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January 3, 2011, by

Rob Ford’s ‘Arts Czar’ gets condescending with the blogosphere – requests positive comments only

by Michael Wheeler

Less than one month into his tenure in as the new ‘Arts Czar’, a position just created by Mayor Ford, Jeff Melanson has taken to the comments of the Torontoist website to launch a critique of their year-end post about Nuit Blanche:

Melanson comment

To summarize, the substance of Melanson’s comment comes down to three points that he makes related to the Torontoist post: 1) That arts funding will not be reduced under Rob Ford as Mayor; 2) Nuit Blanche is supported by Scotiabank and thus is especially not under threat as a corporate sponsored activity; 3) Any critical take on the arts in Toronto is misinformed and in fact anti-Toronto.

1) “government funding reductions are not on the table”

The only guarantee we have that Ford won’t cut the arts in a couple of years once he’s weakened key allies first is that Melanson will quit his non-paying, just-invented, part-time job if he tries. This isn’t a guarantee – it’s somewhere in between a red herring and an afterthought. I learned this was the deal, because I read the overwhelmingly positive, ‘Star is Born’ kind of interview with Melanson in The Globe and Mail that he provides as an example of laudable research and analysis. Just to clarify: articles that promote Melanson’s approach = good journalism; articles that critique it = bad journalism.

More significant is that Melanson already has a documented history of pulling a fast one on the Toronto arts community while technically appearing to increase arts funding: In early 2009, The Canada Prizes fiasco was caused by an incredible breakdown in the democratic process when the late David Pecault went over the head of Heritage Minister James Moore to convince Finance Minister Jim Flaherty to approve the only new cultural spending in the 09 federal budget to fund a $25 Million Nobel Prize of The Arts to be awarded annually in Toronto, a fact confirmed just last week by The Toronto Star’s Martin Knelman.

Eventually, it was revealed that the flimsy document used to propose the project had the names of a number of people and organizations that didn’t actually support it, and it was shelved due to this blatant misrepresentation of industry support and the backlash against what was generally agreed was a terrible idea across the country. Jeff Melanson is listed on this controversial document as one of the four key founders of The Canada Prizes, an initiative that would have massively increased “arts funding” in Toronto with 0% going to Toronto culture or artists, while cash, profile and prizes were awarded to artists from around the world. Two years later, scant details on this program have been announced by Canadian Heritage other than it will now be administered by The Canada Council.

Personally, I believe it’s quite probable “arts funding” as a broad topic will actually go up under Melanson. The real question is how and what will be funded. More eight-year-olds in tutus at The National Ballet, or across the city, are probably something Rob Ford can live with. Is now a good time to bring up the play about G20 I have been thinking about? Okay, maybe not. What if it was a commercial hit?

2) “Unfortunately your lack of investigation has once again missed a major factor in Nuit Blanche’s success. That factor is the private sector support of Scotiabank (note – Scotiabank is in the actual name, so it should have been fairly easy to pick up that one). Nuit Blanche is a very good example of bringing together both public and private support.”

The crazy thing about this one is that it is written right in the Torontoist article: “Since Nuit Blanche is already mostly a privately funded event—thanks, Scotiabank—it’ll probably continue regardless of Ford’s slash-and-burn efforts” prompting one commenter to write, “Did you even read the post Jeff?” What this tells us more than anything is that Melanson probably didn’t read the post more than once before deciding to respond in a huff. If he did, he would have realized that he spent half of his time refuting a point that was never made. It also makes his parenthetical ‘dig’ at the author’s “lack of investigation”, possibly worthy of an apology. Do Arts Czars have to apologize when they’re wrong?

Again, there is a more troubling layer to this response, namely that Melanson thinks “Scotiabank Nuit Blanche” is the “actual” name of the event. Perhaps he is unaware that Nuit Blanche is a concept that occurs all over the world, most notably in Paris. In these cities the “actual” name of the event is “Nuit Blanche”. Toronto is the only major world city to sell a corporation naming rights to a Nuit Blanche.

This could be what Melanson would view as being “entrepreneurial”: selling the right to change the “actual” names of public events to corporations. It is an interesting debate, but certainly not one where there is a lot of consensus, with at least one prominent city hall activist calling for Torontonians to refer to the event as BMO Nuit Blanche in any of their social media communication about the event.

3) “I do appreciate the Torontoist and your attempts to “inform” our communities. … Cynicism, negativity and misinformed opinion will not serve Toronto well”

I’m confused why it’s not obvious when you use quotes around words like “inform”, people know that you don’t really mean it. It’s like showing that your fingers are crossed while fibbing.

