Canada Council head Simon Brault talks emergency funding, the need for innovation, and areas of concern in the age of COVID

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      The Canada Council of the Arts has found itself, like so many of its clients across the country, navigating uncharted waters over the past few weeks.

      With COVID-19 measures shutting down performance halls, galleries, and film production, it’s already taken multiple actions to try to help the country’s arts groups stabilize and survive the storm.

      In late March, it kicked in $60 million in advance funding, the equivalent of 35 percent of annual core-funding grants, to more than 1,100 organizations. Now it will dispurse $55 million in emergency funding to the cultural sector—its part of the federal government’s promised $500 million funds for cultural, heritage, and sport organizations.

      Meanwhile, the council is busy collecting information and starting to look at how arts might look through a crisis that could be prolonged. Early last month, it sent a national survey to about 30,000 of its clients to measure the needs of professional arts groups faced with COVID-19 measures. Those results are already giving the national body a sense of who needs what, and where the biggest threats are.

      At the helm is director and CEO Simon Brault, who has a uniquely global perspective on the pandemic: he’s the elected chair of the International Federation of Arts Councils and Culture Agencies (IFACCA). In a brief break from his new realm of crisis management, he took time to speak to the Straight about the state of the arts, the most vulnerable groups, and how the sector must act as a laboratory for innovation in a post-pandemic age. Here’s what he had to say.

      The Straight: First, what has it been like for you at the Canada Council in these unprecedented times?
      Brault: We have been a little bit under siege but what I find is very interesting and rewarding is that since the beginning, we have been heard as Canada Council by the government. We have been heard when we made representations for extending the universal measures for freelance, for not-for-profits, and now we are playing a role in dispersing the emergency aid. So I feel like since the beginning the arts sector has not been ignored, which could have happened. I really felt that we could make a difference and we could move swiftly—which we did.

      I think there is much more to do, but clearly we are in a situation right now where we are really making a difference and trying to manage what is the most pertinent, while reflecting about what to do in the future. It's quite evident that we won't go back to where we were before the crisis, for a lot of reasons. The job right now is to take advantage of the attention that is given to the sector and really try to be stronger at the end of this crisis.

      So the stage we’re in now feels a bit like triage, or are we ready to move to the next stage yet?

      I think we are still trying to do everything we can to avoid the collapse of the sector and of many of our organizations. I think even across Canada, BC is probably in a better situation than Montreal is, for instance. So clearly it's an uneven situation across the country....And in fact, we’re learning right now that the crisis might be quite long. We’re learning how to live with the risk of contamination, which means that for the arts sector, particularly the performing arts, it will be quite challenging for a long period of time. But at this point, from a national perspective, we are still in the situation of emergency measures, and not yet with recovery.

      And the $55 million was very much that--emergency funding?
      At least for Canada Council it was new money. So it wasn’t having to manage the usual budget we have annually. It will be targeted to help organizations to survive the crisis, and I don’t think there will be enough. But at the same time, we know that for other businesses, the maximum is a $40,000 loan on top of the subsidized salaries and all that. I think it is more generous for us: these are not loans; they are a contribution that nobody will have to reimburse. So I think it will help, but we are far from over. So the government has already announced that there will be a second phase of emergency measures. And who knows? Maybe there will be a third one.

      Theatres across the country, including the Cultch theatre shown here, were hit first with COVID-19 measures--and perhaps hardest, Brault says.

      The council has jumped very quickly into surveys and information-collecting as well. You mentioned the performing arts--even out here, where we are doing relatively well against COVID, there is no real mention yet of opening up theatres. Is there a sector of the arts or areas you feel are being harder hit than others?
      The first measure was to make sure there were no gatherings of over 200 people, so performing arts is clearly the sector where it is the most complicated--just being in a closed space. And when we try to imagine different configurations, most of the time the business model doesn’t work. I think maybe that doesn’t apply outdoors; what we see all over the world is that maybe outdoor performances could be easier to organize. But indoor performances are complicated.

      For visual arts you can clearly control the circulation in a museum or in a gallery in a way that is, you know, much more realistic. And in terms of other businesses of the cultural sector, like publishing and all that, it’s more like there's been a three to six months of pause, so there is a huge backlog of what could have been produced....But certainly the performing arts will be the most impacted, because of the nature of what it is: you put people very close together in the dark and it’s ideal for the virus.

