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Federal Cultural Policy Goes Pro-Rain, Anti-Cloud

Image Courtesy of Natural Resources Canada

Momentum grows for nation-wide performances of Homegrown by all theatre organizations that receive federal funding in protest of Summerworks Festival being defunded by Federal Government

by Michael Wheeler

Last week saw freedom of speech and federal support for the arts come under unprecedented attack by the Harper Government when the Summerworks Festival had its Heritage Department funding pulled with no information given as to why.

This follows a series of co-ordinated attacks on the festival by SUN Media and even The Prime Minister himself, some of which I wrote about last August, when the performance of the play Homegrown by Catherine Frid, about a lawyer’s relationship with a man convicted of terrorism, was being used as a smokescreen to deflect attention from public outrage over the discontinuation of the long-form census.

Last week, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty followed up the Summerworks announcement with this statement:

“One thing I’d say, and maybe it’s different than it used to be, is we actually don’t believe in festivals and cultural institutions assuming that year after year after year they’ll receive government funding. They ought not assume entitlement to grants … no organization should assume in their budgeting that every year the government of Canada is going to give them grants because there’s lots of competition, lots of other festivals, and there are new ideas that come along. So it’s a good idea for everyone to stay on their toes and not make that assumption.”

While it may seem reasonable to suggest that arts organizations shouldn’t simply expect automatic renewal of funding, there is no argument to be made for this kind of  cut to an organization with a strong record of meeting and exceeding its mandate, announcing consecutive years of record-breaking attendance and growth.

The cumulative message behind the Summerworks axe and the statement by the Finance Minister could not be more clear:

If you create work that critiques the Harper Government – we will take away your funding.

So begins what will likely be a challenging era for cultural institutions that are committed to making groundbreaking work which may (gasp) challenge the dominant value system – or just aren’t interested in being propagandists for a mean-spirited regime designed to respond to the commands of a leader who cannot tolerate criticism. When L’Etat C’est Moi is the rule of the day – and Moi has a big problem with people putting on plays about ideas he doesn’t agree with – Houston We Have A Problem.

Of course the argument is being presented that this is freeing up funds to support new ideas – but anyone who knows anything about the way the cultural ecosystem functions knows this is complete hogwash: Stripping Summerworks of $43,000 in funding to free up $500,000 for The Walk of Fame Festival is like declaring yourself pro-Rain, but anti-Cloud.

Even if we accept for a moment that promoting already famous people like Alex Trebek is a good idea that needs support from taxpayer dollars, how on earth do they imagine artists on very rare occasions become famous? They struggle to hone their craft in festivals devoted to groundbreaking work just like Summerworks, which has an extraordinary record as the birthplace for a number of the most exciting new works in Canadian performance. Last year’s Summerworks hit, Ride The Cyclone, recently announced an off-Broadway deal as a direct result of participating in Summerworks.

After traveling from Victoria BC to Toronto to participate in the National Series at Summerworks, Atomic Vaudeville's 'Ride The Cyclone' get a chance to take their show to NYC.

Almost none of the artists involved in Summerworks will be paid a living wage. Practically everyone doing a Summerworks show is working a second/third job and knows the best they can hope for financially is a small honorarium and that the show will go on to have a greater life after the festival. Everyone participating does it anyhow – because they know that Summerworks is an important place for new contemporary performance in Canada.

All of this is to say giving Summerworks the axe is an extremely poor approach to public policy and the cultural equivalent of poisoning the well.

The immediate impact of this politically motivated intervention in cultural policy is that ticket prices will go up and the marketing budget will go down. All tickets, including for the Praxis Theatre/The Original Norwegian Co-Pro, You Should Have Stayed Home, are now going up by 50% to $15. ($10 + $5 FST*) *Free Speech Tax. Summerworks is also in the midst of a grassroots fundraising campaign you can participate in here.

