Going Meta. Going forward.

I (like most of us) have no inside information on the reasons behind the cancellation of Helen Lawrence at the FTA beyond what is in the Globe article and the statements Arden Ryshpan and the Canadian Actors Equity Association (CAEA) have posted and comments on Facebook. But (like most of us) the headline alone was a trigger and I have some thoughts. Not so much about the case itself (because we don’t know anything), but about how it was handled and what the response tells us about the state of things.

Where I come from:

  1. Born, raised pro-Union radical left.
  2. The legacy organizations and metaphors - labour and producers etc… - in theatre and performance are not helping right now. Change is needed in how we organize and who gets to big salaries and Bay St. offices
  3. I want a 21st Century Labour Movement. We need it. The increased disparity between the rich and the rest is very bad news and only action in solidarity can change it.

So, in this case - in terms of public or community perception:

CAEA blew it because

  1. Near-total lack of faith in the CAEA in the indie community (members and non - the poorest of the field) or amongst people trying to figure out how to make and show theatre in the 21st Century. There is little belief that CAEA is protecting anyone other than themselves and their richest members (those working regularly in A house and above) or are in touch with the realities of making and showing work outside of the legacy PACT models. This lack of faith is based on decades of policy, behaviour and broken relationships.
  2. CAEA release citing timing of the request as cause for the concession. This reeks of the worst nightmare images that artist-producers have of dealing with the CAEA. It seems this is less the reason, but this initial release was perhaps the worst thing they could have said.
  3. People in community want these big co-production shows to work and know that there is such scarcity and rapidity of change that even the big A houses like Canadian Stage et al. need to find new and different ways and timings of getting things done.

Some good reasons that could have changed the story:

  1. A struggle against Precarity. That the CAEA is fighting the fight for artists not bearing the brunt of increased precarity in our economic system while executive, administrative, marketing and development staff have relative stability and high wages (cf #2.)
  2. Income disparity. That the CAEA is fighting for appropriate ratios of expenses between what artists receive and what executive, administrative, marketing and development staff receive (not to mention airline and logistic companies.) Negotiating for reasonable proximity in the ratio between the highest and lowest paid at the producer and presenters organization and where the performers fit in that is something I think people think CAEA could do.
  3. Unacceptable conditions That the CAEA was protecting members from a room, process, work or tour that had - for whatever reasons - gone deeply south and no longer constituted “safe working conditions.” It happens. It’s shitty when it does but it’s what solidarity is there to help with. Articulating this should include the continued anonymity of details and people involved, but is very different from saying “they didn’t file paperwork on time.”

Some big picture values that might help going forward

  1. Trust
    1. CAEA acting and altering policy in ways to build trust in membership and sector (especially younger and indie) that they are acting in good faith with a dynamic and up-to-date understanding the world. This will take a while and a lot of work.
    2. Transparent wages in the arts and adoption of Wagemark for all non-profit arts organization.
    3. Transparent relationships between all involved. See the Brooklyn Commune for some ideas. (but in basketball - down with Brooklyn, up with the North.)
  2. Responsive
    1. There is a need to shift to scale and types of work and have all parties able to do that. The world is always changing and we have to get with that.
    2. Different from compliant or complicit. Responsive doesn’t mean giving in to everything, but it does mean being able to change and contain difference.
  3. Justice
    1. Recognition that cultural workers are vasty underpaid relatively to the wealth of our country and that the long term goal is the raising of quality of life for the most people possible.
    2. Recognition that cultural workers have privilege and power that can be used to raise the quality of life for the most people possible or to participate in continued systemic failures.
    3. For all these solutions CAEA and producers would have to be an equal participants - i.e. sharing data on expenses and income disparity between executive staff and lowest paid member.
    4. Transparency is an often used weapon of the witch hunt, the bully and the oppressor - this is not my goal.

My regrets that this particular case didn't go down in a way we all would like and that people lost the chance to see the show and the work that was possible. Let's make it better going forward.

Public Funding - Mixing stability and agility

A little twitter back and forth with Praxis folk plus a desire to respond to Shannon Litzenberger’s Metcalf report, Choreographing Our Future: Strategies for Supporting Next Generation Arts Practice has inspired me to post some thoughts on public funding models. I’ve been thinking lots about this and below is an edited version of some writing about this for a funding body earlier this year. I’ll start with operating. In tracking the discussion of the future of operating funds it's clear a mix of stability and agility must be found. “Operating funding forever” is no longer tenable and maybe, in retrospect, not a good idea. I don’t want to see anyone loose their jobs or to increase the precarious nature of contemporary life[1], but a proper mix must be found to allow for renewal and change. Entitlement and expectation of complete funding is not realistic.

