Thursday, March 5, 2009

Does Toronto need a New Art Gallery? A New Art Prize? Or Maybe Just... Old Art Funding?

Today in the Toronto Star, Christopher Hume—well known as an urban design commentator but also the Star's former art critic—recommended that an appropriate 175th birthday gift to Toronto would be a new contemporary art gallery. In his words, a "Gehry original," "preferably on the waterfront," would be just the thing to make our city a major player on the international art scene. He also writes that MOCCA and the Power Plant just aren't fitting the bill, and that "the banking sector's continued profitability" could be counted on the provide philanthropic input.
Hume's recommendation follows a different proposal also aimed at making Toronto—and by extension, Canada—a more serious player on the global art scene. That proposal, launched with a $25-mil endowment in late January's federal budget (and much-debated since) is the Canada Prizes. To recap, the Canada Prizes are the brainchild of Luminato co-founders David Pecault and Tony Gagliano. The details are still fuzzy on how the Prizes would work. (In fact, the Heritage minister has claimed of late that the government's internal proposal is nothing like the one being discussed in the press.) But according to early reports, the Prizes would use that $25-mil public endowment to issue annual six-figure prizes to international artists, writers, dancers, and performers. Though the prizes would be named after the nation, they would be issued in Toronto, possibly with a commission for winners to follow at a future Luminato fest.

I've been thinking about the Canada Prizes and their problems for a while, as have many in the arts community. But this recommendation (however casual) about a new art gallery prompts me to outline why old art funding—and not new institutions and prizes—is what Toronto's arts sector needs right now.

Part of the issue is context. As independent critic and curator Sally McKay has of the prizes, “In and of itself it’s not a terrible idea. But after cuts to shipping subsidies and travel grants, it’s offensive to Canadian artists to suggest we should be importing artists rather than supporting what we have here.”

McKay has a point. Since being elected in 2006, the feds have cut $4.6 million from a Museum Assistance Program that helped with shipping costs for all Canadian museums; cancelled a National Portrait Gallery, wasting at least $6.5-million in investments made since 2001; cut the $11.7-million Memory Fund, which helped put Canadian museum collections online for worldwide access; eliminated the $9-million Trade Routes program, which helped groups like Hot Docs do international promotion; and axed the $4.7-million PromArt program, a travel grant administered by the Department of Foreign Affairs.

It seems highly unlikely that an untested $25-million “international arts prize”, or a $500-million new museum, for that matter, is going to prove more cost-effective in promoting Canadian culture or Toronto. (Cost-effectiveness, of course, being the prime gov argument for cutting these programs in the first place.) I also disagree with Hume that our "banking sector's continued profitability" can be counted on for building a new centre. Arts fests and institutions in TO are already struggling to keep the corporate sponsorships they have in this haven't-yet-hit-bottom recessiontime '09.

What would be preferable in the current context is better promoting and supporting the resources we have—like, hey, the newly reopened AGO (hell, how'd the shine go off that one so fast?) as well as the Power Plant, MOCCA, ROM, Nuit Blanche, TIAF, rafts of festivals, artist-run centres, collectors and commercial galleries, and, last but not least, artists themselves.

How would this enhanced promotion of existing resources work? Well, there are some basic things Toronto institutions and fests could partner on, like international press junkets. I've been informed that such junkets did happen last fall around the Nuit Blanche, TIAF and the City of Toronto—but it was mainly for US press, and there is whole world of art reporters and art outlets out there who know nothing about Toronto, and therefore never write about it or notice news releases from it. It is simply not on the radar. While many media outlets refuse junkets due to ethical reasons—which I can totally understand—a number of them, particularly in international art media, depend on junkets to make reporting on art fairs possible. This is a small idea, but one example, I hope, of how more international awareness of Toronto's art strengths could be developed without a new prize or new buildings.

More important than promotion, though, is to support the institutions we do have that have already given Canada multiple international breakthroughs. These institutions—by which I mean artist grants, festival grants and program grants—are far less glamourous than the opening of a new building or the buzz of an awards ceremony. But they have consistently, in their slow, trickle-up way, provided the international-profile work that people beyond our borders know about.

For instance, The Drowsy Chaperone, Canada’s most recent Broadway hit, was developed in part at the Toronto Fringe Festival. Cannes-Prizewinning director Denys Arcand honed his chops making docs for the now-anemically-funded National Film Board. Artist Jana Sterbak, whose work is in the collection of the Centre Pompidou, among other international museums, had her first exhibitions at artist-run centres like YYZ. And I'll speculate that FACTOR money helped Feist pay the rent long before Steve Jobs et al. started signing her rights cheques.

Bottom line: When creative production and promotion of creative production are already well supported, then it's appropriate to fund and talk up new prizes and new buildings—that visible top tip of the arts industry iceberg. But given the evisceration this industry, and others, have recently experienced in terms of funding supports and market shrinkage, attention must be paid to that less-glamourous infrastructure. Or, as playwright Michael Wheeler argued on the Praxis Theatre blog last month, “What would happen if … the government set up a prize to see what really cool cars auto companies from other countries could show off here at the auto show once a year? Would that make us a hotbed of automotive genius?”

What do you think?


Anonymous said...

How is it that this fluff peice was even printed in the Star? Is this part of some greater measure by Hume to take over the vacant mantle once held by Jane Jacobs? (See his crap on the Nature of Things) Her views though interesting were severely hobbled by her inability to understand what it is to be poor. Hume subscribes to the same folly; he knows what a city looks like but has never cared to look under its skin. Ask any hotel concierge to name a few galleries in the city and see what you get.

Leah Sandals said...

Hey that's an interesting comment. I generally follow the Star reportage on city politics and appreciate it, but I have found of late that there is a lack of criticality around their coverage of arts policy in the city.

One of their writers, Murray Whyte, noted at the end of 08 that Toronto needed to really start supporting its own artists and promoting them, but by and large Martin Knelman--who totally loves Luminato and the Canada Prizes--and Hume, who are the paper's main commentators on such things, have said little that is truly outspoken this issue.

Oh but as for Hume's piece here -- there's a lot of rah-rah around Toronto's 175th right now, so I'm guessing this list just fit the bill.

tinku said...

It's not clear to me what the objective is, to paraphrase Hume, in putting Canada on the international art scene map. Is to drive more collectors here or to cultivate the artists/creators or something else altogether?

That's why I am not sure what the newly announced Art Prize is meant to achieve. Some press I read stated it was akin to the Nobel Prize, but for the arts. If you use that analogy, what exactly has the Nobel Prize done for its host country, Sweden? Has Sweden as a result produced more Nobel-worthy citizens??

I agree with you that we should first try to finish what we started in supporting the right initiatives that already exist, rather than reinventing the wheel to create new institutions. We already have the vessels - e.g. AGO, Power Plant, MOCCA, festivals like Hot Docs -- what we need are the means to make them into world-class institutions.

Leah Sandals said...

Hey Amrita,

Yeah, I'm pretty doubtful anything like a Nobel level prize could be developed for anything these days. That prize has like a hundred years of history behind it. You can't build a reputation like that instantly.

Also, I'm thinking part of the inspiration might have been the Turner Prizes out of the UK and all their associated hoopla. But hello! The UK also has much better-funded institutions, better art access programs, better publications and travelling programs (at least until lately) and mega collectors like Charles Saatchi. The prize alone ain't what makes the hoopla happen.

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