Art, Austerity and the Production of Fear | Fuse

The following text is excerpted from FUSE Magazine 37-1 (December 2013).

Art, Austerity and the Production of Fear

In early November, FUSE put out a call to our close collaborators for a short feature essay on the impacts of austerity within our sector. Faced with an overwhelming response, we decided to take on an experimental, collective writing format. On the evening of 2 November 2013, a group of Toronto-based executive directors, curators and dropouts of prominent artist-run organizations met in the FUSE office to engage in frank discussion about the conditions affecting our organizations. The text that follows was built out of a selective edit of that conversation. As compensation for their participation, each contributor has been paid the minimum wage (currently $10.25 in Ontario) for each hour spent in conversation and editing. This ad hoc collective has elected to remain anonymous.

On 30 October 2013, the Toronto Sun published an article criticizing a project organized by Allyson Mitchell and presented by the Art Gallery of York University. Kill Joy’s Kastle: A Lesbian Feminist Haunted House (2013) was a large-scale installation in Toronto’s west end that used Halloween tropes to lay out a haunted history of feminism. Situated as a response
to “hell houses” created by radical evangelical groups to promote socially conservative values, Kill Joy’s Kastle provided a playful response to homophobia and misogyny (while also stirring up a maelstrom of intra-community discussion and controversy).

The Sun’s attack of Mitchell’s work, penned by veteran columnist Joe Warmington [1], relied on that most faithful of right-wing ammo — the public funding that the project received. In this case, dedicated funding amounted to a $500 Exhibition Assistance Grant from the Ontario Arts Council, a modest sum that the Sun exaggerated by publishing it alongside the five-digit number corresponding to the annual funding received by the Art Gallery of York University. To further criticize this supposed misuse of public funds, the Sun’s reporter drew a comparison to a haunted house set up by Toronto mayor Rob Ford at his office, which was paid for privately. While an obvious rebuff might begin with reminding Warmington and his ilk that artists and other residents will always create projects from their own funds, leaning on this type of argument misses the point of public arts funding altogether: art adds value to society through the expression of diverse viewpoints and critiques, and is not merely an aesthetic object, a form of spectacular entertainment or an economic generator.

This type of alarmist shaming is certainly not limited to the Sun; in September 2012, CTV News published a similar story critiquing funding for Toronto production centre Trinity Square Video’s workshop “Grow Yer Own Porn… 2012 Style,” which discussed “ethical and political issues around explicit sexual representation, prioritizing problem-solving and practical production activity.” [2] While neither story gained traction outside of right-wing outlets, the trouble is that negative media attention leverages public opinion and loops back to venues and granting bodies, in turn threatening their support and funding. This threat alone can impact the arts community through the preemptive self-censorship of both practising artists and artist-run centres. This backhanded push towards censorship is just one element of a driving attack on the fundamental principles of arts funding in Canada—designed as arm’s-length granting processes for artists, organizations and projects, juried by their peers. Media critiques directly produce the fear that by supporting potentially controversial projects, artists and their institutions run the risk of feeding a neoliberal assault on public-sector arts funding.

In this current age of austerity those fears are real. As governments worldwide are pressured to cut spending and simultaneously reduce revenues through tax cuts, we find ourselves in a downward spiral of austerity. It is not only funding for the arts that is suffering under austerity — social housing, education, health care, income support and virtually all other programs are impacted. This is all part of a vast transfer of wealth to the richest in society, which is creating the highest level of income inequality seen since the 1930s in what was formerly the developed world. As people are reduced to taxpayers, a fundamental break with notions of civil society and collective well-being is cemented — a permanent state of emergency sets in.

This state of emergency does not impact everyone evenly, even within the arts. Identity-based organizations serving disability, racialized and Indigenous communities are still struggling compared to “mainstream” (read: white, hetero, male dominated) organizations despite years of targeted programs. This is not to mention the fact that all precarious “immaterial” labour in the arts is dependent on the brutal, decidedly material working conditions for the labourers who produce our electronics, clothing, supplies and so on. [3]

Life and Death in Artist-Run Culture

Artist-run culture and its institutions are key elements of contemporary art in Canada. Since the late 1960s Canadian artists have built a national network of organizations and collectives to support artists outside the constraints of the market. The utopian impulse of artists to control the means of production, publication and dissemination has succeeded in building an infrastructure that can be inclusive of diverse voices and mediums, across all regions of the country. While the initial impetus of artist-run culture has remained in some centres and emerging projects, institution- alization has too often ossified the sector. The creation of new hierarchies on top of the old boys’ clubs continues to restrict the possibilities for artists to create parallel institutions that reflect the diversity of contemporary practice.

