08/24/2011 12:30 EDT | Updated 10/24/2011 05:12 EDT

Government Art Grants: Preaching to the Choir?

Who benefits from the granting system? The system supports artists, but artists come into public view only when their work is exhibited, by a museum, a commercial gallery or within the arts community itself.

I've been thinking recently about Canada's arts granting system. With all this talk of financial reform, from the global to the municipal levels (hello, Rob Ford), maybe it's time we looked at whether the art granting system in Canada could use some reform of its own.

Federal, provincial and municipal arts councils are all arms-length agencies of the government. The Canada Council for the Arts is a Crown corporation chaired by Joseph Rotman, which is funded from Parliament along with endowments and donations. The visual arts are one division, the other five are media arts, dance, music, theatre and writing/publishing. The Ontario Arts Council is a publicly-funded agency of the Ministry of Culture, and the Toronto Arts Council is funded by the City of Toronto.

These granting bodies are necessary to the visual arts community in Canada. We have excellent programs and opportunities for artists because of them. And there are many excellent, even world class artists who use grants for research, travel and production. Grants allow them to advance their careers and to create ambitious, intelligent works of art that the public gets to enjoy. And for many important cultural organizations, government grants form only a part of their funding, much of which comes from private and corporate donors.

I've never applied for a grant, though I've written many grants (successfully) on behalf of others, and have benefited from organizations who receive grants (the Canadian Art Foundation, where I used to work, for one). Our granting system is a pretty decent one, but it's by no means as good as it could be.

One question that occurs to me is who benefits from the granting system? The gallery-going public benefits from grants to galleries, and dance and theatre audiences likewise, and we benefit from many of the cultural organizations whose support comes from grants, but with grants given to individual artists, there isn't always a direct correlation. The system supports artists, but artists come into public view only when their work is exhibited, by a museum, a commercial gallery or within the arts community itself.

In other words, the result of the grant (the artwork) doesn't always have the broad reach with mainstream audiences that it could have. The following are my thoughts on why this may be the case:

The art market (or lack thereof)

Most artists would love to have their work sold by a commercial gallery, make a living and not have to apply for grants. But they can't because we don't have a strong market here. There are far more artists than there are commercial exhibition opportunities. And, the art world isn't democratic. Not every artist makes work that the market considers desirable.

The artist-run centre

Most people I know who are not in the art world don't know what an artist-run centre is, or that they exist. Is this a good thing? Artist-run centres are at least partly government-funded spaces for the exhibition of works by artists who are often funded by the government. The audience tends to be, with rare exception, more of these artists and collectors who are already within the arts community. The challenge is in attracting new audiences. With the rise of Young Patron groups in Toronto, this may be changing.

The media

The other thing that I've noticed changing over the past decade is the profile of the visual arts within the mainstream media. This month, Toronto Life has a feature article on the painter Kent Monkman, and emerging filmmaker Daniel Cockburn was interviewed in the Globe and Mail. In general, the media seems to be celebrating Toronto's cultural community, which is fantastic and has been a long time coming. The more this happens, the more involved and aware of the arts the public will be.


Again, many artists use grants to create work that they then exhibit widely, but I know of other artists for whom grants seem to be a kind of supplementary income. They make work, but it rarely gets shown. And some of it is brilliant work. If the public can't access the work that grants make possible, isn't there something wrong with the system?


With the notable exceptions of MOCCA and the Art Gallery of York University (not a major museum), Toronto's public art spaces rarely exhibit work by local artists. Sure, there's a project room -- Toronto Now -- at the AGO, but compared to Montreal and Vancouver, both of whom have had large-scale, well-publicized celebratory and very memorable exhibitions of local artists, this city is deplorable.

What do you think? I'd love to hear your thoughts. Is our government granting system satisfactory or could it (should it) be improved? What's the purpose of government grants, to and is this purpose being fulfilled?

The granting system is doing a good job at bringing the arts to the art community. But is it doing a good job at bringing the arts to a larger general audience?