Canadian Actors Equity Association’s Executive Director Arden R. Ryshpan was the first member of the theatre community to respond to the situation with a statement released by CAEA last week:

“It is hard to interpret the Minister’s statement as anything but a threat and a potential ideological attack on the arts. I don’t recall seeing similar statements made about long-term government support to other industries such as forestry, fisheries or mining. Given that our industry is larger than all three of these sectors combined, we deserve better from our Government including meaningful consultation leading to thoughtful program change and development, if required. An off-the-cuff remark by a Minister alluding to substantial change of practice is shocking and imprudent.”

Artists across the country have also independently begun to respond positively and pro-actively to the situation. The Globe and Mail reports Western Edge Theatre in Nanaimo, B.C. will perform a public reading of Homegrown on July 15 with all proceeds going to The Summerworks Festival.

Multi Dora-winning Shaw and Tarragon playwright Michael Healey has sent out a call to action to all Artistic Directors of organizations that receive Federal arts funding to join Western Edge Theatre in performing a reading of the play, whether or not they participate in the fundraising initiative. Healey has offered to provide scripts and keep a list of participating companies so that the initiative can continue to gain momentum.

This is not the type of storm theat can be weathered by hoping they won’t come for you. Or if they do survive it that way – lets talk about how relevant the work those theatres end up putting on will be. Will Stephen Harper’s vision of Canada be the only art that forms partnerships with the government? The final sentence of Michael Healey’s message to AD’s of Canadian Theatres urging them to participate in a nationwide reading of Homegrown expresses best the necessity of a national response to this attack on Canadian culture:

“If you find yourself anxious about the potential ramifications for your own company’s federal funding as a consequence of taking part in this demonstration, I can think of no better reason for participating in it.”

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  1. Jacob Zimmer says:

    hi – so, to be clear, in case anyone has doubt about my ideology/politics, I think we’re in for dark days with Harper. I think he and the Cons in all levels of government are doing terrible, irreparable harm to the country in all sorts of way, including (though not most importantly) how they think about arts and culture. I also think they are both symptom and cause. Emerging from something in the culture (that we engage in the production of) that is equally dark. 
    But blowing the “we got censored because of a work-in-progress first play” horn I think is good for hysteria and bad for reality.
    Heritage has, as I understand it, changed their funding priorities for Festivals from the past – removing artistic merit from what they do. They do community participation and involvement – volunteers, attendance. There is some mention of fitting mandate and conditions for professional artists – but most of it is about connection with community. (
    This has serious ideological motives and repercussions. Marginal and alternative voices will never have the numbers in terms of participation that main stream events do. And so those voices will be further marginalized and unable to find expression or space in the country. And that’s a terrible thing for everyone, and not, I believe, an accident (though also not an X-Files conspiracy)
    And while project funding is always a risk, the statement of being “on your toes” means that planning becomes impossible if notification is so close to the event (side question: is that endemic in the application deadlines and process, or is there a way to know more than, say 8 months out) and this will have serious effects on presenters and artists ability to create tours and festivals and lead to the dominance of privately-well-funded-celebrity-involved events. 
    But I really think the specific “censorship” cry is a red herring. 
    Are the changes in policy and the resulting funding decisions politically motivated? Yep. Is it so focused and direct? – I don’t think so. (Because I think they are smarter than that)
    And I don’t think the community barking up the wrong tree helps anyone and only distracts from the big picture changes and wastes our energies on gestures the Cons are not going to care about. They know we’ll never vote for them, no matter what they do (and dear god I hope they’re right)
    I have a Summerworks show and I think the National series is a good thing that deserves public support and that public arms-length  funding is crucial in subsidizing ticket prices for audiences. I wish the festival had gotten the grant. 
    I don’t know what the answer is, but I suspect it involves getting off our high horse. I suspect it requires some reflection on why there is so little public support for (what we mean by) the arts and whether we can address any of those things.

    see you in the beer tents

  2. Michael Healey says:

    You’re possibly right, Jacob, that the charge of censorship is slightly inaccurate. It’s possible that the decision to withdraw funding from Summerworks, if it was taken with Homegrown in mind, is more accurately described as politicking. In the endless election campaign the new Tories have stated they are engaged in, gestures to their electors have to occur regularly. Tom Flanagan calls it “red meat for the base”. 