      The thinking is it is possible that for a year there will be very little possibility of presenting anything indoors. So it could be a long period of time, and we are watching what is being experimented on all over the world. I think that we can see where there were successful attempts and where it did not work, and we will need to adjust things.

      Galleries and museums (with the National Gallery of Canada shown here) might have an easier time accommodating social distancing and adapting, Brault surmises.

      You're in a unique position to watch that being with IFCCA. Are you getting some benefit from that connection?
      At this time, absolutely. I mean, we can get the full view. And it’s also very good because I can see some good role models but also see if some mistakes have been made elsewhere. We share everything we learn here with  the world. So we can act intelligently in the situation. Because obviously it's a very complex situation. Canada Council already is active now in a world where it is not normally active: emergency measures.

      You are still optimistic about opportunities during this time for innovation and reinvention?
      I am. Because of necessity the whole cultural planet right now has to kind of invent something in order to survive a year or two or three of anything but business as usual. There’s a lot of thinking right now about what to do with the big international festivals--how can we survive, how can we maintain the link with our supporters, our public? It’s the biggest push ever in terms of using digital as a way to communicate with a closed audience, with proximity--we’ve learned in the past the internet is for worldwide, but this is for people in your own community. So there’s an internet proximity that is very unusual for the arts sector.

      There’s also the realization that systems in terms of monetizing don't always work. So I think there’s a lot of attempts to do something differently and out of all that there will be a lot of innovation. Probably most of us, like arts councils, we will support organizations in the next period of time that will not be able to present programming that they would normally get grants for. So in fact, these are situations where we will fund innovation. We will say “OK, we will maintain support but you will have to try to do things differently, to try ways to connect and share resources with each other. Because the emergency funding we’re giving is to save artists.'

      I really feel that something positive will come from all of that, because there are so many brilliant minds all our the world and in Canada who are saying, 'We cannot stay silent. Let's do something else.' As a public funder, our duty is to really support innovation and risk-taking.

      It's not thinking that there are miracle solutions, but the whole cultural sector becomes a laboratory. That’s true for other sectors, too—I see that in my home city of Montreal right now: all the restaurants are  trying to see what’s safe and possible. In tourism they're facing a similar situation and they’re trying to look at different models. So I'm always optimistic!

      It's amazing out here, the sheer volume of innovative projects coming online. Because they have the core funding, do they now have the confidence to throw stuff against the wall and try it?
      Tthat’s where public support makes a difference. we want to maintain the flow of artistic creativity, of directly communicating with the audience, and we can't do it the way we are used to. And everybody’s confronted with more or less the same situation. So because of that, I think there will be a lot of collaboration and exchange of idea. My hope is that we will see unusual collaborations: that people who never worked together before will realize, 'Okay it's tim, if we are in the arts, to work with people in science, in social science, and research and make alliances with other sectors--like tourism or with people in restaurants or even fashion. I think that every creative sector of society who are right now 'out' because of the situation have a vested interest to work together and cooperate and to find solutions. Silos are not very promising in this situation.

      Let’s go back to the survey and what findings have come through as you take the pulse of the nation. Anything that surprised you or any sort of red flags that came out of that?
      We did realize that this sector was aware of all the possibilities offered by the government to survive. I was very happy with that because I knew individual artists would take advantage of the $2,000 per month [Canadian Emergency Relief Benefit ] but I was wondering if the arts sector would perceive themselves as businesses and would use the 75 percent [Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy] and all of those measures. So that was good because we realized, 'Okay that worked.' If we take the numbers of the survey, we think that probably in terms of universal support for the period of three months, the sector gets $3 billion. Then you get the $500 million of cultural funding, but that would not have been enough on its own. So the survey gave us the sense that the sector would take advantage of those universal measures.

      But what I saw on the survey that was very disturbing was that any smaller organizations, newcomers to public support--especially the equity-seeking groups, the ones with diversity, disability--they are clearly vulnerable and some of them could be under the radar. So I really feel that it's very important, probably in the second round of emergency measures, is that the council will target its support to protect the emergence of diversity that has been nurtured over the past few years. We invested a lot there. My fear is that could be partially lost if we don’t make a specific attempt to protect it. So I saw it as a confirmation that we will need targeted support. It's the same with any ecosystem: the vulnerable need the most support because if they don’t survive this crisis, clearly the sector will be much weaker.