    “You probably won’t get a good art agent before you are already successful.”
    then my question to you: if I’m already successful why do i need a good agent?
    and my next : to be successful it is not necessary to have a good agent?
    The same thing with Canada Council of the Arts
    i applied for 8 years consecutively for a grant with letters coming back each and every time with words like:we are sorry to inform you ,you didn’t succeed this time,try next year as the jury changes……wish you success on YOUR endeavor (by the way i framed all of them)

    What we understand from here is that… the agent/Canada Council is not the main person to get you/the artist out there, promote you, sale your artworks and make you a successful artist, and that agent is not part of your
    success— he is a successful agent only—in other words a good one— because you are a successful artist

    If it is all about the talented artist, having the time, promoting himself/herself ,selling his/her art and making money barely for living only –and that represents success– we do not have a valuable motif for our discussion

    But if it is still about promoting and selling then The talented, creative and dedicated artist, financially free because has already money for living… when it is about to not promote and sell himself/herself but it is about to do it through an agent – his time and talent in order for the buyers to have a multitude of beautiful choices on the market—also representing success— then let’s talk

    The artist—- even if he/she is working most of the time to bring out his/her art—- needs to be promoted … the one that is not “successful”–you say–if he/she cannot promote and sell himself/herself and the one who is not successful because nobody promotes him/her otherwise and subsequently nobody buys his/her art… is situated in a loop/catch22 (successful to be successful) isn’t it ???

    The loop that I was talking about is the one that can’t be broken …or it can… only if
    we consider potentially/virtually any artist being successful as soon he/she is out there on the big market.

    If it is not that then… we can’t judge art and artists in sheer terms of cold economy and then we can say
    that that is why an artist can’t and never will be an “economist” in this sense

    He/she can sale his/her art, no doubt, but poorly because he/she is not so interested in where his/her artwork will end up,valuable or not for others, he/she just wants to start on a new piece/new idea and for that he/she calls for his/her talent/art to be used and shaped continuously by the needs of the soul and spirit

    On the other side there are talented agents– real diplomats of art— when they come into dealing fairly with the artist on his behalf with a panel of known costumers/clients

    Promoting/selling on one side, creating/producing on the other, becomes almost a must do out there– not jobs in a strict sense of course–for a win-win environment touched only in part by the laws of economy/bills
    Artist just do not live on an island by themselves… though they need isolation in their studio

    There has to bee an “artist hunt”– performed by any agent out there to bring more artists to the “successful” table and an “agent hunt”–performed by any artist who is aware that success is a two way road and conscient enough that these are two different honorable things

    Any artist who still works today–despite all laws of economy– have a level of success by inheritance measured by the satisfaction of a “job” well done hence he/she can be successful in his own right/talent but sometimes not successful in getting his/her work out there and make the money
    If success for an artist means only making money necessary for living and working sustainably on his/her art… than we are not complete in our debate

    If success means being exposed and make money on top of the fact that you have already money for living and working sustainably on your art…then we are on the right track here
    because let’s face it: there is many out there “sponsored” to continue making and working their art but me….people like me are under the cold economics
    when you are starving you do not have any friends-i hear eople saying
    friends are flocking around wealthy people isn’t it ?
    i am a starving artist and being as such seems like a disease –it needs healing
    but this doesn’t mean i am uneducated or careless or addicted or else – i am just a starving artist/ person
    i am at my age still with a dream–to work perfecting my art– i shouldn’t i was told
    but making art comes nowadays under cold economics –it shouldn’t i say

    “you do not deserve any healing by any methods because simply you are the starving one—i hear the economics”
    so what is to be done ? is a catch 22 known as a loop of no sustainability the fact is that the Talent actually starves–why?
    because you do not sale properly and nobody knows about you-i hear a voice

    soo,what feedback should i give you?
    when you pay for an artwork–you do not pay the artwork per say
    you pay living expenses for the artist to make the next new artwork—to sustain and subsist
    is about to create… not the law of making profits
    please read my bio and participation/activity/artworks on my facebook web page


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