This morning I read an interesting article in The Atlantic “Does Art Help the Economy” (H/T to Sasha Boersma) which talks about how the UK Culture Secretary used economic arguments to prevent cuts to her department’s budget. Their political situation so mirrors our own that I feel that it’s worth sharing and commenting on.
The UK culture department had already survived a 30% cut in spending in 2010 but they were expecting more cuts due to the recession. The 5% cut for this year was seen as a reprieve. Culture Secretary Maria Miller had been making the argument that funding arts should be seen as venture capital that invests in the British brand that could be leveraged to deliver economic growth: “Culture should be seen as the standard bearer for [Britain’s] efforts to engage in cultural diplomacy, to develop soft power, and to compete, as a nation, in both trade and investment.”
Those in the Canadian cultural industries who lobby the federal government for funding, policies and programs have had to learn the economic arguments for culture since the Conservatives became the government. The argument that culture was intrinsically an important part of citizenship resonated with Liberal governments but wasn’t enough with Conservatives. Slowly we all started compiling statistics and analysis (Note the most recent study released July 10, 2013 by the CMPA and Motion Picture Association – Canada on the economic contribution of film and television in Canada) and making economic arguments to show why culture should not be considered an unnecessary frill in recessionary times but an actual economic generator.
From my perspective, it’s been a tough sell and I don’t know whether it’s just that the Conservatives aren’t buying the argument or whether we’re not doing a good enough job in selling it. I find The Atlantic argument interesting because it also points to a division within the cultural community in Britain that I believe we also have here. In the UK there were advocates who fought against the economic argument because “directing our investment in culture for its commercial potential” will result in “worse art” and a “worse commercial outcome”. I’m not sure what Dame Liz Forgan of the Arts Council of England was referring to but the Canadian equivalent would be the really bad movies that were produced as a result of very aggressive tax shelters in the 70s and 80s. I have my name in the credits of a few of those so I know what I’m talking about. But I do not believe that any of our current economic-focused programs such as the Canadian Film or Video Production Tax Credit have produced bad art. Quite the contrary. Unlike in the tax shelter days, no one produces film or television programs just for the financing so the creative has to be good enough to generate other production financing and find an audience.
As we often do in Canada, we need to take a hybrid approach. Gone are the days when we can say that culture needs to be funded only because it presents a social benefit to Canadians. It is important to Canadians that we have access to our own high quality cultural product, but when we only make that argument too often culture is seen as a charitable activity and is the first thing cut when times are tough. Investment in culture is not a frill or a charity. It is an investment in jobs, in the Canadian brand, in international trade and economic growth. However, we can’t lose sight of the Canadian values part of the argument because that is how you avoid “worse art”.
I hope that new Minister of Heritage Shelly Glover reads The Atlantic article. Either way, it’s up to those who lobby in Ottawa to craft those hybrid arguments and keep trying to convince the powers that be that investing in Canadian culture is a smart investment for the country.