Thursday, September 11, 2008


Over the last couple of months the ruling Conservative government in Canada has slashed over $60 Million in Arts funding. Coming on the heels of backing a tax amendment bill (C-10) which would have gutted the film and television industry's ability to finance production and an ill-conceived copyright bill (C-61) intended to protect corporate interests more than those of content creators, many in the Culture community began predicting an all out assault on the Nation's artists.

The immediate startle-response reaction in the Arts community was to mobilize protests, issue dire press releases and proclaim that Stephen Harper and his gang don't want us, don't care about us and we're the first casualty in a process intent on turning Canada into a right-wing Christian, anti-Abortion state that will back the rapacious greed of Big Oil and emulate the worst foreign policy excesses of the Bush regime in Washington.

Well -- okay -- maybe. But frankly, most of that felt like the recycled "Hidden Agenda" fear-mongering that didn't stop them from being elected last time around. And let's be honest, can you look at this government and really believe they're:

a) that smart

b) that organized, or

c) that out of tune with most Canadians?

If you ask me, what we're really seeing here is the beginning of a long overdue examination of the way Culture is supported in this country.

And that isn't being handled very well because these guys really don't have much experience at running anything more complicated than a cattle prod.

And it also isn't being done in consultation with those most affected because they feel (perhaps with some justification) that we aren't going to be on their side no matter what they do.

Let me be clear on a couple of things from the get-go. First, I think all politicians are Junkyard dogs. No matter how much you believe they're looking after your interests, they'll turn on you the minute they get a better offer.

Second, I'm completely in favor of Arts subsidies. Over my career, I've benefited hugely from any number of the support systems we have in place.

But I've also seen those systems abused and witnessed artists victimized and marginalized by the very funding that was supposed to help them to succeed.

Thirty years ago, I was an actor performing in Canadian plays. Travel grants to the companies I worked with allowed us to take some of those plays all over the world and to parts of Canada that had never seen a play of any kind. Being part of those programs was of enormous benefit to me (both economically and artistically) but it also exposed me to how much of those meagre funds were not actually being utilized to assist artists.

On any number of occasions in Europe, you'd meet fellow Canadians visiting foreign capitols on Canada Council grants for a "writing sabbatical" or to "see British plays". I knew most of them as "wannabe's" from back home. People who'd never actually written anything or managed a theatre company, but who were very good at constructing grant applications and annually found a way for the Canadian public to finance a couple of months elsewhere.

Among the members of the company they were known as the "inbred children of the wealthy". Folks without discernible talent or marketable skills, who mostly aspired to be artistic directors and dramaturges because they knew how to read and had opinions. To the best of my knowledge, few, if any, ever made a contribution to Canadian culture beyond buying season tickets to their local theatres.

Meanwhile, a lot of artists who were making profound contributions fell by the wayside or left the country because no matter their talent or abilities they simply weren't able to crack the cultural funding vault that could have sustained them here.

The sad, unalterable truth of Canada is that our legendary 19th century aberration, "The Family Compact", the country's original ruling Oligarchy, has never really had a stake driven through its cold, cheatin' heart.

We've always been a place that's traded away our natural resources through systems where a powerful, interconnected few unfairly benefit from the labor of the many because they've been born to or bought membership in the ruling cabal.

And that's just as true of how we manage our greatest renewable resource, the imaginations of our artists.

Our redistributed public largess goes first to established corporate entities through CTF, Telefilm, the Canada Council, etc. then to the "favorites", the players who keep being funded no matter their lack of success and then to the rest in demographics that are endlessly parsed by race, region, sex, sexual orientation or debutante status so that we seldom see any new or challenging voices nurtured to maturity.

Back in the 1980's, shortly after a then Liberal government killed the tax credit system that had spawned an explosion of film making, I bumped into a director who had done one "famous" film in the early 70's and not much since. I asked how he was getting by and learned he'd been receiving a $35,000 Senior Artist's Grant for years from the Canada Council while never actually producing anything.

Around the same time, I was doing a two hander for a Toronto theatre (because that was the largest cast they could afford) and a CBC casting director came backstage after the show. She gushed about the performances, wishing CBC had enough money to hire us to do a show. It had been a year since any of the seven, publicly subsidized casting assistants she had on staff had actually cast a program. In fact, she was worried that if something didn't break soon, she might have to let one of them go!