As for the demand for a positive response – if one thing’s for sure when you’re Rob Ford’s Arts Czar – it’s that Haters Gonna Hate. Even if after this inauspicious start, he does an incredible job, there will still be someone in the blogosphere with an axe to grind. This is a position that is going to require thicker skin. People say untrue things on the internet all the time – how do you think Rob Ford ended up Mayor?

Since this disastrous posting, Melanson has arranged a second, ‘Star is Born’ interview, this time with The Toronto Star’s Richard Ouzounian that fails to address the Torontoist posting or The Canada Prizes, but does make him seem like the next Justin Bieber.  This was presumably to do some damage control on the whole situation, and also add a little clarity regarding his priorities and mandate.

Melanson has some good ideas, especially about homegrown hits and the importance of increased diversity.  Clearly his arts education ideas borrow heavily from the gospel Simon Brault has been spreading. Brault has been pushing a national Participaction type program for the arts, which makes sense since Brault is CEO of National Theatre School and Melanson runs the business side of the National Ballet School.

Most disappointingly, he refers confusingly to Toronto Alliance for the Performing Arts (TAPA) as “an advocacy organization”. This is a statement from someone as experienced as Mr. Melanson, that can only be characterized as deliberately obtuse – certainly someone in his position knows the difference between an “arts service organization” and an “advocacy organization”.  TAPA is an “arts service organization” that provides a variety of services to performing arts organizations across the city. Occasionally it advocates on behalf of its members – as well as running workshops. TO Tix, The Doras and a number of other community-based programs.

A good example of an “advocacy organization” would be The Arts Summit, which has been successfully advocating for fourteen years for increased government funding of institutions with operating budgets of $5 million or more (like the National Ballet) while keeping the door shut to smaller organizations and independent artists. If I’m wrong here, prove me wrong: get independent artists and mid-sized organizations from across the country a place at the table when The Arts Summit comes to Toronto from April 1-3 2011.  As long as these major institutions dominate cultural policy through formal and informal networks, whether or not “arts funding” goes up or down is just window dressing to the real decisions being made behind closed doors.

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  1. David Tompa says:

    Incredibly well written Michael. Well thought out. Just biting enough without taking on the passive aggressive tone of the source. I hope you continue to peel back the curtain.

  2. Courtney says:

    I remember reading Jeff’s comment when it was first Tweeted by Torontoist and thinking “massive eye roll.” 

  3. Josh Hind says:

    As a point of clarification…

    The funding for Nuit Blanche is indeed assured for the next 3 years under the latest agreement with Scotiabank. The deal (re-upped last year) is very much like an advertising agreement, rather than some kind of production contract. Essentially, Scotiabank has paid the city for the ad rights to the whole downtown for one night, plus a lot of lead-up time. The city can’t just pull their support of Nuit in the same way that the city can’t just tear down Astral’s bus shelters. These ad deals don’t come with the same kind of council oversight that we might assume. 

    As I said, this is only good for a few more years…however, if the event continues to attract a large audience (any critiques of the pieces aside), then it’s likely that the money from Scotiabank will keep flowing.

  4. Josh Hind says:

    Oh…and Simon Brault is a gormless bully who’s taken a fine institution, chased out it’s best people and gutted it’s finest programs. The only thing a page from his book should be used for is wiping one’s bum. 

  5. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Phil Rickaby. Phil Rickaby said: RT @praxistheatre: Rob Ford’s ‘Arts Czar’ gets condescending with the blogosphere – requests positive comments only […]

  6. As the author of the post that elicited Jeff Melanson’s retort, I was a bit befuddled by his comments. Thanks for your articulate de-construction of his arguments, and for putting it more eloquently than I could have!

  7. Mike says:

    Consider this a meta-comment.

    “What a CU*T!”

  8. Michael Wheeler says:

    Thanks for all the positive feedback.

    Hey Mike – even in a meta-sense – there is probably a more articulate way to phrase that – or at least that’s the type of discussion we are hoping to curate in this space.

    Hi Josh. Long time no see. I haven’t read the book you are referring to: No Culture, No Future, but I know it has been quite influential in Quebec. From what I can tell he is on to something in terms of arts becoming viewed as a service for “elites” that taxpayers will eventually refuse to pay for unless society is more integrated with culture. 

  9. Josh Hind says:

    Hi Mike, long time indeed.

