FEBRUARY 7, 1980
Government and the Arts
AN ADDRESS BY Mavor Moore, CHAIRMAN OF THE CANADA COUNCIL
CHAIRMAN The Second Vice-President, John G. B. Strathy
Ladies and gentlemen, members of The Empire Club of Canada: A number of years ago, someone suggested that Mavor Moore did not exist at all but was "a household name manufactured to conceal the identity of a dozen people." Let it be said here and now, there is a Mavor Moore and he does exist and is currently alive and well as Professor of Theatre at York University.
Mavor Moore's career has in truth been a spectacular one, chock-full of challenges and adventures, a producer, playwright, director, actor and part-time artistic guru. Mavor Moore has always been at the centre of everything.
At ten, he produced his first play in a corner of Deer Park public library. At eleven, he wrote his first play. At fourteen, he was a professional radio actor. At eighteen, he was appearing as an actor at Hart House. At twenty-two, he became CBC's youngest producer after graduating from the University of Toronto, at the head of his year, in Philosophy and English.
In the years since, Mavor Moore has appeared as an actor in theatres from Vancouver to Prince Edward Island, has written operas, plays, radio and television dramas, films and reviews, novels and verse. He was the creator of the popular revue Spring Thaw.
Mavor Moore has served as CBC's chief producer, chairman of the board of the Canadian Players, Artistic Director of the Charlottetown Festival and as a theatre consultant at Expo 67.
For all his projects and his energy, Mavor Moore is essentially a thinking man, a philosopher in artist's clothing, a man who has deep and very serious beliefs and concerns for the future for man himself. As he sees it, "Society is heading for a crack-up. One possible way of avoiding it is through the arts."
For a moment let's think about Mavor Moore back in 1968 when he made this observation: "The recognition that cultural affairs are of more than passing significance has been late in coming to Canada. It is only in the last few years that the arts have become acceptable here. The problem is that too many people think of the arts as a frill." Mr. Moore went on to say, "Young people are now realizing the significance of the arts. They are turning their energies in a creative direction. We have got to encourage these attempts. Toronto has a great and tremendous responsibility to the rest of Canada. If Toronto doesn't show theatrical leadership, what city can?"
Mavor Moore was born in Toronto in 1919 and educated at the University of Toronto. In 1946-47 he launched with his mother, Dora Mavor Moore, Toronto's New Play Society, seed-bed of the post-war theatre in Canada.
Mavor Moore has been a producer and artistic director of the Stratford Shakespearean Festival, a founding director of the Charlottetown Festival, and first general director of the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts in Toronto.
In addition to producing, performing and directing shows across Canada, Mavor Moore has written more than a hundred plays for the stage, radio and television, and several musicals including Sunshine Town, The Best of All Possible Worlds, and Johnny Belinda.
Let it be said here and now that there is a Mavor Moore and he does exist. Exactly one year ago this month he was appointed Chairman of the Canada Council, the first artist so appointed.
The Canada Council disburses about forty million dollars a year to theatres, opera and ballet companies, writers, and artists. In Mavor Moore's own words, "The present tremendous burst of activity in the arts has been principally due to the funds made available by the Canada Council."
Ladies and gentlemen, members of The Empire Club of Canada, our guest speaker Mr. Mavor Moore will speak to you on the subject "Government and the Arts."
If I had been speaking to you at this time last year, I would, I imagine, have been pleading the case some of us have been pleading for forty years--a case some of you have heard me make many times before: the case that the arts are not a frill but a crucial aspect of our lives as individuals and as a nation. But times have changed. The newspaper columnist Jamie Portman put it succinctly: "The year 1979 saw the arts community become a viable political constituency."
In the last election, for the first time in our history, every one of the major political parties proclaimed an arts platform--and they have done so again in this election. "The air," to misquote Hamlet, "is promise-cramm'd." This has come about, I believe, not just because of the realization that the arts, as industries, now have a good deal of voter-power, but because politicians in many countries have been increasingly persuaded of the sheer importance of our cultural activities to all of us. Last year, for example, the California Legislature increased its arts funding by 430% -at a time when state legislatures across the U.S. were looking for ways to hold down spending. The legislators were impressed, it seems, by the arguments that each dollar spent on the arts generated twelve dollars for the state's economy, that the arts were a burgeoning and labour-intensive industry, and that "the arts deserved a tremendous increase because they had been neglected in the past."
Such arguments have been used to great effect in Canada by the newly co-ordinated arts community, along with the purely Canadian case that a nation sitting beside the greatest arts, entertainment and education factory the world has ever seen must invest in its own future or it is likely to have none.