    It’s also possible, of course, that there was no intervention from the cabinet in the decision. We can never know, and in both instances I’m comfortable using the term censorship. Here’s why:

    There are two ways this government backs off an ideologically-based attack on the arts: if it’s more trouble than it’s worth, and if they can be convinced that the same demographic that elected them is the same one that’s filling theatres across the country. I’d love to do something with the second instance, and hope to figure out a way to make that point sometime. 

    The first instance — more trouble than it’s worth — they have personal experience with. Quebec artists cost them a majority in 2008. They adjusted their message and tactics in the following election. I use the term censorship in the hope of energizing OUR base, and making going after us more trouble than it’s worth. I still think I’m probably right; the coincidence seems too great for a government renowned for its long memory and vindictiveness. Regardless, a cross-country response to what happened last summer never coalesced; it’s happening now. And they gave us the chance to do it. 

  3. Jacob Zimmer says:

    Michael –
    I just think the specific “censorship” is so deniable and factually questionable that it distracts us from making the bigger arguments and changes in how we engage in politics.

    I think find a clear argument and rallying people is important, but that what we rally around has to be… more true?

    So to rally around the place for minority voices and the need for a government to care about artistic excellence* is something I can get behind – and I think is what happened in Quebec.

    I honestly don’t think this the play or the story to do that with. But then, maybe I worry about galvanization in general, since it does seem to be feeding on the same red meat.

    *and I’ll add: for the artistically excellent to care about a broader culture. We only seem to get upset when bad things happen to _us_.

  4. Michael Wheeler says:

    Jacob if I was the Conservative government, and this blog was a theatre, I would de-fund you for your comments. Would it be censorship? I don’t know.

    Lets give what’s happening another name, if it is distracting from what’s going on: Just as long as it means taking tax dollars to fund art (or game show hosts) that meet the ideological demands of a government elected by a minority of Canadians – and taking money away from voices they don’t share values with. Lets give that a name and respond to that. Which I believe is what Michael has proposed.

    The question of whether or not this is the right play to rally around doesn’t really hold my interest. I was on a camping trip during Summerworks last year and never saw it. Doesn’t matter – the point is not the work in this instance, but that theatres and theatre artists will not be intimidated into only performing works that the government approves of.

    I agree with you that the cultural sector in general could be much better community members with regards to supporting other positive components of society. Here in Toronto there are a lot more opportunities to pair with affordable housing advocates, cyclists, transit advocates, anti-poverty experts and other sundry groups facing another mean-spirited ideologically driven administration.

    Again, does it really matter who they come for first?

  5. It has been pointed out to me that I may have unintentionally (unconsciously) proved Goodwin’s law to be true in my last comment.

    Anyhow – when they come for us – what I mean is defunding and closing down a number of the things that contribute to a healthy society. Not come for us to kill us – like the Nazis did.

    Harper Conservatives are not Nazis. They are just misinformed and some of them lack compassion.

