Imagine: art embedded in all Manitobans

The following blog is a reprint of Artspace’s submission to Imagine. Creative Manitoba, a consultation process that will lead to Manitoba’s new cultural policy. All Manitobans are invited to submit their thoughts, ideas, and suggestions. It only takes a few minutes, and it can have a real impact. If art has impacted your life, please let the Minister know!


Dear Minister Squires,

It is with great interest that we have read through the discussion paper ”Imagine. Creative Manitoba!’‘. Artspace feels compelled to comment on the discussion paper.

In fact, our comments are sometimes questions that we feel need to be raised, sometimes affirming statements that we fully agree with and sometimes sharing thoughts on what could be! We submit each, thankful for the opportunity to provide information that will shape our province’s cultural policy; something that the arts community has been asking for and for which you are investing time and energy in undertaking. So we thank you for the opportunity to participate in this exercise and look forward to seeing how all this information can then be transformed into a Manitoba Cultural Policy.

The discussion paper concludes with 7 general questions, the first one being : ”When was the last time you participated in an arts event in Manitoba?”. Well, we acknowledge that we have a privileged position vis-à-vis this question due to the fact of where we are. When you walk into Artspace, you are entering a space that has a cinema showing films 5 to 6 days a week, two publicly accessible visual art galleries with no entry fee, two green screen rooms which filmmakers and artists of all genre actively use, a dozen editing bays, a sound studio, two dark rooms, eleven artist studios, five writer’s studios, book and magazine publishers and various organizations producing phenomenal art events throughout Manitoba. So every day we experience the various aspects of art and art creation. Our physical location demands awareness and a participation in art. Both the building and its historic neighborhood, the Exchange District, is truly the creative capital of Manitoba.

Artspace was created thirty years ago as a unique model. The building, which is owned by the Province of Manitoba, was leased for a hundred years to arts organizations and its members; recognizing that arts organizations thrive when given space that is affordable and secure. The demands for such spaces have only increased with time. Its easy to conclude as much since public funding has been stagnant in Manitoba while operating costs have consistently increased and demand has expanded. Furthermore, organizations continue to strive to be relevant, pertinent and current, thus putting pressure to have spaces adapted to contemporary professional standards. This puts pressure to have renovated spaces. But again, with limited budgets, it also means that the space needs to be the most efficient, as the footprint can’t exceed need and capacity.

We were hopeful that the discussion paper would offer a better portrait of the lay of the land in terms of where art organizations find themselves and what challenges this poses to them. Where are they? Do they own, rent or lease? For how long, at what cost? What are the strengths and risks associated with these spaces? What are the opportunities that remain underutilized? Maybe many of these answers will come through the responses received through this exercise. Nonetheless, a proper assessment might be warranted.

Even though the Artspace model has its challenges, we believe the idea works, in value and in application. There are other great examples of infrastructure of historical importance being given to the arts, from churches to barracks; in many of these places, not only is the space offered up by ‘the state’ but corresponding operating funding is also given. This is based on the understanding that we maximize our investments (and our wins) by giving a contemporary purpose to our spaces of historical value. This can be true throughout Manitoba. We believe these cultural houses should be exempt from municipal taxes, as in the case of the Gault Building (wherein Artspace exists). This is the case for churches and schools so why couldn’t it also apply to cultural houses.

It is not a new idea to use art to reinvigorate a community. We know that, as we are part of the experience of the Exchange District’s revitalization. But there are other interesting examples like Louisiana that has art districts/zones recognized by the state. There are also examples like Philadelphia where the city offers up studio space to artists and provides funding for them to take on community projects, putting their skills directly to the service and betterment of the neighborhood. We believe municipalities in Manitoba, in partnership with the province of Manitoba, can achieve revitalization through the arts and artists; needing to flesh out a combination of funding, tax credits or exemptions, as well as available space. We believe Artspace is well positioned to provide assistance and guidance in developing these Manitoba models. As much as we believe government has a role to play, it need not be government programming. To strengthen our arts organization and arts community government should work through and with us.

We should have maybe started at the start or said differently where we think the cultural policy should start. That is, we were hoping the discussion paper would set out some bold ambitions towards forming a cultural policy. Instead, the discussion paper states that the aim is to ‘clarify, coordinate, and influence’. These are valuable goals. However, there is an overall statement about culture and arts that seems to be missing or maybe implied, that should be stated firmly. In other words, let us answer the question of why have a cultural policy in the first place. Inspiration might be found in Québec, as their provincial government is also reviewing its cultural policy, as it has not done so since 1992. Their discussion paper explains its raison d’être with an ambitious purpose that is to imagine a future where culture is at the center of the lives of all of its citizen; or as they said in french “Imaginer l’avenir en poussant plus loin l’ambition de placer la culture au coeur de la vie de tous les Québecois.” What a beautiful objective for a cultural policy. One that could easily speak to what the Manitoba cultural policy could and should aim to do.