There has been, over the past couple of decades, a cultural explosion in Canada, the like of which is rare anywhere in the world. The key element in this explosion has been the Canada Council, which has only just come of legal age. Like its counterparts in some provinces and municipalities, the Canada Council was established as a public trust, overseen by a board of public trustees appointed by the government but accountable to parliament--"to avoid the risk that the arts be manipulated," as my predecessor put it, "for purposes alien to them."
Until two years ago, the Council was responsible for both the arts and the social and humanistic sciences. A separate council was formed to attend to the latter, and now the Canada Council itself is responsible mainly for the arts. With the exception of its original endowment and some funds that it administers on behalf of estates, the Council's entire budget is dependent on an annual grant from Parliament.
That grant, I must tell you at once, has been "backsliding"--so that despite small increases in some years, in terms of real dollars we are now at the level we were at in 1975, while the costs of our artists and arts groups have been rising substantially, not to mention their cost of living. I am not here to cry "Wolf!", but to tell you in all seriousness that--to speak only of the performing arts--all three of our leading dance companies, several of our major symphony orchestras, the Stratford Festival and other theatre companies in Ontario, Quebec and across the land are on the edge of financial collapse. And this is at a time when their importance to the country was never greater, when our politicians of all parties claim to be more concerned about them than they've ever been, and when the esteem in which the rest of the world holds our artistic achievements has never been higher.
The explanation often given is that at a time of austerity everything must be cut. Why should the arts not take their lumps, along with everything else? The British economist, Lord Robbins, thinks differently:
It is quite true, in my judgement, that we have been spending too much in the aggregate . . . To prevent inflation, therefore, it is desirable that we should spend less . . . and this may well be held to imply greater prudence in public finance generally. But it does not, in my judgement, imply that we should spend less on culture and learning, in relation to which on any comparative standard our spending is so much in arrears. The necessity to curb spending in general does not in the least imply a necessity to curb equally in all directions.
But whether the arts are treated well or ill by a government in comparison with its other obligations, it seems clear that a marriage of sorts has taken place here, as it has in most countries, even the United States.
Politics and art may make strange bedfellows, except for those who believe in Marx's Socialist Realism, but they are certainly in bed together. But if we're not careful we may find ourselves in a situation that might be labelled Capitalist Realism. Marxists believe that art should be the servant of the state. In the last quarter-century, our society has worked by a different set of rules: a commitment to artistic excellence as the central criterion in the provision of financial support; a reliance on professional advisers in the determination of that excellence; and an assurance of independence from partisan political pressures in allotting the financial support.
But as our arts have come to rely more and more on funding from the public purse, and as that purse has shrunk, there have been new pressures with which the Canada Council--that 21-member board of public trustees from across the country--has had to cope. And I may say that we are not alone; the same story is to be heard in Britain, in Australia, in the United States, France and other nations.
The first and most obvious pressure is that those who pay the piper have become very frustrated at not being able to call the tune. A Member of Parliament receives a complaint, let us say, about a grant or a non-grant to a constituent, and is politely told that the Canada Council, not the Member, makes such a decision. Another would like to have an orchestra in his/her city, and is told the Council doesn't see its way clear to making such a grant. Now at first glance the Member's frustration may seem quite justified. But what happens if we destroy the carefully established independence of the publicly-appointed trustees?
So I may be under no imputation of partisanship, let me use an example from another country. In the New York Times of December 23 last, there was an article headed "The Arts and Politics in New York State":
Earlier this year, the Queens Shakespeare Theater Foundation--an ambitious but inexperienced producing group--applied for a grant to the New York State Council on the Arts, which is the official state agency for cultural support. Soon after, the directors of the foundation were informed that their application would probably be turned down because of the Council's policy against support for organizations which have not been in existence for at least two years. A few months later, however, the Queens Shakespeare Foundation received $50,000 in state aid.
It seems that after learning that its application was about to be rejected, the Queens group circumvented the State Council on the Arts by lobbying to win over Queens Assemblyman John Esposito, who then arranged for the State Legislature to pass a special appropriation--a "line-item" grant, so-called because it sometimes appears on a separate line in the annual state supplemental budget--allocating $50,000 to the Queens Shakespeare Theater Foundation.
To be sure, there is nothing necessarily sinister about this process. Making appeals to legislative bodies is the perfect right of any citizen or group of citizens, and the Queens theater may well be deserving of support despite its newness. Nevertheless, the State Arts Council, like similar agencies in other states, was established precisely to take grant-giving in the arts out of the hands of the State Legislature on the theory that a panel of experts free from political pressure could make more objective and wise decisions about the dispersal of state funds in this area. Thus the circumvention of the Council runs counter to the wishes of the Legislature, which established the Council in the first place, and raises serious questions about the politicization of arts funding in New York State. For the fact is that the case of the Queens Shakespeare Foundation is not isolated ...