Now, the stories of CBC producers who never produced anything are endless. Like the Quebec dance company that was publicly funded for years without ever hiring a dancer, they are examples of a system built to benefit those who control artistic output over the artists themselves.

In the same "trickle down" mindset that has always guided the Family Compact, there's a belief in Ottawa that by giving money to "those who know how to run things" you create a culture.

How's that been working for all of you artists so far?

I'm wondering if what we've really got here is a Government with a support base of historically alienated Western Canadians starting to go after a revenue stream that's benefited the Family Compact that originally alienated them?

I found it interesting to see the recent cuts being spun as an attack on artists of the Left in newspaper quotes that only reference an un-named (and perhaps about to lose his job) source working in one of the deceased programs.

I haven't seen the film(s) Avi Lewis was funded to showcase in Argentina and Australia or heard exactly what Tal Bachman was presenting at music festivals in South Africa and Zimbabwe. But the reality is that nobody's ever going to be holding a 'tag day' for either of these descendants of extremely wealthy families who've also been quite successful at what they do themselves.

So you've got to ask if the money they were granted needed to be requisitioned in the first place or could have been better spent elsewhere. And you have to ask that question a little louder when you notice that $18,000 from the same travel program went to a foreign policy think-tank to fund attendance at a conference in Cuba that didn't even have anything to do with the Arts.

In the same way that CTF production money has become a slush fund for our television networks, allowing them to replace or reduce their own financial contributions to creating programming; it seems obvious the cut programs had devolved to serving needs other than those for which they were intended.

And I'd also point out that our tax dollars continue to support such Left leaning drivel as this insulting spew on the CBC website.

So let's maybe start seeing what's happening as not an attack on artists or people of the wrong political stripe, but on those who may have unfairly benefited from what artists do at our expense.

I agree that any experienced manager would have just demoted the idiots who approved those grants and moved on. But when you examine how the money from PromArt, Trade Routes and the New Media Fund were actually being spent, it makes you realize that the abuses of the system were endemic.

Peruse the list of those receiving funding from Trade Routes to sell Canadian Productions abroad and you'll find a lot of names of individuals and corporations who've never had anything to sell.

Critics have also trotted out as an example of the fine work that was accomplished through grants from the New Media Fund. And I don't disagree. But I gotta ask why one of the most successful shows ever produced in this country and our most successful broadcaster need public assistance to create a web presence -- and continue to need it, year after year after year...

And while we're asking, how come all the subsidy money being poured into our industry and the rest of the Arts hasn't gotten much to stick with the Canadian public?

Enough of our artists leave and find success elsewhere to prove it's not the talent that's lacking. And that would seem to place the blame on all those minions who currently run our broadcasters and other Arts corporations.

The simple truth here is that the kind of movies and TV programming they've been making aren't sparking anybody's enthusiasm, theirs or ours.

The day after Paul Gross' film "Passchendaele" opened the Toronto International Film Festival, the following reader comment was appended to the National Post review...

"How can we say this clearly without being unkind? Paul Gross is a good actor. However, he writes and produces his own work and performs the star role, and all this puts him on the payroll three times, and is there any independent check on quality? Across town, Atom Egoyan produces yet another vehicle for his unemployable wife, thereby putting his own family on the payroll. What could possibly be more Canadian than this. O Canada, the cultural welfare state."

Now that sentiment is unfair on a whole raft of levels. But it's also a prevailing attitude across the country. As is this comment somebody left on this very blog a while back...

"Every time I see Robert Lantos' island up in Muskoka, I wonder just why his productions need all that tax money. And if, as a taxpayer, I can come swim off one of his docks some day."

Virtually every time one of us Creative types complains about funding the newspaper reports include an endless stream of bile against our "whining" that voices a clear desire to stop giving us any money whatsoever to live our "cushy and privileged" lives.

Since most of the working creatives I know do not lead either cushy or privileged lives, I firmly believe those letters get written because the commentors don't feel we're giving them anything back for their hard earned tax dollars.

And does it really make any sense that a producer who's never made a profitable film keeps getting millions from Telefilm to make the next one? Do you think hostility isn't bred when people waiting in line for an unavailable MRI see millions going to a filmmaker who has never offered them even one moment of escape from their over-taxed and over-burdened lives and yet keeps being favored with more money for more boring movies?

There's a middle-management elitism in our system that is hurting all of us, artists and audience alike.

