Notes for Simon Brault’s acceptance speech for the 2008 Keith Kelly Award for Cultural Leadership
Ottawa – 12 March 2009
Senator Tommy Banks,
Ms. Kathleen Sharpe, Chair of the Canadian Conference of the Arts,
Monsieur Alain Pineau, Directeur général de la Conférence canadienne des arts,
Ms. Cynthia White-Thornley, Director General/ Arts Policy Branch at the Department of Canadian Heritage
Ladies and gentlemen,
First, I wish to thank the Canadian Conference of the Arts and its Awards Committee for this honour. I accept it as encouragement to keep on pursuing – not so much my career, however interesting and exciting that may be, but rather my passionate and tireless championing of a cause that has shaped my public and private life for many years.
It means a great deal to me to receive this award in the presence of two women who have played, and continue to play, a pivotal role in my choices and their ongoing consequences. Hugo, my mother, who taught me from an early age that art is the very foundation of our humanity and of our emancipation both as individuals and communities. And, of course, Louise Sicuro, the selfless pasionaria of cultural democracy that I met 13 years ago in the exciting period when we were developing and implementing Les Journées de la Culture au Québec, and who has since become my wife and my partner in all my endeavours.
I also want to acknowledge the members of three wonderful teams of people that I have the joy and privilege of working with to ensure that the arts and culture are at the heart of our lives as a society: Culture Montréal, represented this evening by its Executive Director, Anne-Marie Jean; the National Theatre School of Canada, and the Canada Council for the Arts. My work with these groups allows me a direct, constant and virtually instantaneous access to men and women whose expertise, knowledge and strategic capacities are far-reaching and extremely valuable in their thoughts and actions. Speaking objectively, this award pays tribute to their contributions and commitment.
My favourite quote about leadership comes from my British colleague Charles Landry: “A leader will weave an incredible tale and his or her talent lies in persuading each and every person that they have an important role to play in this particular story.” As we witness the terrible ravages in the world today that, more than just an economic or financial crisis, represent a profound upheaval in our values and our very civilization, we have to ask ourselves this: what is the tale we can weave to effect progress and cast a new spell on our world?
This unprecedented state of affairs has everyone caught up in an escalating whirl of doomsday prophesying. It forces us to question the role and the moral, political, social and economic position – in short, the status and value – of artists and their more or less immediate entourage. This includes many of us in our capacities as teachers, communicators, specialists, administrators and directors of professional associations and artistic and cultural organizations.
For months, the media has been rife with reports of disaster. Lost jobs and lost savings, abandoned dreams and desperate acts, empty speeches that bring neither comfort nor courage. Now more than ever, we have to give voice to those who continue to mine the riches at the core of the human condition, who continue to proclaim that irrational market forces - and the frantic consumerism that is expected to keep them afloat - are not and never have been enough to give meaning to our lives in society, much less to our individual journeys.
Like many of the students I have talked to at the National Theatre School, and like many of the artists and colleagues from every discipline I have spoken to in Montreal and throughout Canada, I am convinced that we must not hide in our studios and rehearsal halls to avoid the fray. And above all, we must not remain politely and conveniently quiet until the crisis has passed and better times have returned. The idea that our only strategy would be to salvage what we can is more than wrong – it is dangerous, for it leads directly to isolation, and to confirming the accusations of elitism and selfishness that are sometimes weighed against us to minimize our real contribution to society.
We are always quick to proclaim, when things are going fairly well, that the arts and culture are not a luxury or a frivolous part of life. So it would be truly paradoxical if we slunk away quietly and looked only to our own affairs, at a time when whole sectors of the economy are crashing down and our social fabric is being torn apart. A defensive withdrawal, a wait-and-see attitude, might be a good strategy for portfolio managers, but it is not a good strategy for the cultural sector.
I believe that now more than ever it is time for us to be in the public arena. Recently I heard someone proclaim these rallying words by the great poet Gaston Miron:
Je suis sur la place publique avec les miens
la poésie n'a pas à rougir de moi
j'ai su qu'une espérance soulevait ce monde jusqu'ici.
I am on the public square with my people
Poetry need not be ashamed of me
I have seen that hope has brought us together.
I told myself that this was a good program for all of us: we need to stand alongside our fellow citizens, united in the same effort to fight despair, instil confidence and bring a sense of meaning back to our institutions, our cities and our communities.
We have to provide access for emotions, enchantment, beauty, for the very essence of humanity, both in its areas of darkness and its areas of light. We must continue to seek, to create, to produce and present, but we also have to reinvent democratic participation by insisting on the role of the arts and culture. It is time that the riches we mine in the human condition are brought to the fore – these are the values that we need to invest in when an economic crisis erodes the dignity of many of our fellow citizens.
Of course we each have our own crises and challenges, our own demands and negotiations. Of course we are frustrated because our leaders do not always hear what we have to say. Of course we have to argue that economic recovery must take the arts and culture into account: not to do so would be a terrible mistake, for they are part and parcel of the future. And of course, we have a moral and political duty to recall the essential importance of public funding and the role of the state in the defence of cultural rights. This is vital – for we have to ensure that the fire of the arts does not burn out in this country, and that its torch can be borne beyond our borders. More than ever, this is a time for unity, solidarity and striving for the common good. We no longer have a choice: we have to be generous and brave.
Thank you again for this award. I will hang it with pride on my shield as we continue to fight alongside one another in the battle for a better world through the arts.