Yet Project, even multi-year project, funding is unstable and makes it impossible to plan and difficult to take risks. It also encourages a “giant project” model that will not suit all makers - especially those in marginal practices and companies working with small ongoing or repeating projects.

I have been imagining a 5-year operating grant renewed at the end year 3. This would mean that companies would have 2 years in which they knew the results and were able to plan ahead if the funding was renewed, and to seek other funding or wind down operations if it were not. It also meant the competition for funds would be more open to new or emergent companies and practices.

In the current economic structures and limited funds to art councils, however, it cannot be the Councils job to provide this for artists regardless of effectiveness and connection with (self-defined) community and society.

The issues of infrastructure and shared equipment are important and not entirely addressed by the above proposal. How are the very real needs of space, equipment and skills supported and continued? Again, a mix of stability and dynamism is required and artists need to be involved in creating the structures they need to work.

This is something that has urgency, but also requires fair warning.

There will be heavy lobbying from current operating companies and this must be viewed with an understanding that artists and organizations without operating funding usually do not have the resources or access to lobby in the same way. This imbalance is part of the larger dynamic that keeps the status quo firmly entrenched and brutal ceiling on emerging companies that don’t just want to do the same as the historic mainstream.


  1. It’s a tricky subject since I believe, politically and economically, in a minimum income for all Canadians. ↩

Policy, politics, Rhubarb

The Rhubarb Festival did not receive Department of Canadian Heritage (DCH) funding. Read the letter and response here.

Nothing New

The DCH is an arm of the government in power. That was true under the Liberals and PC’s when it was used to promote “Canadian” culture abroad and in Quebec. (oh for the ¿golden age? of Separatism and Cold War.) This direct relationship is why the move to arms-length funding is historically so important. For all the work to be done on public funding systems, the arms-length nature is integral to having an arts culture that can be outside the direct influence of government ministers.1 The idea that the arts might have a role to play in democracy other than cheerleading or distraction is contained in this idea.

I disagree vehemently about the governments policy and ideology (see below) but I can’t feign surprise at DCH not supporting Rhubarb.

Policy beats politics

Rhubarb didn’t have their funding cut (a thing we can protest) – they applied, unsuccessfully, for a project grant (a thing that artists do all the time.)

A shift in policy to support “community” is hard to argue against. All across the arts we’re seeing moves for “engagement” and a focus on participation and an articulated relationship with “community.”2 It is difficult and unpopular to argue publicly for the need for governments to fund things that only benefit a relatively small group of people. That’s what back room lobbyists are for.

Quiet policy change is Harper’s preferred method of politics, because it doesn’t look like politics until it’s too late.

In addition, for decades arts lobbyists have been been making the economic impact argument, claiming culture and heritage delivered “tangible and measurable results” for a broad civic good. Those of us dissenting from this argument, or even trying to complicate it, were being ideologues and/or paranoid about the political and economic consequences.3 We were asked to sit in the back and not rock the boat.

Again, this decision, and the rest I predict we’ll hear about, comes as no surprise.

The Rhubarb Festival does not fit into the Harper Conservative world view.

When Harper says “Canadians”, queer Toronto is not who he means. Queer Toronto isn’t a community worth supporting. We are not going to vote for him, and the world we want is (or should be) radically different from the one that Harper and Co. desire.

Any blow back will only help with his base who have been convinced by decades of divisive politics that we live in a cultural zero-sum game. The only culture political danger is in Quebec and so the administrative / policy nature of the changes provides cover and little to nothing will be said publicly.

In negotiation, we’re well advised to find mutual shared interest and work towards a solution that benefits all parties.

This is not a negotiation. It is a debate, where multiple sides are appealing to a “third” party (people who vote) to declare a winner. We can be sad about this state of our politics but we shouldn’t be naive about the strategies being used by the other side.

What is to be done?

Democratic reform: Canada needs a new way of electing politicians. Here are some resources. I’m not informed enough to know what is the best way, but we need to force the boys and the batshit old school back rooms of both the NDP and the Liberals to get over themselves and start caring more about the country than power.

Regime Change: While I’m grateful for those able to stomach lobbying Conservatives, I’m not one of them and I have no faith in shared values. While none of the federal parties make me excited these days, Harper needs to go.

How? The big question.

Of course, I don’t know – but the story needs to change. The conservative movement excels at defining the story, of creating the zero-sum scenario and manipulating it to their economic and political advantage.