As the Arts Council enters its twentieth year, it seems clear that, despite many statements, assertions and denials, arts funding in New York State has become closer to politics than ever before. What this means to the taxpayer, to those involved in the arts and to those who appreciate them, is that the state agency charged with the dispersal of state funds in this area has become, to a noticeable extent, circumvented, and tax dollars are now being handed out according to an organization's political clout rather than its intrinsic quality.
Already, successive governments in Canada have established direct granting procedures in the arts which do not go through the Canada Council, and more are promised. Now I should say at once that there are many cultural activities which the Council does not cover--cannot cover with its limited budget--such as amateur arts. And it may also well be that with its criterion of excellence (however defined) the Council is ill-suited to make grants for the purely commercial aspects of such industries as film and publishing. The danger comes only when the government of the day, without relying on the impartial judgment of its own publicly-appointed trustees, makes direct grants unresponsive to the most urgent needs of the artistic community and the public--as perceived by those trustees.
But there are subtler methods of control on the horizon. The recent Lambert Report, which has been accepted in principle by both major parties, proposes the introduction of "ministerial directives"; directives from the government of the day to the Council indicating specifically how such-and-such funds are to be spent. This, it is proposed, would increase the Canada Council's accountability to Parliament.
I confess I cannot follow this argument--since accountability can only be called for where responsibility is involved. The use of directives would not increase accountability but diminish it, since actions which might otherwise be rightly questioned would be ruled beyond dispute by reference to the directive. Accountability means being given a job to do and being held responsible for how you do it. The Canada Council is responsible and accountable to Parliament; the staff is accountable to the Council. If the staff were to receive direct orders from the Minister, there would be no need for a board of public trustees.
The relationship between an arts council and its government, in many countries, is characterized as an "arm's-length" one. This seems to me something of a misnomer because it suggests they do not work together, which in fact they must. The government already has many powers of control over the Canada Council. It appoints the Chairman, the Vice-Chairman and Members for relatively short terms, and it appoints a Director and Associate Director to hold office during its pleasure.
The government also has the determining role in setting the annual level of expenditures of the Council, which is dependent on an annual appropriation for its operation--an appropriation which it must justify in its prior presentation to the government, and afterwards in its annual report to Parliament and the public.
There is, of course, no question whatever that the Canada Council or any other such body should be held accountable for its stewardship. It already is. It has an audit committee as part of its own financial control structure, and is regularly audited by the Auditor General, to whose recommendations it has always been responsive. The point at issue is not financial accountability, nor is it adherence to the Council's terms of reference as established by Parliament. The issue is the relationship of the government to the arts community--on whom it must eventually rely, whatever its policy. Money cannot buy or produce culture; it can only provide an opportunity for our artists to make it happen.
Now, why should democratic governments avoid direct involvement in the funding of the arts? There are at least two reasons. The first is to ensure the freedom of the artist to question and criticize the current perceptions and conventional wisdom of the society of which he is a part. The second is to insulate governments from an area of controversy where their intervention has almost always proved awkward for the arts and for the governments themselves. The best answer, in almost every country of the western world, has been to establish autonomous arts bodies which can be held responsible for the implementation of the broad artistic policy laid down by the government.
If, for whatever reason, such a body is enfeebled by being put under the control of authorities whose main concern must be financial or political in the narrow sense, it must be expected and feared that priorities would be set on a different basis, and would no longer respond to the needs as seen by a body of knowledgeable persons appointed for their expertise and dedication to the public interest.
There are many other developments in the arts that I might talk about today -including federal-provincial relations (now that provinces are so active in the field of culture), the need to support both excellence and development towards it, the effect of a freedom-of-information act on a professional jury system, and many others.
But I honestly believe that the whole system of support for the arts in this country rests upon the maintenance of an independent board of public trustees. One of the country's leading arts columnists last year called the Canada Council "the most democratic and efficient means of allocating funds to the arts." A recent editorial in the Ottawa Journal said: "Its integrity and independence have never been in doubt; the great flowering of the arts in this country is in significant part the result of its efforts."
There is much in the system to improve, and we are working hard on it. But we should be very careful indeed before we emasculate or strait-jacket a system that has worked well and responsibly, that is strongly defended by the arts community, and that has been imitated and envied in other advanced countries.
The Canada Council is not a give-away to others but an investment in ourselves.
The thanks of the club were expressed to Mr. Moore by Montague Larkin, a Director of The Empire Club of Canada.