Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Cultural Leadership in Canada

I moved from Canada to Mexico almost twenty years ago, but I still read Canadian newspapers online quite often. I just ran across two articles in the Globe and Mail about cultural leadership in Canada, which seems to be in a bit of a crisis. The first one is The outsiders who got in: Why sought-after arts positions in the country are going to non-Canadians and the second is How to change arts leadership in Canada: An insider’s perspective. Both are worth reading, but let me just quote some excerpts from the second article:
Canadian cultural organizations are experiencing a leadership deficit and the problem is worsening as more and more highly regarded chief executive officers announce their retirement. We are seeing a generational change in leadership. Coming retirements for 2018 include long-standing CEOs Peter Herrndorf of the National Arts Centre and Piers Handling of TIFF.
The National Arts Centre in Ottawa is a facility for the performing arts with four different spaces ranging from 150 seats to over 2,000 seats. TIFF is the Toronto International Film Festival.
Here in Canada, we have plenty of arts training models and success stories to build on for leadership development: think back to the Centre of Expertise on Culture and Communities (2005-2008) at Simon Fraser University, or the groundbreaking work of the Canadian Museums Human Resources Action Strategy (1995), or the Toronto performing arts collaboration Creative Trust (1998-2012). These were innovative programs, bringing people together for challenging learning and development.
The point is acute because it's getting harder. CEOs in any sector today have to concern themselves with an increasingly complex array of issues from diversity to digital to reconciliation. All while ensuring safe and creative workplaces and strategically leading their organizations into the future.
Are you starting to sense the blind spot here?
Rightly so, governments are investing more in culture. These new investments are upping the expectations for what the sector can achieve in society – and we are meeting the challenge. Canadian cultural organizations, together with their counterparts in other countries, are experiencing a transformation of engagement and empowerment – a transformation that will serve us all well. For our efforts and our examples, Canadian cultural leaders – past and present – are active and respected across the globe.
Ok. Well then, let's just name some of these internationally respected Canadian cultural leaders. I'm sure some of my Canadian commentators could step up, but just because someone is known in Canada for running this or that arts organization, doesn't quite signal an international reputation. One final quote:
Throughout my professional career working with cultural and creative organizations, I have never been more proud of the potential of our sector to contribute to our humanity and our society, nor have I been more preoccupied about the future of our sector – to train the next generation, to develop our own body of knowledge, and over all, to nurture culture and creativity for the benefit of all Canadians.
Do you see what is missing? Throughout both of these articles on arts leadership in Canada the missing element is, wait for it, the arts! Not one artist in any field was mentioned. Not one artwork of any kind was mentioned. The entire focus was on arts administration which is universally, in every culture I can think of, only haphazardly related to the actual arts. What is amazingly bizarre here is that all these people, all these cultural and arts leaders, seem to think that what they are doing has something to do with leading the arts somewhere. They see the arts as some sort of high-level education program or moral guide to "nurture culture and creativity for the benefit of all Canadians." I mean that is just totally obvious, right?

I hate to rain on their parade, but all of this "investing" in the arts does nothing for the arts. What it does is provide a wealth of middle and upper management jobs for the well-connected and credentialed. Yes, and they build some nice new buildings to present the arts. I guess it is so appealing to Canadians because it is so very terribly safe. The arts are tightly controlled through all of these well-managed arts organizations who are the gate-keepers. It all sounds very benevolent, though what I see is richly funded administration, not richly patronized artists. I have long noticed a pattern in Canada of well-padded administrative salaries together with the most pathetic crumbs given to the actual artists.

All of this is kind of a Potemkin village of the arts: instead of individual artists producing some artworks of some significance, what we have are arts institutions and organizations who attempt to administer the field from the top down. This is about as successful as petting a cat against the fur. The arts, now and always, flow from the individual efforts of individuals, not the collective efforts of institutions. Yes, arts institutions can be of immense value in nurturing and supporting artists, but what usually happens, and in Canada seems to regularly happen, is that these institutions end up serving the best interests of those people who run them and are employed by them instead of that vague and debatable goal of "the arts" or "aesthetics." Who the heck knows what they are?

And this is why almost no one outside Canada can name a single Canadian composer of any significance.


Will Wilkin said...

"The arts" is too big a subject and something I don't know much about, so I'll limit my thoughts here to live music performance. The larger the ensemble, the more it seems some kind of administration becomes needed, for scheduling and getting paid, promotion of events, etc. And since a venue is needed for any performance, there is administration needed there for everything from construction to maintenance to janitorial operations. All these functions are boilerplate administrative work necessary for any enterprise. Hopefully orchestras and opera companies and any other working ensemble also has artistic direction that is mostly separate from the facilities and operations management. I say mostly because there are limits to the arbitrariness of artistic pursuits in the sense that it must have enough commercial appeal for the company to remain viable over time. Tickets must be sold.

Just as the best principle of governance is to keep everything as local as possible, and only push up to higher (bigger) levels those issues that cannot be handled locally, so too in the arts I see the local orchestras and companies as the sweet spot where music is really being made and musicians are facing audiences. The bigger state and national foundations and agencies seem remote from the actual making of music, except to the extent that they can deliver resources (ie, money) to those local operations that actually pay artists and create musical events for an audience. The less bureaucracy, the more the resources go directly to the artists and the necessary overhead of providing a venue.

Hopefully if you turned your focus towards artistic direction, there would be a different picture, one of vitality and creativity. Orchestras hire a Musical Director and that person ought to be immersed in the actual music and musicians making it, advocating for everything that will nurture the music and the musicians who make it.

So, if you happen upon a few million or billion dollars, and want to promote classical music, donate directly to the orchestra, create grants commissioning new compositions and young players...don't give the money to a national bureaucracy.

Bryan Townsend said...

Very good points, Will. Nothing I could quibble with. I think the point I was trying to get to, not sure if I made it clearly, was that in Canada it seems the tail wags the dog. I have read many articles just like the ones I linked to where the discussion was all about the administration of "cultural and creative organizations" to the absolute exclusion of actual artists who, it was implied, were somewhere well down the totem pole. As we should all know, organizations are not about creativity. My views on how the arts seem to work in society were partly influenced by my study of Stravinsky's career in Russia. There was a rich array of creative relationships ranging from artists who studied Russian folklore, to dancers and choreographers, to other composers who also were knowledgeable about the traditions of musical folklore to the crucial efforts of Sergei Diaghilev, the great impresario. One of his skills was in obtaining funds for his artistic projects from both individuals and government bodies. The culture of arts administration in Canada lacks this kind of rich soil, but is instead permeated by a kind of corporate groupthink deadly to actual creativity.

But I am viewing all this from afar. I am tempted to schedule a visit to Canada just to do a survey of the scene on the ground. What is going on in the music schools these days? How are orchestras and opera doing? What is happening with the young composers? Because, frankly, I don't really know and all you get in the Globe and Mail is this self-regarding blather from the administrators.