ANOTHER VIEW

Can there be art without grants?

Yes, if we as consumers pick up the government’s slack by demanding quality from artists— and supporting that quality when we see it

CHARLES GORDON March 27 1995
ANOTHER VIEW

Can there be art without grants?

Yes, if we as consumers pick up the government’s slack by demanding quality from artists— and supporting that quality when we see it

CHARLES GORDON March 27 1995

Can there be art without grants?

Yes, if we as consumers pick up the government’s slack by demanding quality from artists— and supporting that quality when we see it

ANOTHER VIEW

CHARLES GORDON

A Canadian can barely get up in the morning without being urged to adapt to the new realities. Although we are tired of the urging coming as it does from finance ministers, bank presidents, high-tech moguls, team owners, futurists and currency speculators— adapt we must. It would be nice if the reality didn’t include being urged all the time, but there you have it. The alternative to adapting is complaining, which stops being enjoyable after a while.

Part of the adjusting is learning to do without. We are being told that we will have to do without a lot of government programs and agencies, perhaps even without the CBC at some point. We are already doing without fish, without major-league baseball. We did without hockey for quite some time.

And we lived to tell the tale. We can adjust, is the answer. The question: Is that good?

That depends. In Grand Canyon, a movie of a few years ago, one of the characters, a resident of Los Angeles, reels off the city’s social ills—drugs, homelessness, an incredible cost of living and an atmosphere of violence so severe that residents feel trapped in their own homes. “And you know what the worst thing is?” she says. “We’re getting used to it.” Right.

There are certain conditions we should never adapt to, whether they are part of a new reality or not—poverty, the growing gap between rich and poor, North and South, worsening standards in our schools and hospitals. If we are told this is the price to be paid for improving our debt position, then the price is too high.

On the other hand, adapting to some changes could be useful, even fun. Sports fans did without major-league baseball last year, as well as the opening of the hockey season. Some of them probably improved their lives in so doing, learning to play a game instead of watch one, learning to read a book for fun, go for a walk or even talk to

their children. At our places of work we have adapted to computers and faxes and voice mail; at home we have adapted to blue boxes, morning newspapers and less frequent mail delivery.

So we can do it. Face it, Canadians are an adaptable people. Every year, don’t forget, we adapt to shovelling snow, scraping car windows and freezing in bus shelters—almost cheerfully, for some of us. How many other people can make that claim?

In the new reality, we will be living without grants and subsidies of various sorts. There has been considerable trepidation about this, from interest groups and from people engaged in the arts, but it may be the most fruitful area for the exploration of new ways of doing things.

Under the old reality, the government supported groups whose primary role was to lobby government. Maybe those groups can learn to support themselves. And maybe they will become stronger and more broadly based in doing so. In the arts, many members of the community have been dependent on grants that are now in danger of disappearing. Theatres, orchestras, festivals, dance companies, publishing

houses—grants are important to all of them. They are important to individual writers, painters, actors and musicians, too. All will have to adapt.

The only way the arts can adapt to a drop in government support is to create an increase in audience support. The arts, in other words, have to find a way to create more customers. No one in the arts community would complain if support from the government was replaced by support from the audience, and there is no logical reason it couldn’t happen. After all, why shouldn’t more Canadians read Canadian books, attend Canadian plays and movies, pay money to see the works of Canadian artists? If the number could double, the outlook for the arts would be vastly improved; and the numbers are so small now that a doubling does not seem out of the question.

The odds are against it, yes. For more people to go to the ballet, or a Canadian movie, or a Canadian play, those people have to be persuaded that this is better than staying home and watching television. It won’t be easy, given the way we have adapted to having entertainment in our living-rooms over the last 40 years or so.

But it can be done. The quality is there and, if that can be brought home to the potential audience, the arts could adapt, even prosper. With the need to find an audience always in mind, our arts community would be forced to eliminate the flabbiness and selfindulgence that can flourish in a sheltered environment.

That’s the optimistic view of it. The most pessimistic view is that life without grants will be life without the arts. A slightly less pessimistic view is that the arts can survive but the obsession with finding audiences will reduce quality, stifle innovation, force artists into the middle of the road. We have only to pick up the entertainment section and look at what’s playing to see how real that danger is. But popularity is not totally inconsistent with quality. In all areas of the arts there are stunning examples of excellent work that become extremely popular. The challenge of the post-grant age will be to produce that. The challenge for Canadians will be to reward it, not only in the arts but also in business.

Consumers have to adapt too, in other words. The new reality is not only for producers and it is not only for government. It is not only for interest groups and the arts. It is for us. As government withdraws from certain responsibilities, the individual has to take up the slack. Individual responsibility: isn’t that what all that neoconservative rhetoric has been telling us all these years?

So now the time has come, new reality time. As consumers, we have a responsibility to demand quality and support it when we see it. That may involve going out of the house occasionally. It may involve doing more with our discretionary dollars than renting a video. It may mean spending an extra dollar to support an unsubsidized Canadian business. Are we up to it?