Shaping a Brighter Future

The Canada Council Transforms for the Next Generation

Simon Brault

In 2008 I wrote Le facteur C (later translated as No Culture, No Future) because I felt an urgent need to respond to a troubling trend: a growing chasm between the art experiences that were being offered by arts professionals and those being sought out by an ever-growing portion of the public. My book argued that for the arts to thrive and to be a force in our everyday lives, the professional arts sector needed to do more and differently to engage people in the arts in meaningful, life-enriching ways. I believed — and continue to maintain — that a flourishing and fulfilling cultural life, to which people from every walk of life are invited and can see themselves reflected, is essential to our democracy and sustainable development.

In the book, I made the case, as someone with a long career as an arts administrator, for arts organizations, funders, and policy makers to truly embrace a larger and deeper role for the arts in society. I encouraged them to look beyond how their decisions and actions could benefit the arts sector. I suggested that we needed to move away from a self-serving posture and adopt a broader view of the benefits of the arts on all of society, particularly at a time when the world was reeling from the impacts of the global economic downturn.

Eight years later I find myself leading Canada’s national arts funding agency through a major transformation largely informed by this vision. What’s more, this change is happening in the context of a historic moment for the arts in Canada. Only months after announcing and beginning to implement this transformation, our budget was doubled by the newly elected federal government led by Justin Trudeau. 1 The opportunity to carry out a transformation of our own design and planning, with the benefit of significant additional resources, stands in stark contrast to the upheavals experienced at many fellow arts agencies worldwide due to budget cuts or political shifts. We are fully aware of our privileged and unprecedented position. As Pierre Lassonde, chair of our board of directors, likes to say, we are experiencing “a fortunate meeting of preparation and opportunity.” 2

A Radical at Age Sixty

My ten-year tenure as the vice-chair of the Canada Council before being appointed as CEO gave me a rare and valuable insight into the intricacies of the organization. And intricate it was! Like any bureaucracy, its programs and processes had become labyrinthine over its sixty years of existence. New grant programs had been added ad hoc to address specific concerns or opportunities. Each artistic discipline had its own set of programs and often very distinct definitions, criteria, and processes. Most of these programs were prescriptive, and the expected outcomes were quite self-referential, since most objectives were first and foremost about the advancement of each art form understood in its own context. The Canada Council’s array of 140 programs were the result of necessary and innovative additions at the time, but the accumulation of so many narrow and specialized granting programs was restricting us from responding to emerging arts practices and new organizational models, and also from demonstrating results and planning strategically as a national arts funder.

The past decade has been witness to colossal changes in our society and by extension in arts practices and business models. Canada’s diverse and vibrant art scene — like the country itself — bears little resemblance to the barren situation of the 1950s, when the Canada Council was created to nurture the country’s fledgling postwar identity. Canada is now one of the world’s most culturally diverse and technologically engaged societies, and the country’s visual artists, musicians, dancers, writers, and theater artists enjoy success and renown worldwide. It is no exaggeration to say that the Canada Council played a key role in the cultural evolution of the country.

Yet, in recent years, we increasingly heard from the arts community that the Canada Council and its programs simply were not keeping pace with the tremendous shifts in society due to changing demographics and digital technologies. We needed to do more to welcome young, diverse artists and arts organizations and to engage a public attracted (or distracted) by a profusion of instantly accessible content of varied nature and quality. We could no longer continue simply tweaking existing programs, creating new ones in an ad hoc fashion, and trying to do more with the same budget. What was needed was nothing less than a radical transformation of our grant programs and of our role as public funder.

Arts Funded by the People, for the People

As a federal Crown corporation, operating at arm’s length from the government, the Canada Council receives funds from the government and makes granting decisions absolutely free from political interference. However, as publicly funded agency, the council does have public responsibilities. Each Canadian, through his or her taxes, contributes over $5.00 (CAN) per year to supporting the arts through our programs, a figure that will be closer to $10.00 (CAN) by 2021. This investment confers upon us a responsibility to be transparent and accountable and also the duty to contribute to wider public policy goals, such as democratization of culture, economic development, exports, job creation, social well-being, and community building. Funding the arts is ultimately about building the society we want to live in — one that is creative, compassionate, resilient, and prosperous — where citizens can express themselves fully, and where all can participate in and enjoy artistic creations.

