MONTREAL — Were it not for the two-story-tall picture of a male dancer that hangs on the front of the building, you would never know that the tan-colored structure with a flat roof and sunken basement entrance was the Montreal home of the Grands Ballets Canadiens. It looks more like space zoned for light industry, or perhaps an office for a telemarketing firm. It is that grim.
“We live in a garage,” says Alain Dancyger, the company’s executive director. “And that’s not conducive to attracting and retaining top talent from around the world.”
But like most people involved in the arts in Canada today, Dancyger isn’t in a bad mood. His company is about to move to a new, purpose-built dance facility near the center of Montreal. And he is celebrating a change in government that might have a profound impact on the arts throughout the country. In October, when Canadians voted decisively for the Liberal Party of Canada, led by Justin Trudeau, they empowered a government that promised a major reinvestment in the arts and culture. After winning the national elections, Trudeau made good on the pledge: In U.S. dollars, the new government has promised almost $1.5 billion over the next five years to Canada’s complex and robust cultural infrastructure. It remains to be seen what slice of that money Dancyger’s company will get, but like most arts leaders, he is giddy that the rhetoric from Ottawa has changed and that the arts seem to be in high favor once again.
The new cultural budget includes some $520 million to the Canadian Broadcasting Company and Radio Canada, $216 million to three premiere cultural institutions (the National Arts Centre, the Canada Science and Technology Museum and the National Gallery of Canada), and more than $420 million to the Canada Council for the Arts, which disburses funding to arts and cultural groups independently of government control. The money will only strengthen an already dynamic arts community, which routinely punches above its weight, producing some of the best artists, architects, directors, musicians and writers in the world.
“It’s a game-changer,” Simon Brault, the head of the Canada Council, said after the government announcement.
Melanie Joly, the minister for Canadian Heritage, which oversees a diverse portfolio of cultural agencies, commissions and “crown corporations,” including the Canada Council for the Arts, says the money is part of a larger government effort to include the arts in all aspects of life.
“For a long time, everything that was happening at the Canada Council and in the arts and culture in general [was] seen as spending,” she says. By “spendings” she means red marks on the cost side of the budget. She prefers the term “investments,” a marked contrast with the word “subsidies,” used by the previous prime minister, Stephen Harper, who once claimed that “ordinary working people” don’t care about the arts.
The “investments” language is part of a larger rhetoric of innovation, multiculturalism and economic growth that makes the current Canadian leadership sound more like Silicone valley technocrats than ordinary politicians.
For Americans, the announcement of a $1.5 billion investment in culture is unthinkable. When the Obama administration came to power in 2009, speaking some of the same language of diversity and social responsibility, the arts were not part of the focus. The budget for the National Endowment for the Arts, which has to be approved by Congress, remains basically where it was eight years ago. But the more striking thing is the absence of the arts as part of the larger conversation about American identity. The left side of the political spectrum, in the United States, rarely views the arts as part of the basic tool kit with which it might make its impress on society, and the Obama administration has been mostly true to that tradition of indifference.
In Canada, by contrast, the arts are elemental to what the prime minister has called the emergence of Canada as the “first post-national state.” After the October election, Trudeau said of his country: “There is no core identity, no mainstream in Canada.” Instead, he stressed a core sense of equity and tolerance: “There are shared values — openness, respect, compassion, willingness to work hard, to be there for each other, to search for equality and justice.”
The radical nature of this idea, and the heightened importance of the arts as part of a post-national state, was further underscored by Great Britain’s recent decision to withdraw from the European Union. The E.U. referendum campaign was marked by social division, heightened animosity to immigrants, and a bold and unsettling nativist rhetoric. It pitted cosmopolitan arts centers against mainly rural or dilapidated industrial regions. It heightened the cultural argument between proponents of a globalized culture that stresses the free flow of people and ideas, and a more traditionalist view that stresses the importance of national sovereignty to control the rate of social change.
Joly says the arts have traditionally been one of the fundamental differentiators for Canadians when they look to the United States. “It is at the core of who we are as Canadians, and what unites us and defines us in the world, including in our relations with Americans,” she says. And now, increasingly, the arts are part of Canada’s effort to differentiate itself from a larger Western world move toward nationalism and insularity. While much of America was transfixed by Donald Trump’s December statement calling for a ban on Muslim immigrants, Trudeau responded a few days later by welcoming a Syrian family to Canada on a now viral video; and arts organizations in Canada followed his lead by offering free tickets or admission to newly arrived immigrants.
As much of the Western world flirts with retrenchment into a nativist crouch, Canada is doubling down on what Joly describes as the basic “social contract,” which has always included the arts as a fundamental part of the national budget. But she and Brault also stress the need to reform the existing system of cultural funding. At the government level, Canada has to grapple with laws that were meant to encourage the production of Canadian “content” but were drafted in an age before the Internet, Netflix and the almost universal availability of diverse entertainment options. And at the Canada Council for the Arts, Brault is streamlining the process for funding arts and culture to reflect the increasingly amorphous lines between artistic disciplines, and the emergence of new kinds of collaboration and interaction.
Both Joly and Brault stress another issue central to the Brexit debate: the perceived sense that government serves only elites. “In order to save the idea of public funding for the arts, we need to reaffirm its democratic foundations,” says Brault, who emphasizes a larger role for social impact and “outcomes.”
For Joly, that means connecting the arts to a larger prosperity agenda: “Our vision is clearly that you link arts, culture and innovation and by linking them you create opportunities.”
In theory, that sounds good. But what does it actually mean? Linking the arts to dynamic industries such as the tech sector is a common theme in the United States, as well as in Canada, but does it yield much beyond new generations of aesthetically appealing consumer devices? The rhetoric of innovation often seems to leave the traditional arts — ballet companies, art museums, orchestras — out in the cold. And the stress on social usefulness of art — its meliorative impact on poverty or inequality or its educational value — can divert artists and arts organizations from their core mission into areas they are not particularly well equipped to handle.
But Brault says the more democratic focus won’t negatively affect the traditional arts. The increase in the budget, and the simplification of the process of applying for funding, means that groups such as the Grands Ballets Canadiens are likely to do well under the new system.
Dancyger has yet to see how it will affect his company, but he is hopeful. Well before the new reinvestment and the changes at the Canada Council for the Arts, the Grands Ballets created a center that uses dance as therapy for eating disorders, dementia, Alzheimer’s disease and other conditions. And he hopes that the new funding will make more money available for touring his group abroad. Both of those fit squarely with the government’s language about innovation and promoting Canadian culture outside of Canada.
The excitement among arts leaders in Canada is about more than money. It is about tone. Arts leaders often felt embattled under the Harper government. Now the government seems to speak their language. But there is a larger challenge for the arts and Canada as a whole in the Trudeau government’s post-national vision: If it fails, there are not many other models left in the world to emulate, other than the path that Great Britain recently took and that other European Union countries may follow.
So Canada is going all in on a model of cultural diversity — supported by arts that allow for a non-threatening celebration of identity and cultural difference — that other countries seem to think is outdated, unworkable and susceptible to exploitation by hostile forces. The arts, Joly says, are linked to all of Canada’s ambitions in the world today, and Canada sees itself as an international role model.
“We are very much aware of the responsibility, the moral responsibility we have, and the moral leadership that we are playing, and that is why we have been re-involved in international relations, peacekeeping, multilateral institutions,” she says. “That is the role of Canada and it is very unique in the world.”