Rethinking the importance of culture
Excerpt from a speech to the Federal-Provincial Culture Ministers’ Conference in Halifax, Oct. 30, 2004.
By Simon Brault
With the acceleration of globalization that affects all of us, ways of thinking and acting in all sectors of human activity are being re-examined. The "paradigm shift" was initially introduced by the new management gurus, but has since become a leitmotif in our society.
All around the world, the intrinsic virtues and the impact of culture on individual and community development are being questioned, studied, measured and, hopefully, rediscovered. There is a keen interest in the specific relationship between arts and culture and the economic and social development of our communities.
The status of arts and culture in society have evolved dramatically in the nearly 60 years since the adoption of Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which affirmed, for the first time, the right of every human being to freely participate in the cultural life of the community and to enjoy the arts. Cultural creation, production and presentation have gone from being almost ignored in the economic sphere to being at the centre of new development strategies.
Canada has clearly been affected by these changes.
In the early 1960s, our governments focused on the professionalization of the arts by affirming objectives of artistic excellence and by building major cultural institutions in urban centres and in the regions. At that time, public spending was directed at increasing cultural activity by investing in the work of professional artists.
The democratization of art was seen – understandably – as a primary responsibility of the State and it justified the gradual implementation of the cultural subsidy mechanisms we have today.
Unfortunately, efforts to develop these public support systems have been accompanied by statements and attitudes that fed the notion that there was a welfare relationship, one of condescension, almost charity, between the people who manage the economy and the people responsible for artistic creation.
In the 1970s, people began to see the cause and effect relationship between culture and economic development. With the collapse of whole segments of economic activity based on natural resources and the processing of these resources, we welcomed the positive impact of art and culture on the growth of the workforce.
In the late 1980s, echoes of the American and European experiments in urban revitalization through culture reverberated in Canada. Art and culture are now routinely called to the aid of ailing downtown cores, deserted or overpopulated urban areas, or neighbourhoods torn apart by violence and poverty.
In the late 1990s, ideas about creative industries and creative cities emerged first in Britain and then in several European countries, changing our understanding of the relationship between art, heritage, culture and the economy.
In 2002, the extensive media coverage of Richard Florida’s work on knowledge workers and the appeal of cultural life in major urban centres precipitated changes in North America, almost creating a fashion that, like all fashions, combines the extraordinary with the banal, the sophisticated with the commonplace. The media buzz generated by this drew the attention of many politicians from all levels of government and captured the imagination of the business leaders.
RESPONDING TO CHANGE
The world changes. Rapid social upheavals, massive migrations of people, more diversified communities, fewer cultural common references and preferences, the collapse of the hierarchy between art forms and between high culture and popular culture, the high value placed on learning and knowledge in the economic continuum and the inevitable reconfigurations of concepts of identity and nationality caused by technological advances are some of the factors to be taken into account as we consider the future. Adjustments must be made to policy, planning, investment and cultural spending.
We need to reinvent our existing cultural systems in order to meet the challenges of today and to stimulate the enormous human development potential that our fellow citizens rightly aspire to.
This does not mean forgetting the past, but instead we must draw lessons from the past to set a new course for government cultural action, in which cultural ministers are the primary architects and engineers.
At the heart of all these development strategies, of course, are artists from all disciplines, of all ages, from all aesthetic genres, from all geographic origins, and all communities. These artists do their work, often without worrying about its direct and indirect impacts. This work is of value in itself, and we cannot, nor should we, “instrumentalize” artists for economic or social purposes, however worthy they may be. But it is our job to place this work in context and to show how it contributes to the well-being of individuals and communities. Now more than ever, arts and culture appear as the key to three basic skills: learning to be, learning to know and learning to live together.
We must do more to support our artists, to fully recognize their status, to provide high quality training at the initial and professional development levels, to ensure they are fairly compensated and to protect and celebrate their creative freedom.
I believe that we also need to foster and recognize the new cultural leadership within our communities, whether it comes from individuals or organizations that are particularly creative and innovative.
Finally, let us hope that ministers of culture can work together and with others involved in cultural development so that the cultural agenda is no longer on the sidelines and often left behind, but rather a key agenda in each of our communities.
- Explore ways to utilize arts and heritage in school systems as an agent for development and creativity.
- Better identify, document, and reveal the concrete links between culture—creativity-- and both economic and social development. This could lead, for example, to a national conference exploring and celebrating these connections.
- Identify and promote innovative initiatives and projects that focus on the contribution of the arts, heritage and culture towards the revitalization of communities.
- Develop approaches that focus on the bridges between culture and other government missions. In practical terms, ensure that urban development agreements always include a cultural component.
And finally, we must:
- Develop programs to foster the emergence of cultural leadership at the local and national levels.
Today, ministers of culture are central players in the achievement of their governments’ mandate. Tomorrow, the cultural portfolio may be the single most important agent in the pursuit of a healthy society.
Simon Brault is vice-chair of the Canada Council for the Arts, chair of Culture Montréal and director-general of the National Theatre School of Canada.