Austerity and freezes to arts council budgets across most of the country have created an impossible condition for maintaining the status quo in artist-run culture. Due to inflations alone, every year of stagnancy actually results in significant cuts to arts organizations and other publicly funded sectors of civil society. This is particularly striking in areas such as the price of renting commercial space, which has increased exponentially without an increase in funding to offset the cost. With public funding for the arts playing a significant role in the development and structure of the sector, the condition of stagnation means that for the most part, no currently funded organization can receive an increase and no new organization can enter the funding stream— regardless of their programming excellence — without cuts to existing organizations. As part of the complex requirements to enter the operating streams of funding, new organizations must build significant capacity through project and other temporary funding programs, only to receive what is often less than what they operated with on a project basis.

Arts organizations are increasingly under pressure to pursue private sector sponsorship. While many organizations have shifted their models to attract corporate sponsorship and to increase self-generated revenues, other projects have resisted change because it threatens their core mandate and values. Again, key to this discussion is how to ensure the independence of the sector from censorship, because work that is truly messy, radical or controversial (environmentalist, anticapitalist, abolitionist &c) is often unpalatable to corporate agendas. While spectacles like Luminato, Nuit Blanche and TIFF attract massive corporate sponsorship, opportunities are far more limited for small and midsized organizations. Private sector funds can be important to some groups, but the value of art cannot be determined by its utility for corporate branding, and financial concerns must not be allowed to dilute the independence of arts institutions.

These are decisions we must, and do, make on our own terms. Could the recent symposium on decolonial aesthetics organized by e-fagia and FUSE, for instance, have proudly sported the moniker “L’Oréal” or “Scotiabank Symposium on Decolonial Aesthetics?”

We might say that everything has a lifespan and artist-run centres are no different. Some end before their time, others transform and renew themselves through successive generations, and some remain on life support far longer than
 is dignified, beholden to the palliative care [4] of a burnt out “new generation” of cultural workers tasked with working out their present and future while struggling to honour their past. Sometimes it’s better to go gracefully than to struggle on, as seen with the Toronto Free Gallery’s decision earlier this year to close due in part to costly new reporting requirements mandated by the Ontario Arts Council.

When speaking of the demise of centres, it may be helpful to see some as having lived out their life spans due to sectorial, technological or political shifts that have dramatically changed the landscape since the centres were founded, often decades ago. In media arts, there are three main types of organizations: production centres, distributors and exhibitors (with some organizations performing all three roles). At present, the greatest challenge for the sector is how to work with a fixed amount of funding to sufficiently support successful organizations and to create space for new ones. The clearest strategy for the sector is to address the redundancy created by successive waves of technical shifts.

Media arts production and distribution have historically been divided between film, video, new media and sound art organizations. Many cities have multiple production and distribu- tion organizations that are specialized, with some working out of the same building. For instance, Toronto is home to Vtape (video distribution, research and exhibition) and CFMDC (Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre), Trinity Square Video (production and exhibition), Charles Street Video (production) and LIFT (the Liaison of Independent Filmmakers of Toronto, media non-specific production and exhibition). At a time of financial constraint, what is preventing organizations like these from merging, aside from distinct legacies? The merger of organizations performing similar roles could be an effective mechanism to reduce costs for physical space and to consolidate staffing, while freeing up increased funds for improved services. By creating “super-centres” for production and distribution, the media arts sector could have the opportunity to address historical inequities across regions and mediums, and to provide space for new projects. Part of what’s standing in the way of such succession is that no one’s done the math. With a dearth of precedent, no one is sure how the councils will respond, and people fear losing jobs and programs.

