Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Letter to the Committee

I have a lot of writing to do and will be posting regularly starting next week - but I thought I'd start with the letter I just sent to the members of the Heritage Committee regarding the cuts to programs announced in the past few weeks. Join Facebook group here.

It's a little long, but I'm trying to work through some thoughts about articulating the value of art in relation to larger world. Thoughts and comments more than welcome...

To Heritage Committee members:

I understand that you met today to discuss the cuts in the Department of Heritage.

As a citizen and artist I wish to write to you with some thoughts on these policy changes.

In recent days the government has implied that the cut programs will be replaced with others. I encourage the announcement of such programs as soon as possible, so that as we approach an election, Canadians can look at the proposals of all parties and decide which reflect the country they wish to create.

The other announcement, that a Conservative government will "redirect all savings" from the cuts to arts programs to support Vancouver Olympic programs and bilingualism sets up an unnecessary and harmful dichotomy.

There is no need for an either/or relationship. The promotion of such a relationship by the Canadian government damages the success of both vital areas. As an artist who loves watching all levels of sports and participates in a recreational way, I am all too aware of the societal split and it's unfortunate consequences. When artists and their public turn away from or become resentful of sport, and athletes and sport fans are unaware of or even hostile to the arts, both fields suffer from a continuation of a cliché, high school understanding of each other. The continuation of the “jocks” and “artsies” understanding stunts our engagement with the world and the people in it.

Coming off of the summer Olympics and moving towards 2010 in Vancouver, I can understand the political pressures and benefits in increasing the funds to sporting. While I don’t know the details of the planned increase, I do support it in principle. As an artist in Canada, I acutely empathize with the frustration of the athletes who feel unable to reach the top of there fields due to lack of societal and governmental support, or with people with reduced income who can not access sporting due to prohibitive costs. These problems are common in the arts as well - artists falling short of their ideals because of funds and the cost of participation increasing to make up funding shortfalls. These are real problems that should be addressed for the health of our country. However, an increase in support to one field does not require the cutting of another - this mindset only increases the gaps in participation and excellence.

I believe government can and should take a role in closing these gaps. By promoting and encouraging involvement on levels from recreational (pick up soccer / community art projects) to international excellence (Olympics / PromArts) we have the chance to understand and celebrate the work, passion and pursuit of those who represent Canada through their efforts, and those who wish to enrich their lives through taking part in sports and art.

I also recognize the ease of taking some potentially controversial artists and using them to dismiss the programs that support them. There are many traps in this ease that I believe government, as a leading force in our society, must avoid.

The first is a belief that to “promote Canada” is to promote an ideology or set of values. This outlook positions international arts presentations as straight advertising for a national agenda. I believe we would be hard pressed to find a majority of Canadians able to agree on an ideological national agenda – we do, after all, have a minority government.

We don’t all love or even enjoy all sports; we don’t all love or even enjoy all music or all writers. This isn’t surprising and isn’t new. It’s also a very very good thing.

What PromArts or Trade Routes or other “promotional” programs promote is the diversity and rigour of excellence. They promote Canada as a place of multiple views, views that are not only “tolerated” but celebrated. Within the democratic framework that we claim to uphold and promote, this celebration and encouragement of difference is vital to avoid embarrassing hypocrisy.

Linked to this is the notion that art has a clean and simple relation to societal norms – that it must follow these norms in order to be of use to the public.

Art can be and do many things, and one of those is to lead through questioning. In a society so often beset with the following of trends and the continuation of “just the way things are,” art can provide an example of a considered and questioning life. We may not agree with all the questions or the paths considered, but a society without such questioning is one that, I fear, brings little forward into the future of those who live in it.

Capacity for doubt, challenge, hope and curiosity is as vital for a nation as it is for a writer, a physicist, a politician, an athletics coach or a medical researcher. None of these fields should by tied to a single simple “majority rules” moral ideology. (This is not to say that there are not conversations of ethics that are crucial to address in all these fields.)

Because such curiosity, challenge and hope can be temporarily unpopular or shocking (history is often the story of such cases,) it comes to the government as leaders and representatives of the public to support and celebrate excellence – even when, and possibly especially when, that excellence is oppositional to “just the way things are.”

Largely this argument supports the creation of artworks. The importance of international touring and influence has often, recently, been separated as a different issue. It shouldn’t be. Art, like all fields in this time, is an international field. Ideas and excellence are not confined by nation states. I will end this letter with two stories from a recent trip. (I was fortunate enough to travel to Austria and Germany to attend workshops in my field.)

Max, a German student asks me about the popularity of sound art in Canada. He imagines that it must be very successful and played on the radio. I am confused for a moment and have to tell him that, no that’s not really true, at least not on most radio or when anyone is awake. I ask him why he would think that. He told me that when he thinks of sound art, he thinks of Canada. He thinks of R. Murray Schaffer and Janet Cardiff, John Oswald and the Sound Symposium. (All these artists and events have had important funding from all levels of government.) He talks about the way Canadians have led the field and changed the way sound art is made and thought about. Big historical changes that will be important for a long time. In this moment of talking with a German, I feel a pride and a pleasure at being from a country that not only supports but also promotes its artists abroad. My only wish is that we could do as well at home.

I have a meeting with the curator at a performance space in Germany. A space that has a history of presenting Canadian work. They really like it – there is something in the way we approach dance and theatre that they are curious about and speaks to them. I am talking to the curator about bringing work to Europe. This kind of touring is vital for the continuation of my artistic practice. Shows take a long time to develop, (good ideas can take awhile), and when a show is finished, we want to perform it for more than the two week run in one city usual for a first presentation. We also need partnerships and co-producers from inside of Canada and (we hope someday) across the world. This is simply part of the art world now. Ideas want to and need to travel. But Canada is far away from Europe and flights are expensive.

So, the curator said, usually they try to arrange more than one city at a time in Europe so that the flights are worth it. And while many presenters will pay for travel inside of Europe, even if they decided to present the work (depending on it’s artistic excellence) they cannot afford to pay for the international flight for a company of eight. That’s ok I think, literally a day before the announced cuts, we would apply for PromArts funding to support such a tour. A tour of work that is considered good enough to receive funding at home to make, good enough to tour within Canada. A tour of a work that could bring us to the “global stage.” A tour that might only need airfare from Canada to Europe. A tour that could increase the capacity for doubt, challenge, hope and curiosity for us and our public and for them and their public.

I leave the meeting feeling good. Nothing has been decided but based on one trip I have the conversation about the next. Because the country I live in believes that excellence in the arts are important and worth sharing. (As do many other nations, including even the current US government.)

Two days later I see him again and tell him about the cuts, about how I hope that they won’t come to pass, about how I hope they don’t mark a turn in Canadian policy away from celebrating achievement and difference towards enforcing ideology and limiting access.

I still hope that this is true. That these programs are reinstated or ones that serve the same purpose and have the same ideological openness are created. That funds are even increased in an understanding that arts – like amateur sport, research and business – has always been supported by government in order that excellence might be sought and shared.

I hope that to promote Canada still could be to promote the capacity for doubt, challenge, hope, curiosity and excellence.

I hope that you consider these thoughts as you move forward shaping how Canada is seen in the world and at home.


Jacob Zimmer

Dramaturge and Animateur - Dancemakers and the Centre for Creation
Artistic Director - Small Wooden Shoe

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