  6. Nita Varma says:

    I apologize for the lack of sentence structure. It was written spontaneously. I wish Michael Healey a wonderful enjoyment of continued success. People that choose to access their personal cornicopia with or without the support of others will find nothing but success. This day and age fills people with a sense all ballots of choice are typed up by someonelse. I work in a clinic. We do not have the luxury of being “right”. In the realities of medicine we hope and stay tuned. Good prognosis turns bad and bad often turns good. Compassion, hope and the ability to comphrehend another’s subjective experience is what traditionally is taught at the basic university level as the basis of intelligence or the ability to hold an “educated” regard. There are plenty of intelligent Canadians daily applying such levels of intelligence and celebrating it through not only gratitude in their health but gratitude for the existence of others equally enthusiastic towards it presence. Intelligence in the form of compassion, hope and unlimited form of expression is a cornicopia for any that choose to take. This play is a success…..Summerworks has brought east and west together. Wouldn’t that be a success to be a part of. Bringing unity to a country as vast as ours by uniting voices of Canadians. Well done. Looking forward to further acts of cornicopia. The following is from my facebook post….in reading your posts I thought you might want to consider a victory of another kind that has taken place.I think there is a difference between a government for the people and a government that presumes to be of the people…Canada Council already does the type of screening to maintain the intergrity of artist pursuit. If your child revealed so…me existence to extraordinary talent it takes years of dedication, the presence of talented mentors and levels of professional development to fully be realized at levels people born to do what they were meant to do to be something our country should be proud of. They don’t just stand for freedom of speech or freedom of expression or the right to be treated with respect….they represent the communication that moves, disheartens, inspires, defines compassion and humanitarian regard as acts of intelligence…where one achieves the beauty of open expression from the heart it is always acknowledged whether privately or not in the surrounding souls….artists refer to this as authentic expression being one of the greatest achievements in their work…it bears no loyalty to a style, or technique…it has studied, mastered and attempts to release…you raise your children, love them, teach them technqiues, hopefully lend to their desire to respect their voice and others as true enjoyment…artists spend most of their lives struggling to lift fears or whatever the everyday person unintentionally allows to silence themselves…to write a controversial play or even to promote a financially sound budget requires the same type of courage of “I hope”….I hope we’re right. Hope is the presence of humanity…to me the greatest act of intelligence…you can’t study it…the statements by the Minister of Finance is that artistic institutions carry a sense of “entitlement”…this is dramatically disconnected to the realities facing anyone dedicated to promoting the arts…his view of them to me is a view for me of his own sense of himself and his right to determine where canadian taxpayer money goes…he’s entitled…but entitled to listen to the people of Canada…and if they are being treated as children that need to grow up…I think we may not be listening to a level of intelligence that represents the intelligence of canadians…those funny money people…they never have half the fun as children….children laugh and smile for no reason at all…and generally inspire parents to be twice the human being they thought they could ever be.

  7. Hannah Moscovitch says:

    Keep reading the comment sections at the bottom of the articles that cover the defunding of SummerWorks. Am seeing the words “hand-out to artists” and “welfare to artists” over and over…. As a seriously over-worked harried writer putting in my 60 to 80 hour weeks and wrecking my muscles sitting at my desk twelve hours at a stretch am getting seriously pissed at this insane lie and wondering if there is some Michael Moore stunt I can pull to convince these deluded people that we WORK VERY HARD for our dollars. Thoughts, theatre geniuses? Like maybe I invite one of these “tax payers” to take over my life for a week…(man I would love that, love to see one of the not-on-my-dime bloggers sweat blood doing my job)…

  8. Nita Varma says:

    You guys should check out this interview…it says it better than what i was attempting..THE POWER to express and move and inspire is part of the artistic potential…if anyone can get members of government to be moved by the written word…it’s the artists…go for it. If it’s done to the level of achievement many artists have completed….it’s next to impossible to not be inspired and relieved for the added insight…Harping on Harper is not art….harping is politics…what you guys do…is way past that.

  9. Michael Wheeler says:

    Hannah – you might want to get the whole sweat/blood thing checked out when you get a sec.

    I try not to read the comments on articles in the press these days. I think a lot of major news organizations with significant traffic are still struggling with how to make them useful or interesting. To speak to your point – I was recently at a seminar held by Business for The Arts where it was revealed that established mid-career contemporary dancers in Toronto make roughly $18,000. Which without googling anything I’m gonna call that living $5,000 below the poverty line in a major world city. These are the SUCCESSFUL ones.

    Nita – Thanks for the link – I might quibble with the notion of truth and art being inherently related – but it’s always nice to hear from Kevin Spacey.

