Policy, politics, Rhubarb

Policy, politics, Rhubarb



The Rhubarb Festival did not receive Department of Canadian Heritage (DCH) funding. Read the letter and response here.

Nothing New

The DCH is an arm of the government in power. That was true under the Liberals and PC’s when it was used to promote “Canadian” culture abroad and in Quebec. (oh for the ¿golden age? of Separatism and Cold War.) This direct relationship is why the move to arms-length funding is historically so important. For all the work to be done on public funding systems, the arms-length nature is integral to having an arts culture that can be outside the direct influence of government ministers.1 The idea that the arts might have a role to play in democracy other than cheerleading or distraction is contained in this idea.

I disagree vehemently about the governments policy and ideology (see below) but I can’t feign surprise at DCH not supporting Rhubarb.

Policy beats politics

Rhubarb didn’t have their funding cut (a thing we can protest) – they applied,unsuccessfully, for a project grant (a thing that artists do all the time.)

A shift in policy to support “community” is hard to argue against. All across the arts we’re seeing moves for “engagement” and a focus on participation and an articulated relationship with “community.”2 It is difficult and unpopular to argue publicly for the need for governments to fund things that only benefit a relatively small group of people. That’s what back room lobbyists are for.

Quiet policy change is Harper’s preferred method of politics, because it doesn’t look like politics until it’s too late.

In addition, for decades arts lobbyists have been been making the economic impact argument, claiming culture and heritage delivered “tangible and measurable results” for a broad civic good. Those of us dissenting from this argument, or even trying to complicate it, were being ideologues and/or paranoid about the political and economic consequences.3 We were asked to sit in the back and not rock the boat.

Again, this decision, and the rest I predict we’ll hear about, comes as no surprise.

The Rhubarb Festival does not fit into the Harper Conservative world view.

When Harper says “Canadians”, queer Toronto is not who he means. Queer Toronto isn’t a community worth supporting. We are not going to vote for him, and the world we want is (or should be) radically different from the one that Harper and Co. desire.

Any blow back will only help with his base who have been convinced by decades of divisive politics that we live in a cultural zero-sum game. The only culture political danger is in Quebec and so the administrative / policy nature of the changes provides cover and little to nothing will be said publicly.

In negotiation, we’re well advised to find mutual shared interest and work towards a solution that benefits all parties.

This is not a negotiation. It is a debate, where multiple sides are appealing to a “third” party (people who vote) to declare a winner. We can be sad about this state of our politics but we shouldn’t be naive about the strategies being used by the other side.

What is to be done?

Democratic reform: Canada needs a new way of electing politicians. Here are someresources. I’m not informed enough to know what is the best way, but we need to force the boys and the batshit old school back rooms of both the NDP and the Liberals to get over themselves and start caring more about the country than power.

Regime Change: While I’m grateful for those able to stomach lobbying Conservatives, I’m not one of them and I have no faith in shared values. While none of the federal parties make me excited these days, Harper needs to go.

How? The big question.

Of course, I don’t know – but the story needs to change. The conservative movement excels at defining the story, of creating the zero-sum scenario and manipulating it to their economic and political advantage.

Arts groups arguing for more arts funding fits perfectly into their story of privilege, waste and entitlement. Artists and art lovers arguing against community programs and changes to a problematic structure fit perfectly too.

I will write to my MP and have written a letter of support about the impact Rhubarb has had on my life (HUGE!) for Buddies – but I am doubtful about the effectiveness of these strategies. They fit into the expected narratively too cleanly to disrupt it.

This post is long enough – proposals can go in the comments and I’d love to have this discussion and plan to write more on populism, art and how those things can become something worth standing behind.

* This article originally appeared on Minor Expletives & Better Questions from Jacob Zimmer.

  1. There is of course a slower creep of influence and priority, and this is potentially dangerous, but is a space we can be happy about the pace of change at arts councils.  ↩
  2. Community is a word that is almost meaningless now. Much of the time, I’m on the pro-community side of conversations. I’m still working on a populism I can stand behind. There has been a harmful separation between the “real world” and “artists” that has been created by a combination of factors including Reagan/Thatcher culture wars and artists moving to the academy and self-reference for stability and community. For me, this is a situation that needs changing and that change is complex and not the same for any two artists, arts organizations and “communities.”  ↩
  3. I’ve been a little obsessed with evaluation these days – about wanting to find a meaningful, helpful and rigorous way to do it. I think a lot of things we’re doing aren’t going very well and that we should have processes to review that and get better. Right now the main evaluation model in the arts is quantitative analysis of numbers of people and money transferring hands. This is not meaningful or helpful for most arts work – or social work for that matter. Something else is needed and we have to be involved in its creation or suffer under the needs of short sighted, idealogical politicians. ↩