Praxis Theatre is currently on hiatus! Please find co-founders Aislinn Rose and Michael Wheeler at The Theatre Centre and SpiderWebShow, respectively.
August 7, 2013, by

An end to arts funding?

by Nadia Ross

grant for artsOn August 14th, as part of SummerWorks Performance Festival’s Shop Talk series, I will be having a debate with journalist Andrew Coyne (Postmedia, CBC’s The National) on the question: “An end to arts funding?”.

Most of our revenue at STO Union comes from international festivals.  But any creations that we’ve made at STO Union, usually started with a small grant.

When I look at what STO Union has accomplished over the years, on paper, it looks amazing:  we’ve toured to the top festivals in the world, we’ve created small pieces that have long shelf lives and that bring in more revenue from fees than any grants they ever receive.  But the reality of the job is that it has been more of a vocation than anything else.

I left Toronto officially in 2004.  What propelled me out of the city was that I couldn’t stand seeing up close the capitulation of the art world to the market.

I had to find some kind of psychic ‘space’ that was still ‘free’, so I moved to a village in Quebec.

When I think ‘market’, I think of the square in my village where locals go to see their produce and wares.  Down the block, there are two churches, restaurants, entertainment venues and a community centre.    There are places of business, places for contemplation, places for entertainment, and a place for the community to gather.  There’s also a post office, a fire department, and a hospital.   I can see more sharply how society functions through the lens of the smaller scale that a village offers me.

What I am seeing is that the separation between what occupies human time is being eroded:  when you’ve placed ‘money’ at the top of your priorities, then everything becomes the ‘market’:  it affects the way we relate to each other, what we do with our time, how we work.  All interactions become subtly, (and sometimes not so subtly), defined by this.

Festivals images

The market takes over the territory and empties it out of its most precious and unique qualities, turning everything into ‘work’.  It’s like an invasion or an infection:  slowly taking over our relationships, our time, our attention until that is all that we see.  For me, as an artist, now is the time to respond to this, with all hands on board.

A recent letter from a professor to the students of Goldsmiths (University of London) to the students sums it up:

“Perhaps you disagree with my point of view – I can understand that you might be entirely resigned to the notion that capitalism will never be overcome. Maybe you have moved beyond this resignation into a full-blown cynicism. The impression you as artists give is often that everything has already been recuperated, that all radicalism is produced broken, that all resistance is already integrated into the capitalist whole. Your works often make the claim of regretting this, but it is a false claim insofar as it is a process to which they happily contribute. Clearly, few of you are actually interested in a critique of capitalism (but a pseudo-critique that sells will have to do), but for those of us who care about art, for those of us who think that art’s critical capacities have not been exhausted and extinguished, for those of us for whom the abolition of capitalism is not a choice but a necessity, you are the enemy.”

The debate I am having with Andrew Coyne is based on completely insane premises:

it doesn’t matter any more whether we go to the governments or to  the business community for money to do our Art projects because the government is now too deeply influenced by the business community and corporate state.  The liberal class failed to confront the rise of the corporate state and now it ceases to function.

Ultimately, the concept of ‘we don’t feed those who bite the hand that feeds them’ makes all funded art-work ultimately impotent.  If it becomes too potent the funding will be withdrawn.

For myself, capitulation to the market has nothing to do with what ‘the people want and are willing to pay for’, it has to do with surrendering our last strongholds, the last bits of territory that the market doesn’t fully control.  Without those free and open spaces, we are all just slaves in denial.

Nadia Ross is the artistic director for STO Union, one of the company’s at this year’s SummerWorks Performance Festival (7 Important Things).  She lives in Wakefield, Quebec.

*Note the printed SummerWorks Guide incorrectly lists this debate as being on August 11th – it is in fact on August 14th at the Performance Bar at 5pm. 


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  1. I love that cartoon at the top so much.

    Tommy Taylor is working on a new ending to You Should Have Stayed Home for our national tour, which MAY include addressing the failure of all three levels of government to protect civil liberties at #G20 Toronto.

    Sincerely greatful to the Toronto Arts Council, Ontario Arts Council and Canada Council for supporting this project!

  2. I agree with most everything you say here Nadia. The end of arts funding? Clay & Paper Theatre has been living on dribbles of funding forever, and its definitely not adequate. And yet, that’s all that I’ve done for these last 44 years: underfunded theatre in public space. The crucial thing that has both directed and driven my work is the commitment to working in public space because … that is where the audience is that is (somewhat) outside the frame of the usual “consumption” mode. I’m most pleased when the the audience stumbles upon us, and stays for the show. (Way back, I read an essay by BB to young theatre practicioners in Berlin around 1938 I believe, in which he implored them to ask who their audience was, and who it ought to be. He admonished them to give their performances to those who need them, not to the very class who might use your words and vision against you.)