  10. Nita Varma says:

    Last blog I promise. During my early twenties I applied at some unknown to me place of employment known as the BanffCentre for the Arts. I was just there to save money for a trip to Africa and chose them because I knew it was a place in Banff that I could have access to pianos. My coffee cart and I visited many places where the nature of not only artistic experiences but equally impressive the dialogues amongst the President and various levels of government, international diplomats and various artistic disciplines were observed. The BanffCentre an internationally recognized “jewel” underwent a financial shake-up during the eighties. In the presence of real cuts of government funding did they have to rally by creating other forms of financial support. One of the solutions they chose to pursue was inviting not only artists but individuals interested in using the BanffCentre as a site for conferences. It was an extraordinary clash of values to witness. I think what happened to Summerworks is direct censorship. I saw members of the public view certain projects or residency themes at the BanffCentre with equally strong vocalized forms of protest. These are real issues in the arts. Internally even within artistic circles was there strong criticism as to which theme had won place of residency or even 20th century opera performances (not easily accepted by the general member of public yet revered as excellent amongst the artists). The BanffCentre too had to struggle between generating higher levels of income by choosing to put on performances during their festival that carried greater audience appeal than answering to their true mission statement of providing a place for cutting-edge professional developement to top artists. The most emotional program to witness was the Jazz Program. Participants in that program were chosen purely on audition. People from poverty stricken backgrounds stood right next to graduates of the top musical institutions. By the end of the week they were all equal contributors to jazz compositions and levels of growth that dissolved all usual forms of external self judgement.That self-judgement universally in all artistic disciplines was regarded as a very real threat to access their talent, creativity and voice. My point being it is a shame that persons in the Arts face as mentioned real levels of poverty. To me in my work its a shame when seemingly nice people get sick. I don’t think anyone deserves to suffer or be censored. Media generated forms of art are so openly formulated to generate money. The entire emphasis of “how to improve your business” or self-improvement head spaces in general are real issues of illness people in society are suffering from. They are money based pursuits least concerned about representing anyones voice before their own. Doctors, artists generally seek a more higher level of exchange. It’s not their own voice that will garner success its ethical regard that surrounds there work that lends them the place of power and true respect amongst the general public. Corporate values using the arts as a way of promoting products while acceptable on certain levels cannot be determinants to members of the arts, medicine, academia or even research to comprimise the ethics, morality and levels of professionalism that lend a committment to the common man. Doctors disregard scientific research the minute harm to the public is observed. Pharmecutical companies using jingles to promote medications have no authority over the decision making of the doctor. They are powerless. They will lose that powerlessness the day medical doctors give up their ethical or moral regard to professional codes of conduct that place the well being of a patient above all other considerations. They are suppose to above any forms of manipulation and thus win the trust of the public. I can’t allow exploitive behaviour anywhere near my clinical practice. That Summerwork decision to put on a play stood for more than artistic truth or cutting edge theatre. It stood to represent a house of integrity, dedication to the well being of the public. Summerworks in my opinion would really be missing an opportunity to shine. If they engage in discussions about contempt towards the government or minimize the event as funding was achieved through other means….they missed a tremendous victory. That play was not about humanizing terrorists. That play represented a level of faith in the intelligence of its audience members. That play represented the fact we live in a country where it is not about external perfection but the capacity to reflect and to do so from as many viewpoints as is possible. Any government institution is well familiar all decision making to be of minimal risk to the public requires the input of many different schools of thought such as the opinion of the lawyer, healthcare specialist, financial advisor, mathematician, environmentalists…and traditionally views the health of their country through the arts. What does a country do when they are of true prosperity….they celebrate through the arts and reflect their voice internationally through the arts. Control or censorship is generally regarded as symptoms of not only fear and ignorance…but in this case the governments open lack of respect for Canadians to make their own minds up. This wasn’t an event of just censorship it was a direct hit to persons viewed as a threat. Summerworks should carry on and continue to promote themselves as not only a house of deep respect to Canadians but as guardians of health…they should be using this as a powerful example of their dedication to the public and welfare of the people. This doesn’t require exhausting emotional rhetoric or even protest. It simply requires the articulation of who they are, whom they serve and what they stand to celebrate. We are so lucky to live in a place of freedom. The Minister of Finance should immediately have had his comments responded to from a place of equal power. The theatre should have easily responded with statments that accountability and openess in the government’s reason for the cut would be sufficient. That the government’s decision is assumed to be in the best interest of the public and they should have no problems defending their actions. Accountability and openess is generally regarded in the educated levels of ethical conduct as “true justice”. This level of dialogue is perfectly within the generally known levels of artistic intelligence. The very dedication to these principles is the basis of theatre houses to agree or select productions that serve the public. Memberships or support from the public for projects or theatre houses standing for these principles is in my opinion of greatest demand. Teenagers coming into my clinic say the last place they want to go for entertainment is a movie. Theatre to me is potentially the most respectful place of social engagement that stands for them. You should check out the stuff they have to learn in school these days. Their generation is such a backlash to corporate idealism it isn’t even funny. There out to contribute to change. The very least we can do for them is to provide theatre houses equally supportive in fostering their right to true intelligence. Summerworks garnered attention on a national level and even international level. To miss the opportunity to promote this event as anything other than a celebration of art and how it very much is related to society, current day issues, promotion of health and well being is like…well, throwing away money. Eartha Kitt always attributed her success and career longetivity because she treated the audience like they were intelligent…..most brilliant artists do….