As a starting point for our transformation, we needed first to reconnect with and breathe new life into our original mandate: “to foster and promote the production of and enjoyment of the arts.” We recognized that over the years of developing increasingly targeted disciplinary programs, the council had succeeded in encouraging a rich supply of artistic production, but had become less oriented toward the public experience of the arts. This realization has underscored and renewed our commitment to public engagement, and the necessity to strengthen our understanding and articulation of how the arts affect citizens in their daily lives.

Reconnecting with our mandate also helped us to articulate and reaffirm our core values. One of these values is peer assessment as the most fair and transparent way to guide grant decisions. Each year some six hundred artists and arts professionals across the country assess grant applications, bringing to the adjudication process a range of experiences, diversity, and a profound knowledge of the issues and trends of arts practices today. Another core value is the importance of equity in fulfilling Canada’s artistic aspirations. Specifically, we believe that Canada’s arts scene is richer when it reflects the experiences of artists and audiences from Indigenous, culturally diverse, Deaf and disability, and official language minority communities. Due to systemic barriers facing these groups, the council has a number of mechanisms to ensure that its programs and services are equally accessible by these communities. Finally, artistic excellence is, and will always be, paramount to our decision making. This core value cannot be at odds with public engagement goals but must coexist with the imperative to optimize the larger role of the Canada Council and the arts in society.

With our core values firmly in place, we were ready to radically transform ourselves to truly fulfill our role as a publicly funded organization and to bring value to the lives of Canadians through the arts.

Transforming Public Funding of the Arts: An Iterative Process

Transformation does not come easily to bureaucracies. The same processes and structures that are in place to protect against risk are also those that constrain change. Further, when a funding agency like the Canada Council sets out to change, it must do so without causing upheaval and continue to provide the timely and professional service that the arts community depends upon.

Our approach to transformation is necessarily iterative, seizing opportunities to change where we can. We are continuously developing new ideas, testing the results and reactions, then readjusting and shaping our direction as we go along — in our programs, our corporate structure, and ways of working.

For example, in 2014 we made the first major announcement of our transformation, our plan to build a new funding model in which we would go from over 140 narrow, discipline-specific programs to six national, nondisciplinary programs that would give artists, organizations — and us at the council — more flexibility to embrace new practices and trends, and also position us to demonstrate the results of our investments. 3 Over the course of the next year we began developing these programs — testing our ideas, consulting with the arts community — as we also laid the groundwork for our next strategic plan. In this fashion our regular day-to-day work, rethinking our programs, and revisioning of our strategic directions all informed each other in a decidedly nonlinear, organic, yet sophisticated way.

In March 2016, we launched our strategic plan, “Shaping a New Future: 2016-21,” which outlines the ambitious vision underlying our transformation and situates it as a condition for our evolution as a public arts funder. 4 In articulating this vision, we drew on the ideas and advice of thousands of survey respondents, as well as extensive insight gathered from the community over the previous years of outreach sessions, summits, soundings, conversations with peer assessors, and the myriad of other ways we connect with our stakeholders. Artists, staff, and the board had an appetite for becoming bolder in our thinking and highlighting the power of the arts to profoundly connect each of us to our inner life and with each other, particularly at this time when so many feel disenfranchised and marginalized.

It was also important for us at this juncture to write a strategic plan that described the council’s work in both aspirational and concrete terms. Our vision is expansive, and while we are realistic about our direct influence, we realize that we are part of a larger ecosystem and that we can leverage partnerships across sectors and borders to scale up our impact and to promote the value of the arts as having a wider contribution to make in our society.

We decided to structure our plan around four commitments. First, we want to increase support of artists, collectives, and organizations striving for artistic excellence and greater engagement in the arts by an increasingly diverse public. We are clear that artistic excellence and reaching out to new audiences can and do coexist; there is no room for artificial dichotomies between these two ideas.

Second, we are committed to amplifying the quality, scale, and sharing of Canadian art through digital technology so that artists can thrive in this digital era, and so that their work can be accessed by audiences around the globe.

