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. ↩

5 thoughts on “Public Funding – Mixing stability and agility

  1. I think you mean 5 year grant renewable at the end year 3 (not every 3 years)? That has merit to explore… the problem of course is that there is no guarantee that the funding base will be there for 5 years, or there when you want to renew.
    As a former funder (with some success in getting new funding, which was quickly absorbed as operating funds), you’ve pinpointed my biggest stress. We could see dynamism in the community that really merited our support, but we had no flexibility to address it. Despite our attempts to make change, the reality is that grant size is highly correlated with how long you’ve been around.

    It is also VERY difficult to get operating funding decisions to focus on the future vs. what happened over the past 2 or 3 years. At least project funding does that…

  2. Thanks Terry – when you say “no guarantee that the funding base will be there for 5 years, or there when you want to renew.” you mean that the funder could change? Isn’t that always a threat? That a gov’t cancels the Canada Council and all money – project or operating goes away?
    If the over-lapping limited-term operating was the *only* arts council* operating – would you have the same fear?

    Listening to CBC this morning on pensions and talking “generational fairness” – it’s a real thing in pensions and it’s a real thing in the arts. And I worry it could get unhelpfully divisive, says a Gen-Xer always on the edge of picking a fight with a Boomer.

    *Super-Bigs will always go direct to the minister.

    1. Yes, there’s always a threat that the overall funding pool will drop… but that colours the behaviour of the funder. Do you “protect” operating funding over other? And if so, who amongst the recipients gets protected first (what is the pecking order?).
      I don’t think the threat of funding decline should prevent the kind of system you propose, but 5 years is a long time for a large chunk of your funding pool to be locked up. How often would assessments happen? Ideally you’d have 20% of your total pool coming up for decision every year. This would allow new entrants to come in every year (we had this problem in Calgary: multi-year funding meant we had a long queue once the program was re-opened).

      Intergenerational equity is not valued or understood. Artists that are currently trying to break in don’t get the same shot at public support that the previous generation did, nor do new/newer art forms. Lots of drivers here: partly due to older generations “growing with” the expansion of culture support systems in Canada, and when support systems stopped growing, the sector itself continued to grow, leading to increased competition (also begs the question of the stimulative impact of this funding).

      When a funder or institution decides to make a change, there are public repercussions from the entrenched interests. There is zero professional incentive for a bureaucrat to even TALK about change, let alone enact it. I think Simon Brault is trying to generate a public discussion from his Vice Chair role at Canada Council, so hopefully that continues.

      1. “There is zero professional incentive for a bureaucrat to even TALK about change”This is super interesting – because a lot of the insiders (like you) I’ve talked to know that change is needed and have smart ideas about it, but fear blow back from the arts community.

        So again we’re in a spiral where the “innovative” sector and the artists are fighting for a dysfunctional status quo. It is one of the things that makes me most sad and likely to throw my hands up and walk away from what passes for a theatre scene in Canada – not the lack of funding / support, but the conservatism of the “leadership”

  3. […] 10, 2013 by Jacob Zimmer I’ve got some interesting feedback / questions for clarity from the last post in the comments and off line. Thought I’d post some more thoughts here, on whether 5 years […]

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