New projects and possibilities are everywhere, but it is imperative that current administrators envision new models and configurations and work closely with the councils to make them possible. This is how artist-run culture was born and it’s what is required to keep it alive through this awkward midlife crisis. The death and merger of centres are not suggestions; they are inevitable as the sectors evolve with changing climates. The only question is where and how the decisions will be made — collectively by institutions and the artists they represent, or top- down through the funding process? All sectors face difficult decisions around which institutions are crucial and how they can be improved. It is imperative that cultural institutions put aside their self-interests and closely examine the needs of the broader community. There is not only death and merger here, there is also space for increased collaboration and for sharing resources. Breaking away from competition and opening new models of mutual aid is possible. When so many contemporary artists work in an extra-disciplinary manner, does it even make sense to maintain disciplinary distinctions that silo artist-run initiatives into media arts, visual art, performing art and publishing?

As new organizations come into being, it’s essential that they are not exclusively located in the downtown cores of major cities — a priority that’s already been recognized at the council level with their emphasis on priority neighbourhoods and regional projects. Suburbs, small towns and rural areas can all benefit from new initiatives that provide access to the production and exhibition of art. Likewise, existing institutions need to amp up their equity-focused programs to ensure they are truly serving disability, racialized and Indigenous communities, in alliance with identity-based organizations (as opposed to routine tokenization). Without this support for diverse artists, it will be impossible to build a robust national voice to resist austerity in arts funding.

The Return of the Cultural Worker or How Not to Lose Faith

The political situation is dark. The public discourse is bleak. Austerity is spreading across much of the world. Too many people now define themselves as taxpayers, and not as residents engaged with broader communities. Most arts funding is static, to say nothing of welfare rates, social housing budgets, intelligent transit investment and income inequality, all while the state security apparatus endlessly expands. It feels like a dark time as we see some organizations become corporate shills and watch others collapse under the weight of increased costs.

Against this backdrop, this year Toronto has seen a major success in arts funding. In January 2013 Toronto City Council passed a motion to tax billboards and dedicate the income to arts and culture funding. Estimated at $17.5 million annually, this increase in arts funding is the only recent break from the regime of austerity. This didn’t come from a vacuum; working with partners in urban planning, citizens’ groups worked for years to make it a reality. Under the umbrella of the Beautiful City Coalition, over sixty arts organizations shared common cause to make an ambitious goal a reality. With this new funding, Toronto organizations are just starting to catch up to the cuts to provincial support under the Harris government, and to peers in other cities (prior to this, Toronto had the lowest per-capita municipal arts funding of comparable Canadian cities).

Models for success emerge when cultural workers organize. Artists and cultural workers organizing and working with allies is what created arts funding in Canada. While we must work to increase the levels of arts funding to create a more sustainable sector, we must also be self-reflexive and willing to pull terminal organizations off life support in order to better use the funds we have.

Perhaps we can begin by selecting fewer centres to fund, so support is prioritized and reserved for ones more effectively creating space for new ideas and new projects. There are also times we need to stop doing more with less, where the only solution to diminishing returns is a strike — the withdrawal of labour from conditions that are no longer tolerable. In the coming months we may see both of these spreading across the arts community. With luck, the action will spread far beyond artists and cultural workers, allying all communities under attack by austerity. [5] [1] Joe Warmington, “Taxpayers funding ‘lesbian hanted house’ in Toronto,” Toronto Sun, 30 October 2013.Warmingon, not coinciden- tally, is one of the few journalists who gets a pass from Toronto’s current mayor-by-name-only, Rob Ford, whose primary self- assigned mandate is to watch every dime spent by council.

[2] See Andrew James Paterson’s review of the CTV coverage in FUSE 36-1 (Winter 2012 – 13).

[3] For more on this last point, see Jacob Wren in Lee, Kraus and Wren, /In Different Situations Different Behaviour Will Produce Different Results/ (Toronto: Paper Pusher, 2013), 23-24.

[4] Amy Fung, “Evolve or Perish,” Post Pacific Post tumblr (22 November 2013).

[5] For more on this, see curator Cheyanne Turions’s blog post, 17 November 2013, adpated from her presentation at the Evolve or Perish conference presented by MANO/RAMO (Media Arts Network of Ontario), held in Ottawa.