For Canadian artists, the announcement was like an olive branch from the federal government. Last week, when Communications Minister Marcel Masse revealed that Peter Roberts, Canada’s ambassador to the Soviet Union, would become director of the Canada Council on Oct. 1, the arts community hailed the choice of a man who appears to be sensitive to their needs.
Roberts, who will replace Timothy Porteous in the country’s top cultural job, is a seasoned arts administrator who served as assistant undersecretary of state for cultural affairs in the Liberal government of Pierre Trudeau from 1973 to 1979. And he is a supporter of the traditional arm’s-length relationship between the government and the Canada Council, which awards almost $70 million in arts grants every year. Said novelist Matt Cohen, chairman of the Writers Union of Canada: “It is a good appointment because he is known as a friend to culture. The government is trying to say that they want to clear up all the bad feelings.”
Roberts, a 58-year-old native of Calgary who was posted to Moscow in 1983, was one of three finalists for the position.
Canada Council chairman Maureen Forrester said that she reviewed between 40 and 50 names.
Sources confirmed, how-
ever, that the final choice was made by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. Said Forrester: “What really pleased me is that it is not a political payoff.”
In addition to his civil service and diplomatic background, Roberts is an avid art collector and flutist who likes to play chamber music with his wife, Glenna, a pianist. Reached by telephone at his Moscow mansion, Roberts told Maclean’s that he considers the appointment a “unique opportunity.” He added: “The Canada Council must be independent and make its own decisions on its own criteria, and I will be very insistent about that. I had the assurance of the Prime Minister that the Canada Council would not be tampered with.”
Roberts brings both the necessary diplomatic skills and a wealth of arts experience to the job. He has served as a diplomat in Moscow, Hong Kong, Saigon, Washington, Brussels and Bucharest. In the early 1970s he worked as a press secretary for Trudeau at the same
The initial euphoria was clouded by Porteous’s unceremonious send-off. Porteous has been rumored to be on the Tory government’s hit list since last fall. On July 2 he held a dramatic press conference announcing that he was about to be “terminated” and accusing the government of applying political criteria to cultural funding and j eopardizing the council’s independence. But by the time that Masse announced Roberts’s appointment, Porteous said he still had not received any notice of his dismissal, nor had he submitted his resignation. Said Forrester: “It is a terrible oversight. I bleed for the man. His letdown should be
time that Porteous was employed in the Prime Minister’s Office. As assistant undersecretary of state, Roberts is best remembered by the arts community for fighting the Liberal government’s attempt to dismantle the Canada Council Art Bank to save money.
As members of the arts community welcomed Roberts’s appointment, they also raised the two major challenges he faces: to maintain the arm’s-length relationship between government and the arts and to fight for the appointment of qualified people to the boards of arts agencies. But most observers say that Roberts’s first task will be to attempt to end the tensions between the government and the Canada Council. It may be one of the former ambassador’s larger diplomatic challenges.
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