    I have a particularly strong reaction to Simon Brault and his vision for arts and particularly arts institutions, having been a student at the National Theatre School during the time when he was pushing out the people who, in my opinion, had made the school great. Despite all those people had done to establish a reputation for the school’s broad range of programs, they didn’t fit his ideas about how to make the school more broadly known and by extension more profitable. They loyalty to the founding principles of the school ultimately led to their departure, willingly and otherwise.

    To be fair, the school no longer has money problems and that has everything to do with Simon Brault. On the other hand, it used to have the finest design and production programs in North America and now…well, they are diminished.

    Maybe people on the performance side see things differently. But for us backstage folk, many of which have taken our time at NTS and gone on to work for the biggest companies in Canada and the world, Simon Brault won’t get a lot of credit for his vision.

  10. Michael Wheeler says:

    Well…. I feel the same way about Vince Carter if it helps.

  11. Michelle Bailey says:

    Let us remember that appointing a political czar is an admission that you don’t know the first thing about how to handle said subject. Just hire one more bureaucrat to make sure we all play nice.

    If political czars made any difference whatsoever, William Bennett would have single-handedly won the war on drugs ages ago.

    That being said, I look forward to more amusing gaffs from Mr Melanson. (insert massive eye roll here)

  12. Harry Crane says:

    Awesome, awesome piece Mike, seriously. Informed, well written – excellent. I totally echo Dave Tompa’s remarks.

  13. rebecca picherack says:

    Great community service.
    Thank You.

  14. Brandon Moore says:

    I wasn’t going to comment because it’s going a little off-topic from what you wrote about, but I was really put out by Mr. Melanson’s remarks about “world-class public transit” in the Ouzounian piece. Obviously, my experience of “going to the theatre” is driven first and foremost by the art itself and yes that is what I talk about. But how I get there and get home is pretty important too, and it really does impact my own theatre-going (and I’m someone you don’t have to convince very hard to come see a show!) I’m surprised that he doesn’t seem to appreciate that.

    I also worry that this whole business means we’re going to hear a lot less from him in the public sphere, and that the conversation will stay among the Toronto arts elites.

  15. Hey Mike,

    the link to the CCA in your post says that there was an advisory panel of experts (Joseph L. Rotman, Simon Brault, Tony Gagliano, Liza Maheu, and Jennifer Clarke) that was supposed to generate a series of recommendations and options regarding the Canada Prizes. The group was supposed present a final report to the government during this past summer. Any idea what happened with that?

  16. Michael says:

    Okay, so there are a number of interesting comments here. Few things make me happier than a good discussion after a post on our website.

    Christine: Good question – This federal government website says that details will be released at the end of summer 2010. As there is a snowstorm outside my window and the year is no longer 2010, we can assume that this information is incorrect. The minor scandal attached to this fact is that this money is being touted by the Conservative government as one of the successful initiatives created by stimulus spending. Really? That’s funny – cause it looks like 2 years after it was announced – not a single dime has gone into the economy from this program. I remember reading somewhere (in the Globe and Mail maybe?) that new details would be forthcoming soon.

    Brandon: Yeah I agree that the arts are too often siloized as an issue unconnected to the other elements of society that citizens (yes “citizens” not “taxpayers”), interact with. Arts funding is important. So is transit, shelters, affordable housing, safe bike lanes, road work, waste removal, and community centers. I worry this administration wants to pit these groups against one another so we don’t emphasize this together, consistently, with mind-numbing repetition. Cause that would be a problem.

    As for the discussion disappearing – I doubt it could be more hidden away and inaccessible than it was previous to recent events, so there’s really nowhere to go but up.

    Thanks to everyone else for reinforcing that this is a conversation that should be happening with greater transparency.

  17. Julian Brown says:

    In connection with Canada Prizes, the Ministerial Advisory Panel on the Canada Prizes apparently submitted its report on time to the Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages in late summer 2010. The Minister is currently reviewing the recommendations.

    This information is from an official in the Department in response to a query. It will be interesting to see how long the Minister will spend on the review.

  18. Michael Wheeler says:

    Oh cool. Thanks Julian. I had just been wondering aloud how one would go about asking an official about this. Thanks for the update. 

  19. Julian Brown says:

    With the election, the Canada Prizes seem likely to go into limbo for quite some time. However, there seems to be another “Canada Prize” for a book, announced by Quill and Quire in the last few days. No apparent connection, but the same name.

  20. Julian Brown says:

    The Canada Prizes announcement by Moore a few days ago confirms that they are still in limbo, though they may be held in 2012. The story seems to indicate that private contributions to the endowment will be expected.