Reimagining arts funding for a more resilient sector: The role of government at the intersection of creativity, innovation and impact

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Public funders will have a vital role to play in shaping the future of the arts after the pandemic. 

The global COVID-19 pandemic has, with many other reckonings, brought us face to face with the profound inequalities and fragilities embedded in the traditional arts funding model. While many of the flaws in the system, such as high barriers to access for new applicants, chronic undercapitalisation of funded organisations, and systemic barriers of colonialism and racism have been evident for some time, there is now an undeniable sense that we will need to be thinking and working differently if we are to have a more resilient and dynamic arts sector going forward. This is not only about the future of the arts, it is also about what the arts can contribute to wider social and environmental movements that are critical to our global future. Arts funders, especially those who work at arm’s length from government, have a responsibility to encourage investments in arts and culture, to articulate the public value of the arts and to support the cultural rights of peoples around the world.

The Canada Council for the Arts is Canada’s public arts funder. It invests directly in the arts sector through a broad range of grants, services, prizes and payments to professional Canadian artists and arts organisations in every field of arts practice and in every province and territory. It also works with partners on initiatives to contribute to the growth and development of the arts in Canada, and to build international audiences and recognition for Canadian arts. 

2020-21 is the final year of the Canada Council’s 2016-2021 strategic plan, a period of extreme change. Over the past five years, the Council’s budget doubled to a total of $360 million, and it reinvented its entire suite of grant programmes, all with the goal of scaling up – increasing investments in Indigenous arts and in the international presence of Canadian artists, boosting funding to first-time recipients, and supporting the adoption of digital technologies. With a new strategic plan for the period of 2021-26 currently under development, the Canada Council is exploring the role it can play in helping the arts sector not only to recover from the effects of the pandemic, but also to be more resilient, more equitable and more innovative in the future.

Public arts funders such as the Canada Council not only play the role of direct investor, but are also in a position to convene partners from government and the private sector, and to build bridges between the arts and the creative industries and other key sectors. This capacity is particularly important when experimenting with new modes of financing and new ways of working, particularly with digital technologies.

This is not only about the future of the arts, it is also about what the arts can contribute to wider social and environmental movements that are critical to our global future

Beyond traditional arts grantmaking, social innovation and social finance are two areas where the significant positive impacts of the arts on our communities and societies can leverage access to new funding, resources and connections. Through collaboration, arts funders can help enable arts organisations to see themselves as potential participants in broad government and foundation-led initiatives to support increased knowledge and capacity-building.1 

The COVID-19 global public health emergency and lockdowns in many countries saw a rapid shift of the arts onto digital platforms. Now in its fourth year, the Council’s Digital Strategy Fund was created to stimulate the digital transformation of the arts sector in Canada. Evolving in response to needs in the sector, the fund has launched a number of partnerships: the Creation Accelerator with CBC/Radio-Canada to support the development, creation, and sharing of original digital content; the Digital Originals initiative, again with CBC/Radio-Canada and the RBC Foundation, to help artists pivot their work to online sharing during the pandemic; and the UK-Canada Immersive Talent Exchange with the Canada Media Fund, the Canadian Film Centre, StoryFutures Academy (UK), the National Centre for Immersive Storytelling (UK) and Arts Council England.

We have seen, in the shift to digital platforms, the importance of the arts in bringing people together, even virtually, to provide comfort and hope in times of crisis. As we look towards a post-pandemic arts sector recovery, understanding the personal and social value of the arts becomes more critical than ever, and an important means of connecting the arts to other sectors.2 At the same time, the issue of artist remuneration in the digital environment is a central concern, even as in-person artistic experiences gradually become possible again. The global scale of the pandemic has highlighted how interconnected we all are and the importance of international cooperation and cultural diplomacy, including mutually beneficial exchanges and conversations that promote understanding, even when our ability to come together in person is limited.

Funders like the Canada Council have a role to play in helping to shape the future of the arts after the pandemic, encouraging new ways of working, enabling access to new sources of capital and helping the sector to articulate its impacts to encourage investment and innovation. A more resilient, sustainable and equitable arts sector of the future is not separate from the social, cultural and environmental movements of our times – rather, by re-committing to public values and looking beyond our usual partners, we will help the arts to emerge from the current crisis and to play an even more meaningful role in our lives in the future.

1 In November 2019, the Canada Council for the Arts, Metcalf Foundation, Ontario Trillium Foundation, Ontario Arts Council and Toronto Arts Council, working with Innoweave and the McConnell Foundation, presented a workshop for arts organisations to introduce them to a new social innovation investment readiness fund.
2 In 2019, the Council published the Qualitative Impact Framework to enable the council to better articulate the many ways in which Canadians’ lives are enhanced by the arts.
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