Third, as Canada takes its first steps in a journey toward reconciliation with First Nations, Inuit, and Métis Peoples, the council recognizes the healing power of the arts and is committed to renewing the relationship between Indigenous artists and Indigenous and non-Indigenous audiences for a shared future

Finally, with Canada’s sparse population scattered over a huge area, we know that accessing international markets is vital to the success of our artists and that these same artists play a valuable role in shaping Canada’s cultural influence on the world stage. For that reason, our fourth commitment is to raise the international profile of Canadian art and artists.

These commitments reflect our determination to be a public arts funder that is relevant to the twenty-first century and truly focused on the future. To achieve this goal, in addition to the commitments described above, we will also be creating more opportunities for the next generation, including youth, and artists from culturally diverse, Deaf and disability, Indigenous, and official language minority communities.

As an arts funder, the primary way to attain these commitments is through our grant programs, and that is why our transformation started with a new funding model that gives artists and arts organizations the flexibility to plan projects and activities in pursuit of their own ambitions, rather than forcing them to conform to narrowly defined programs.

Going back to our core values, these programs were designed to encourage artistic excellence as well as work that has a strong social impact. For example, Canada, like many countries with indigenous populations, is at a critical turning point in redefining the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, and between Indigenous peoples and the state. This recently emerged at the forefront of public consciousness through the federal Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which shone a light on a long history of abuse in residential schools and the shadow this horror continues to cast on generations of Indigenous peoples. 5 As a public arts funder, we are aware — in a way we were not sixty years ago — of the deliberate attempts throughout Canada’s history to eradicate the cultures and languages of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples. We have an obligation and a responsibility to transform ourselves to better support Indigenous artists and communities on their own terms. Our new Indigenous program, Creating, Knowing and Sharing: The Arts and Culture of the First Nations, Inuit and Métis Peoples, will take a unique self-determined approach in which staff and other members of Indigenous communities will determine the way the program is developed, implemented, and assessed. 6

This unique program includes features that are specific to the communities it serves. For example, unlike any other council grant program, some funding for small-scale projects will be available to nonprofessional or aspiring artists. Also, unlike much of our other programming, some funding is available for for-profit organizations, recognizing that in some cases these may be the best positioned to carry out a project that has strong artistic and community benefits.

The program Engage and Sustain recognizes the important role of arts organizations as hubs in our community. 7 It encourages these to fulfill their roles in reaching the highest summits in their art forms while also representing the full diversity of their communities, in building both engagement and leadership through representation and participation.

The program Explore and Create is a platform for building greater creativity and innovation. 8 The program funds activities that develop artists’ skills and support research and creation, from early conceptual stages to full artistic realization. The Arts Across Canada program brings artistic expressions and new perspectives to communities across the country through travel grants, exchanges, and touring. 9

Even before President Obama’s recent visit to Ottawa in July 2016 when he stated that “the world needs more Canada,” we recognized that the arts have the potential to be a country’s best ambassador. Our Arts Abroad program will fund international travel, translation, touring, exchanges, and coproductions and boost the impact of the Canada’s artists on the world stage. 10

“Operation Transformation”

The strategic plan and the programs of the new funding model are bold in their vision and aspirations. They would just be words and empty promises, however, without the concrete work to buttress them. Developing the new programs has been, and continues to be, a colossal effort by our staff, together with the unwavering support of our board of directors. We have had to communicate with consistency, clarity, and transparency to government, the arts community, and other stakeholders — all while maintaining our regular programs and minimizing disruption.

One element of our approach has been to share the story of our transformation as we write it, starting in the lightest of sketches in June 2015 when we initially announced our intention to change, and at various points since then as we have filled in the gaps, while being honest that it is a work in progress. The artistic community has been enthusiastic and at the same time a bit wary, but ultimately they have been generous with their trust. The value of this confidence in a time of transition and the legacy of the council’s solid reputation over its sixty years cannot be underestimated. I also need to say that the vote of confidence from our new government, from the prime minister, Justin Trudeau, to our own portfolio minister, Mélanie Joly, has been invaluable to the rapid progress of such a major transformation. The injection of new money for the Canada Council is more than a financial boost; it also sets a tone of hope and potential and constitutes an invitation to all stakeholders to be bold in their vision and innovations.