This week, any number of spokespeople at the Toronto International Film Festival have used that forum to blast the Tory tax cuts while showering tax-payer money on shrimp platters and champagne for wealthy Hollywood stars and corporate sponsors.

Don't you think that sticks in the craw of people working two jobs to make the mortgage and maybe their dissatisfaction gets noticed by somebody seeking public office?

A friend who attended the premiere screening of a Canadian feature film at the Festival told me of seeing the Director begging Festival staff to allow some of the hundreds waiting outside to buy tickets inside to fill the remaining empty seats in the auditorium. But no, those seats were being held for the sponsors and elite insiders who might or might not turn up.

Folks, our subsidy system is broken because it serves neither the artists of the country nor the audience while allowing and encouraging the money to be siphoned off by those who are mostly hanging around for the wine and cheese party.

We need to start considering a system that works for the rest of us. Because if we don't, things are only going to get worse.

In the 1990's, I had the opportunity of shooting a couple of films in Hungary, shortly after the fall of the Communist system. There had been a strong, state-funded Arts system there and we had a number of very talented local artists working on the films. But working with them wasn't that easy. A system that had looked after all their needs had also robbed them of all initiative and accountability. Many sleep-walked through their tasks, their artistic flame smothered by living too long in a welfare state.

And you can see the same thing happening in this country. The more Government has subsidized (and thereby controlled) our ventures, the less we produce in terms of both final production numbers and work that inspires our audience. Our television drama is a shadow of what it was 20 years ago and our feature film industry has gone from one of the busiest in the world to one of the least productive.

Telefilm spends hundreds of thousands of dollars developing scripts no local production company even deigns to read. Writers, directors and actors stick with series none of them would be caught dead watching because it pays the rent. And the phrases you most hear at industry soirees are "what're you gonna do" and "it's what they're making".

It makes you wonder if what we've got is really worth preserving. Surely there must be some way to kick-start a new financing formula that would attract venture capital or reward private contribution instead of hanging on to one that isn't creating anything we're really proud of.

Statistics lie, so I don't know if the 19.7% increase in Arts funding the Harper Government claims it has made in the last 2 years is true or not, nor whether it offsets the cuts that have been made.

Rumors are just as unreliable, so I'm not sure if this has all been done to put that money to "better" use under the Arts umbrella as some "insiders" are whispering.

What I do know is that there's a good chance these guys could be re-elected, maybe with a majority this time. So rather than throwing poo at them (or perhaps naively obeying the non-artists calling for poo throwing) maybe we should start thinking about engaging those who could be running the show for some time.

Maybe it's also time to let them know that we don't like a lot of the films and TV we're making either, but we don't have any control over that -- and won't as long as the real money keeps going to non-artists with a record of failure.


Anonymous said...

Wow! I haven't been in the industry long (2yrs) but I have already worked on countless things I didn't want to. Of the things I have worked on the ones I enjoyed have been publicly funded through regional broadcasters. I have seen small producers try to act big and abuse the money they get. Pay for expenses that have nothing to do with the show and crank out continuous terrible material. I keep working as I do not have an option. I do not know what my next step should be etc. I work low end jobs to pay bills and dream and write my own stuff. I like to think I am making contacts but I am not learning anything applicable to being my own creator. So I sit and work most of the time on Tax credits for doing the same job as a Trainee and it gets me no where nor does it look like it will get me anywhere. I also see people who have worked for countless years going on the same tax cuts.

I guess what I am saying is that I agree completely. The money has to be accountable and it is not. The shows that I have seen that have audience success have also had relatively on line budgets. The problem being that even if you keep your budget on line you still don't make money. So I am not sure what the solution needs to be but I would suggest a rather large group of Government, Producers, Broadcasters, Union reps and workers from the highest level to the lowest get together and talk it out. Our industry is killing itself as you say by waste, posers, misdirection and the terrible prevailing. We have no one to blame but ourselves when we can't keep up with our "better" American counterparts.

Anonymous said...

Well Jim, thanks for not "outing" me (I'm the guy who wrote about Lantos' island in Muskoka).

I'll drop in again, or at least give a link over at my blog (don't want to chew up all your comment space and I'm drunk blogging tonight), but once again, you're bang on.

I don't know much about the Canadian TV and film industry, except what you taught us way back at Sheridan (i.e., briefcases of cash, dentists investing in tax shelters, etc.).

I have been tangentially involved in the Canadian folk music industry (or at least was: my in-laws produced house concerts for a few years).