    I don’t have much hope for “the theatre” in the black boxes. The frame is too determining. And once the venues become a certain size, it seems that capitulaton to the market is the only possibility. Perhaps one might give an occasional rogue performance that scares the people in the seats a bit, but the padding to so, so comfortable, the aura so exquisite, that the effect is diminished terribly.

    What to do? I’ve been doing this too long to stop now, and now the world is in need of waking up more than ever. Why don’t you check out our show currently running for 2 more weeks in Dufferin Grove Park, Wed to Sun at 7pm until Aug 18. Its short. Its rude. Its fun. I didn’t mean to flog my show when I started this reply, but I’d love to hear what you think of theatre in public space right here in Toronto.

    I’ll try to be at your debate, but it is a performance evening for us. Thanks for the article.

    David Anderson

  3. Anonymous Coward says:

    “I’d love to hear what you think of theatre in public space right here in Toronto.”


    I’m SICK AND TIRED of Clay & Paper Theatre. Every single time I go to the park, I see your big puppets and hear your terrible music. It’s the worst part of the park, and it’s why people don’t like live theatre! Messy message monologues and Commedia dell’fuckin’arte. And I’m as lefty as they come!

  4. Michael Wheeler says:

    My biggest takeaway from this comment is that you can be right or left and still be an anonymous coward.

  5. Richard Binsley says:

    Cutting arts funding means relying on “The Market”. I have heard the ‘market dictates’ argument many times. If arts and culture are no more than widgets, as many corporate Canadians understand them to be, then we must build widgets for the BIG market. Since the advent of Free Trade with the U.S. if one wants to build a piece of art (widget) you must be sure the market wants it. It must appeal to, and have meaning for “The Market”. The simple numbers tell us that “The Market” (as defined by free trade) is predominantly American. If you are a “Canadian'” who believes that art and culture are solely market driven then you are actually a very proud American and should stop lying to yourself. God bless you. God bless America. If you don’t agree I invite you to try and raise the money to make a film about a great piece of Canadian history or historical fiction. The first argument would be, ‘who would watch it’? Canadians would!.. but the numbers are small. So let’s rewrite it so it appeals to the U.S.A. We’ve already seen our stories rewritten to please the U.S. market in “Argo”. Those who argue the “market dictates” strategy will undoubtedly be able to name all the Canadian success stories whose names have come back to us through American media. They are hugely successful. I respect and envy them. But I also have an enormous respect for those who stay. Who struggle. Those who choose to be and live Canadian.
    I’ve no doubt that comments will call me to answer for my anti-americanism. Not one will recognize that this is not the case. I am, actually, pro Canadian. Don’t worry, I’ll get over it.
    The cartoon at the top says it all. When arts funding is arm’s length assholes get called out. When arts funding becomes investment there will be no assholes according to the controlling interests. And so a widget is built.

  6. Nadia Ross says:

    The comments lean towards ‘practice’ and this is what I think about that: realistically, as people who work in the theatre, in my opinion I think we need to give our heads a shake. Collectively, we are undergoing a massive shift because of the internet/web. Our attention is now put into a screen, a virtual world, a ‘mind’ world. Theatre has so much to do with the body. This is an exaggeration, but there is some truth to it: ‘Live’ as in ‘live theatre’, is ‘dead’. That’s not healthy. It’s not good for ‘live’ to be ‘dead’. The question I ask myself is how can I make ‘live’ more ‘real’? At least, that’s what I’m looking at, as practice. And, again in my opinion, I think we need to invest our energies into supporting the medium as it ‘morphs’ into something new. Don’t get me wrong, of course they’ll always be traditional theatre, it’s not going anywhere, but I feel like there is a real potential right now for new strains of the theatrical experience to be born. This is good for everyone as it feeds into the over all ecology.

    Couple this dislocation from the ‘real’ with the fiasco of late-capitalism…I see this as a kind of ‘perfect storm’ and there is a feeling of entropy that goes with it. We are standing by while a huge cash-and-resources grab is taking place, and our collective opposition feels impotent in the face of this. Those are some of the conditions we face, in my opinion. And, I think, it’s important for artists to respond to this.