Arts Funding with a Public Impact

Ultimately, all of us as arts funders want our interventions to have an impact. In developing our new funding model, the Canada Council has at the same time built our capacity to act nimbly in the moment when our actions can make a difference, particularly in concert with other partners. We have had a number of occasions over the past two years to flex this strengthened capacity and to contribute at critical moments to the social policy issues faced by our country.

For example, when the Canadian government announced plans last year to welcome 28,000 Syrian refugees, we were able to work quickly in partnership with Sun Life Financial to offer a fund called Welcome to the Arts. 11 This fund supported arts organizations in providing cultural experiences to the new refugees free of charge. We were delighted with the response from the arts community, many of whom were ready with plans in place. One example involved the Department of Canadian Heritage and publishers across the country, who provided each refugee family with a gift bag of English- and French-language books by Canadian authors. This one example provides a powerful illustration of the power of the arts to heal and to build understanding in a divided world.

To give another timely example, even before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its much anticipated report, the Canada Council embarked on the {Re}conciliation Initiative with foundation partners The Circle on Philanthropy and Aboriginal Peoples in Canada and the J. W. McConnell Family Foundation. 12 This initiative funds projects by First Nations, Inuit, and Métis artists that aim to build bridges between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples.

In thinking about public engagement and experience of the arts, we cannot ignore the issue of accessibility of Canadian culture in a digital age — essentially, how “made-in-Canada” content can avoid being buried in the flood of online content and murky search engine algorithms. The Canadian government is currently leading a wide-ranging policy consultation on this issue, and the council will participate and be responsive to resulting recommendations and decisions that affect the arts community. At the same time, we know that the arts sector in particular has severely underinvested in digital technologies so far and urgently needs targeted support to adapt to the digital era. The council is currently analyzing the results of a comprehensive survey on this topic and will host a major summit in 2017 to identify a clear strategy to ensure artists have the resources and support they need to thrive in the current environment. 13

A final example of the council’s flexibility in the past year is our creation and launch of a onetime, specific funding program to mark the 150th anniversary of Canada’s Confederation in 2017 — all within a matter of weeks. A New Chapter is an ambitious program that calls on artists and arts organizations to dream big and to bring to life projects that are exceptional in scale and will have a lasting legacy in the years to come. 14 I am extremely excited about the works that will come out of this program. They will inspire, enlighten, challenge, interpret, and imagine the future of Canada by engaging the public and making our country’s arts more visible at home and abroad.

The common thread in all of these special initiatives is that they position the Canada Council and the arts in the wider dialogue of who we are as a society and what we want to become. They show that the arts can bring a valuable perspective and solutions to the table in discussions about our future. And that for me is exactly where the council and the arts need to be to remain relevant and part of the everyday lives of the public.

As I write this article, I am aware that my narrative of the Canada Council’s transformation reads as if it were linear. However, our journey has been anything but. The past two years have been a time of constantly readjusting and recharting our path, overcoming obstacles as they appeared on our horizon, and turning to meet opportunities we could never have predicted. The only constant is, of course, change. However, I believe that with the continued support of the arts community and all Canadians, the Canada Council will be where it needs to be: guided by its core values and in step with the hopes and fears, dreams and realities of the people of Canada and the world.


  1. Simon Brault, “An Historic Rendezvous with Our Future,” Canada Council for the Arts,
  2. Canada Council for the Arts, “Pierre Lassonde, C.M., O.Q.,”
  3. Canada Council for the Arts, “New Funding Model: 6 New Programs in 2017,”
  4. Canada Council for the Arts, “Shaping a New Future: Strategic Plan, 2016–21,”
  5. Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada,
  6. Canada Council for the Arts, “Creating, Knowing and Sharing: The Arts and Culture of the First Nations, Inuit and Métis Peoples,”
  7. Canada Council for the Arts, “Engage and Sustain,”
  8. Canada Council for the Arts, “Explore and Create,”
  9. Canada Council for the Arts, “Arts across Canada,”
  10. Canada Council for the Arts, “Arts Abroad,”
  11. Canada Council for the Arts, “Welcome to the Arts,”
  12. Canada Council for the Arts, “{Re} conciliation,”
  13. Canada Council for the Arts, “The Canada Council for the Arts Survey: Arts in a Digital World,”
  14. Canada Council for the Arts, “New Chapter,”