I've met the cream of the crop of the Canadian folk industry, including Juno award winners and the friends and family of Stan Rogers among many others. I've sat at the kitchen table of the godmother of Cape Breton folk. I've put up travelling musicians in my home.

And I still don't get it.

I've seen people filling in form after form in order to get a GST refund for 1,000 CDs they've already paid for out of their meagre earnings. I've seen incredibly talented songwriters have to go back to work in "the real world" for years because they can't make a living writing and performing.

And every time I turn on Top 40 Radio I hear Celine Dion (lives in Vegas), Neil Young (has lived in California for 40+ years) and Rush (live in Rosedale). And they all benefit from CanCon (which IS a tax credit when you think of it).

I love Neil Young. There isn't a single other performer from the 60s who is still writing and recording original material and touring it who can fill 20,000+ stadia. But he could record an album of Shinto Buddhist chants with a mariachi band in Mali, and if he produced the album it would be CanCon (MAPL, of course, Music Artist Produce Lyrics and he only needs two). Go figure.

Yes Jim, I am one of those guys who wonders where the arts money is going. The problem isn't that the money isn't going to MRIs or roads or schools. Its that it SEEMS to be going to people who don't need it.

So by all means give it to an artist starting out. Give it to true Canadian Content

But as a middle of the road fiscal conservative who believes in a hand up, not a hand out STOP GIVING IT TO MILLIONAIRES AND THOSE WHO HAVE ALREADY MADE IT.

Bill Brioux said...

Thank you for writing about this touchy issue in such a bracingly honest way. Worth reading if just for this one line: "There's a middle-management elitism in our system that is hurting all of us, artists and audience alike." That line should be embedded in every CBC broadcast, like a UPC code.
Artists need benefactors and government support but Canada's tired welfare approach is hopelessly skewed toward the same usual suspects. Not enough money gets in the hands of artists, who are too busy filling out forms to create real art. And you are right--we all know and are constantly frustrated that much of the "real money keeps going to non-artists with a record of failure."
Please send your message, in whole, to the Globe & Mail, the Toronto Star, hell, even The Sun. Get it in during this election. Your take should be part of a debate that, frankly, should be more heated than it is.

jimhenshaw said...

Thanks for the kind words, Bill. It was your encouragement at the Writer's Mafia party that finally made me sit down and write it.

Brandon Laraby said...

For a long time I've been pissed off at the Government but you've got a point - and this is something I've come to realize - the Conservatives are just the mouthpiece. For whatever reason they not only feel right but justified in these kinds of actions.

This can only occur because they've got someone telling them (probably a lot of people) that our stuff sucks.

Now, I'm sure there's a lot of prejudice there, but a lot of it is also because there are a lot of people milking the system. Taking opportunities away from those like myself who have GREAT stories we want to tell and are being left out of the system that's supposed to support us.

I think the only way you're going to change that is to change the people. To make them understand how integral the arts are to their lives - that it's so ingrained into them that they don't even notice it. Once we can awaken them to that fact and show them that our Arts is not just a bunch of lazy-assed government titty-suckers then, maybe, we can start to fix things.

Burning it down may work but then you run the risk that no one will want to rebuild.

It seems to me that we need to go back to the foundations of what we're doing and fix those cracks. Maybe lay a new one.

And I, for one, am not afraid to roll up my sleeves and start digging.

Great article man. As always.

MK Piatkowski said...

This kind of ties in to some extent to the calls I've been making on my blog about how artists have a huge PR problem and how we need to rethink Trade Routes and Prom Art.

I do have to say one thing though. I know a lot of people who got their international careers started through those two programs, mostly performing arts companies, musicians and writers. Maybe the recipients from your industry didn't produce anything to sell but these people did, so I'm begging you not to tar them with the same brush. I've spent a lot of time in the past month trying to explain to the general public that these programs are the same as the assistance any other industry gets to expand abroad. I would hate to see somebody come back here, quote you, and use it to disregard everything I'm saying.

Yes, things need to change. Yes, we need to rethink how we export art. Yes, it sucked that the government just canceled this without even looking into what we needed or talking to us. I'm just really worried that right now we're turning on each other when it's really vital that we speak to our worth in our society. And for that, our voices need to be loud because as you pointed out, we're losing the battle.

btw, the increase in funding was actually amortized money from the final Liberal budget. It was mostly to extend the millennium programs.