Why making art without government support isn’t novel

Last night, I was at Buddies in Bad Times for the launch of City Voices, a new anthology of monologues by mostly Toronto(ish) writers, compiled by ​Jenna Harris, Anila Pant and Ronit Rubinstein. I’d read about the launch party on Torontoist and figured it would be worth checking out, since I’ve always had a bit of a fascination with how artists craft Toronto in their work.

According to the interview at Torontoist and from the sampling of monologues performed, the collection isn’t really about Toronto, so much as it contains works by people who live in or once lived in Toronto. That’s not the most exciting thematic connection between works as far as I’m concerned, but I suppose read in the whole it might paint a picture of what a selection of Toronto voices sounds like. (I confess, I haven’t read it, so don’t think of this as a review.)

Something noteworthy about the collection is that there are 28 contributors listed on the book’s back cover, and only six of them are men, including one trans-man and one man who is credited as the coauthor of a piece with a woman. Oh, how the theatre landscape is changing.

Something not terribly noteworthy, despite Torontoist making it the kicker on its profile and a big focus of Carly Maga’s interview, is the fact that the group who published it did not receive any government grants to get it published. It’s not clear from the interview that the group applied and was turned down or simply decided to go it alone, but Maga frames the decision to publish despite not receiving grants as a bold action in the face of threatened cuts to the arts from the conservative administration at city hall (and, presumably, in Ottawa and soon at Queen’s Park). Indeed, even the book’s website says City Voices is a “response to the recent political climate, which has too often portrayed the role of art and artists as superfluous in our society.”

Nevermind that this year’s proposed city budget actually increases funding to the arts, and that even the budget chief has asked city staff to propose phasing in increases to city support for the arts up to $25/capita compared to the present $18/capita. (We’ll also brush over the fact that at least some of the contributors to the book have received writing grants, since although that subsidizes some of the content of the book, it doesn’t help with the actual publishing costs.)

Framing the decision to publish despite not receiving grant money as bold or brave or innovative is ridiculous. By far the vast majority of art is produced without public aid. Grant recipients are – and should be – the exception to the rule when it comes to art projects. There is nothing innovative or new about trying to create or publish art without grants.

But there seems to be a strange attitude among certain theatre artists that this is not the case, and that theatre necessarily requires public support. Poppycock. Public support is nice, and it can certainly help artists either earn a decent living from their work or achieve higher technical standards. But even in the theatre world – if you count the entire theatre arts community – the vast majority of art is created without public subsidy (or at least without direct public subsidy).

Theatre can be expensive, and expensive shows usually do require either investors, sponsors, or public support. But theatre can also be very cheap – especially when it’s produced in co-op or outside of main venues. Most producers working under the latter conditions simply save and invest their own money into shows and hope for the best. Every single show I’ve produced has been without direct public production support, for example (yes, Fringe Festivals receive various public supports – but ultimately, I’m taking on financial risks alone).

Publishing can be expensive. But self-publishing is actually really cheap. Heck, in recent years, there’s been a whole revolution in self-publishing. I know this because I’ve self-published my own book. All it cost me was the time it took for me to edit and layout my book, and the printing and shipping costs of the individual books I ordered. (HINT: Don’t want to wait 2-5 weeks for shipping? FUCKING STEPHEN HARPER is available at Glad Day Books in Toronto).

These editors invested some time soliciting, reading, and editing submissions. They may have offered the writers an honorarium or perhaps a share of the royalties, but I don’t recall seeing that in the call for submissions. And they hired a graphic designer. They had to print the book, including free copies for writers and supporters. They created a web site an printed some posters for the launch event. These are not monumental costs, and they should be able to at least break even on the book. And good for them! I wish them well!

Just don’t pretend that they’re unique in the community for putting their time and their money where their passion is.

I don’t want to just single out Carly Maga, either. This is a really ugly attitude toward public support for the arts that’s been festering in the theatre community for a while. I remember a panel discussion during the 2008 election hosted by Xtra, in which Theatre Centre Artistic Director Franco Boni tried to make a stand against the then-controversial cuts the Harper government had announced to a couple of touring support programs. He went on at length about how the way we should mobilize against the cuts is to make more art, to rub it in his face, to prove that we’ll make art anyway, regardless of whether Harper lets us have public money.

WHICH IS THE WHOLE ARGUMENT FOR CUTTING THE FUCKING GRANTS!

If the art will get made regardless of public support, then it’s a waste of scarce public resources to spend them on art. The reason we as a society invest in art is because, if we don’t, it wouldn’t get created, and/or it wouldn’t be created to the standards that we expect of professional artists, and/or it wouldn’t reach a wide audience of Canadians who can be entertained/enlightened/engaged by it.

Presenting it as a novelty that artists venture to do something without government support is unhelpful to the ongoing debates about the appropriate level of public support for the arts because it obliterates the huge amount of artists who already are out there creating work without government support and who could really use it. It makes it sound like we’re all already spoiled brats crying for entitlements.

If we’re going to win the argument for greater public support for the arts, we need to do a few things. First, we need to be grateful to the public – not the government of the day, mind you, but the people – for their support. Second, we need to make the case that more public investment would mean more and better art created, and we can do that by pointing to the huge pool of talent in Canada that the current grant envelopes can’t/don’t reach and connecting the dots between more money and these artists receiving the platforms that will get their work to an audience.

I think books like City Voices can actually be part of a compelling case for the latter, insofar as they are a chance to showcase lesser known voices or projects and the potential that can be mined from them. Let’s not muck up that narrative by appearing ungrateful to our public and framing artists as having no skin in the game.

Maybe I’m being sensitive about this because I’m in the midst of preparing for Ten Foot Pole Theatre’s upcoming show BIG IN GERMANY, which I’m putting on at Buddies in April. We were unsuccessful (again) in applying for production grants from Toronto Arts Council and Ontario Arts Council. That means that I’ll have to scale back aspects of the show and invest more of my money into the show upfront to cover costs, but the show is going ahead. It is, after all, a show about a rock band. It wouldn’t be very rock-n-roll to say “we can’t do this until we get official approval in the form of a large cash payment from a government agency.”

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