Arts groups arguing for more arts funding fits perfectly into their story of privilege, waste and entitlement. Artists and art lovers arguing against community programs and changes to a problematic structure fit perfectly too.

I will write to my MP and have written a letter of support about the impact Rhubarb has had on my life (HUGE!) for Buddies – but I am doubtful about the effectiveness of these strategies. They fit into the expected narratively too cleanly to disrupt it.

This post is long enough - proposals can go in the comments and I’d love to have this discussion and plan to write more on populism, art and how those things can become something worth standing behind.


  1. There is of course a slower creep of influence and priority, and this is potentially dangerous, but is a space we can be happy about the pace of change at arts councils.  ↩
  2. Community is a word that is almost meaningless now. Much of the time, I’m on the pro-community side of conversations. I’m still working on a populism I can stand behind. There has been a harmful separation between the “real world” and “artists” that has been created by a combination of factors including Reagan/Thatcher culture wars and artists moving to the academy and self-reference for stability and community. For me, this is a situation that needs changing and that change is complex and not the same for any two artists, arts organizations and “communities.”  ↩
  3. I’ve been a little obsessed with evaluation these days - about wanting to find a meaningful, helpful and rigorous way to do it. I think a lot of things we’re doing aren’t going very well and that we should have processes to review that and get better. Right now the main evaluation model in the arts is quantitative analysis of numbers of people and money transferring hands. This is not meaningful or helpful for most arts work – or social work for that matter. Something else is needed and we have to be involved in its creation or suffer under the needs of short sighted, idealogical politicians. ↩

Museums, Votes Left, Silence and Class war. Evidence of our time.

Links for May 27th through June 27th:

  • Museum 2.0: Memo from the Revolution: Six Things I've Learned from our Institutional Transformation - This past weekend, I had the opportunity to give one of the closing talks at the Theater Communications Group annual conference in Dallas. TCG is the industry association for non-profit theaters, the way AAM is for museums.
  • Not Enough | Parliament of Things - Today we launched a simple protest / art event / action that we have called Not Enough. It is a simple expression of a feeling that is becoming increasingly common amongst people, particularly young people around the world.
  • Debates - Issue 151 - April 16, 2013 - "a larger story, one where the Harper government is trying to systematically silence individuals and organizations who dare to challenge it publicly.The story began with an attack using — or more accurately, pulling — government funding. Women's organizations were among the first to feel the heavy knife of the Harper government slashing their funding. That was back when this government still was enjoying the healthy surplus it had inherited from previous Liberal governments.Women's organizations were told that if they dared to engage in advocacy — in other words, if they came to Ottawa to speak up for the causes that their members believed in, subversive causes like child care or equal rights under the law — their funding would be cut.

    International development organizations then came under fire. We all remember KAIROS. That organization engaged in such dangerous activities as social and economic justice projects with local partners in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East. Its members included radical organizations like the Anglican Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the Presbyterian Church, the United Church of Canada, the Quakers, the Mennonite Central Committee Canada and the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. The funding to KAIROS was eliminated."

  • Senator shows why ‘sober second thought’ matters: Goar | Toronto Star - "Since 2006, the government has systematically cancelled funding to groups that question its priorities; women’s organizations that promote gender equality; the Canadian Council on Learning, which advocates education beginning in early childhood; foreign development agencies that side with impoverished Africans and Asians against western development of their resources, and anti-poverty groups at home."
  • The Wire creator David Simon on what's behind the US war on drugs - extended video interview | Media | guardian.co.uk - The war on the poor.

Brecht and Urlacher - Evidence of our times from May 22nd through May 24th

And I always thought And I always thought: the very simplest words Must be enough. When I say what things are like Everyone's heart must be torn to shreds. That You'll go down if you don't stand up for yourself. Surely you see that.

- Brecht. Last poem in Poems 1913-1956

Links for May 22nd through May 24th:

Evidence of our times from April 29th through May 21st

Links for April 29th through May 21st:

Centres and rootstrikers - Evidence of our times

Links for April 20th through April 24th:

 

Coming up:

  • (Mostly) Viewpoints Workshop - Sunday April 28th and May 5th CLICK HERE for more.
  • Context Seminar at Videofag - Starts in June. CLICK HERE for more

Bad math and desire - Evidence of our times

I'm starting a new series "Evidence of our times." Every couple days I'll post links that got my attention and I think need to be remembered.  Signs of the times. Most likely a mix of arts related stuff and political / social stuff. Old fashioned web logging. The unlabelled mix of topics is purely intentional. Links for April 18th through April 19th: