Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Your life may mean nothing if it's only been spoon-fed

The big cultural news in Canada is that our wonderful Conservative government has axed two major arts funding initiatives. The first, PromArt, is (was) a $4.7-million fund to promote Canadian artists abroad. It's now being revoked, partly because past recipients have included Holy Fuck, former CBC journalist Avi Lewis and Tal Bachman (son of Randy). A week later, cuts to film and video funding were announced as well. Depending on who you talk to, as many as five arts funding programs have been cut, and/or future cuts by Harper's government may come to a total of $48.5 million.

These funding cuts hit very close to home, given my involvement with the Montreal Biennale. Two major partners with the Biennale have suffered greatly from these announcements: the SAT will lose up to 25% of its budget, and INIS' is set back nearly $900,000. The organizers behind the Biennale have been frantically scrambling to cobble together alternate sources of funding so that the event can go off in May 2009 without any hitches. Needless to say, Harper's cuts have thrown a major monkey wrench into the proceedings. Claudio Marzano assures me that the silver lining in all this is that the Biennale team has arrived at the "big picture" earlier than expected and are pleased with what is in store over the next few months. However, the two aforementioned organizations aren't just partners with the Biennale: the SAT is a key venue in the city for all sorts of forward-thinking multimedia projects, including the MUTEK festival; and the INIS has long been a training ground and immensely valuable asset to the health of Québécois (and Canadian) cinema and television.

There was a protest/conference this morning at the SAT, with many luminaries of the Montreal arts scene including the Biennale's Claude Gosselin, Spectra's André Menard, Walter Boudreau from the SMCQ, and Michel G. Desjardins from INIS. Estimates have the audience around 3000 - and the SAT was packed. Sure, it got political, with anti-Conservative and pro-sovereignist strains abounding -- Boudreau even riffed on the cuts being similar to Hitler's Final Solution. And while there were many sentiments that I agreed with, I'm not sure that the more "radical" testimonies did anything to sway those that think artists are a bunch of lazy parasites on hard-earned tax dollars, and that the market will support the best art. I was happy to see representatives from the business and administration community, to temper some of the flaming lefty artist statements.

It should be abundantly clear that arts and culture are the lifeblood of civilization, and I agreed most with the business representative (whose name I forget) who said that the promotion of arts, culture and tolerance is Canada's trademark to the world which must be promulgated and protected. Another panelist gave the figure that culture accounts for 8% of Canada's GDP. I know that the majority of Quebec and Ontario tourism money comes from cultural events - festivals and the like. To quote yet another panelist, at a time when many European countries, as well as Australia, are dumping money into cultural exchange programs, Harper's massive cuts place him in stark contrast with the rest of the cultural world. Yes, Harper and his crew are eminently out of touch with the role culture plays in Canada, especially Quebec, and abroad. But it must be made clear to those who share Harper's views that artists are not merely leeches on the government system. It is funding from organizations like PromArt and training from INIS that allow Canada to be a player on the world's cultural stage. Federal arts funding is no place for censorship - grants are awarded by panels who evaluate all eligible and qualified candidates. If an expletive in a band name doesn't ruffle the adjudicators' feathers, then it shouldn't make any difference to the government or the general public.

I will readily stay out of politics if Harper and his cronies keep their noses, and their budget scissors, away from deserving artists and organizations. Until then, it is essential that us artists band together the way we did this morning. I wish interdisciplinary artist unity occurred more often and under better circumstances. At any rate, nous vaincrons!

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