  11. Damien Atkins says:

    I have to agree with Mr. Healey on his (and others’) use of the word “censorship” in this case. Sure, we’ll never know what really happened, but the coincidence (and timing) of the funding decision, and the subsequent illogical and more-than-vaguely sinister comments by Mr. Flaherty are too striking to ignore. A line has been crossed here, and it would be short-sighted of us not to recognize that. If you let these little sorties go unanswered, they just get bolder. It does not take much concentrated ill will to do the kind of damage that the Harper government has already done to the arts. It just takes a kind of disregard, a hazy kind of ignorance and mistrust that manifests itself in a few pointed and shockingly effective jabs. There are many ways to censor someone, and some of them are entirely (or mostly) placid on the surface. We would do well to read between the lines before the situation is more inescapably concrete. It is not hysterical to respond vigorously to even the mere suggestion of this kind of censorship. I agree with Mr. Zimmer that it would be nice if the arts community united itself behind some kind of positive message, but I would suggest that acting in one’s own defense, and in defense of a cherished and important principle is entirely positive. Being galvanized as a community is a good thing. In fact, if we do not galvanize ourselves, there is a chance (the size of which I admit is up for some debate, but a chance nonetheless) that in a few years we will find ourselves greatly diminished, fettered and afraid. And it will have happened bit by bit, little by little, slowly and incrementally enough that we barely noticed it and couldn’t rouse ourselves to respond to it. I find the outrage pouring out of our community to be very heartening. Outrage is entirely appropriate, and probably vital, if you ask me. 

  12. Michael Wheeler says:

    Thanks for this articulate response Damien. I agree.

    I did not hear the Heritage Minister on Q but CBC reports he said this:

    “The SummerWorks festival received funding for five straight years,” he said. “The request this year was for $45,000. To be blunt, it had nothing to do with the Homegrown play. I haven’t seen it — I’ve heard the debate on it, but I’m not interested in it.”
    “People can draw up whatever conspiracy theories they want,” he said. “The fact is that funding went to another festival, and other festivals are going forward.”

    So to clarify – that the only theatre festival the PM critiqued publicly last year lost all of its Heritage funding with no reason given – and tat people are drawing a connection between the two – is a “conspiracy theory”. Wow there sure area lot of paranoid wackos out there! 

    Guess they think they can keep on getting rain without clouds.