There are a few other elements of note in the Québec process. Their discussion paper identifies 8 core principles or 8 foundations to build their policy upon. One could easily imagine similar foundations for a Manitoba cultural policy. We offer the following adapted core principles:

i) Culture is essential to our society

The Québec policy discussion paper explains it as such:

La culture est porteuse de sens, d’identité et de valeurs; elle est aussi un vecteur de démocratie, d’enracinement, de dialogue interculturel et de cohésion sociale. La culture participe également au développement des autres domaines de la vie en société et favorise la créativité et l’innovation.

We believe this captures most of the elements and presents it in a succinct and well-understood way. We suggest we could be inspired by this definition.


ii) The Government of Manitoba has responsibilities towards culture

If we accept many of the statements made in the introduction of the ”Imagine. Creative Manitoba” paper, than we must conclude that the Government of Manitoba has responsibilities towards culture in Manitoba. That is to support culture and those building it, supporting its development and those participating in it. This should be done in a sustainable environment and with a global approach; one that cannot disassociate its economic dimension from its social and territorial dimensions.


iii) Access, participation and contributions by all Manitobans.

The current discussion paper underscores many elements about the importance of access, participation and contributions in terms of how the policy needs to apply to all Manitobans, and to be adapted to their expectations and desires.

We would note that we believe that free arts and cultural events are vital to the makeup of the Manitoba cultural scene, and to the appropriation of culture by every Manitoban. However, we would want to acknowledge that the option of having access to cultural experiences without a fee raises concerns about properly recognizing and giving value to the artistic work, as well as the appropriate and just remuneration of it. Particularly as we know that the average salary of a Manitoba artist is only $26k.


iv) Recognition and value of First Nations people and their culture.

Again, the current discussion paper underscores many elements highlighting the importance of First Nations people, particularly in Manitoba. Thus, it is easy to state as a core principle.

There are two key components missing in the discussion paper, though, which should be considered. First, Manitoba has an Aboriginal Languages Act. The Act recognizes seven Aboriginal languages in Manitoba: Cree, Dakota, Dene, Inuktitut, Michif, Ojibway and Oji-Cree. Furthermore the Act stipulates that the Government of Manitoba has a role to promote and protect these languages. We think these requirements should be referenced and captured in the cultural policy.

Furthermore, we are joining those advocating for the inclusion of an appropriate response to the ”Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action.”


v) la resonnaissance et le valorisation de la culture franchophone.

Similarly to the previous principle, we believe that our strong and rich history with la francophonie Manitobaine, is a cultural asset. Furthermore, the Province of Manitoba has recently adopted a law ensuring ”l’épanouissement de la francophonie au Manitoba.” Therefore, we should be unapologetic about upholding the value of the french culture to our society. This is especially important since the law referenced above specifically mentions the Manitoba Arts Council as having responsibilities vis-à-vis la francophonie au Manitoba.

On a specific note, the discussion paper mentions that there are 42,000 Manitobans with French as their mother tongue. Where this would’ve been an accepted measure pre 1980’s, we now believe that the true measure is how many Manitobans speak and utilize the French language. As Manitobans who have gone through the immersion program, or new Manitobans that do not have French or English as a first language, they are currently key contributors and participants in the French culture. Therefore, to reference Manitobans partaking in the French culture, the number would be at least double the one cited.


vi) Recognition and value of diversity

Many elements of the discussion point to the simple fact that Manitoba is a diverse society. As such, we should recognize it, and state it as strength and an opportunity.

We do note however, that in mentioning various forms of diversity, and various minority groups, the LGBTQ community has been omitted. We know the queer community of Winnipeg contributes immensely to our art and cultural scene, and could be empowered to do so even more. We believe it is important to recognize them and value them and in doing so, to mention them specifically. Furthermore, this is as true for Winnipeg, as it is for Steinbach, or anywhere in Manitoba.


vii) The protection of the freedom of expression and artistic freedom.

So far the discussion paper does not state the importance of artistic freedom and the importance of the freedom of expression. Any exercise in artistic and cultural growth should have these fundamental liberties firmly stated. As such, we also believe in the protection of intellectual property that stems from these liberties.


viii) Equity

We believe the Québec discussion paper stated it well: la politique culturelle vise un accèes équitable à la production et aux ressources culturelle pour tous: équité entre les générations, sur l’ensemble du territoire, entre les hommes et les femmes de toutes origines. Cette recherche d’équité prend en compte l’intérêt de générations futures.


These core principles, we submit, should be the key elements to our cultural policy, and how to understand it.


Beyond these core principles, there are some specific items we would like to raise with you.

Unavoidably, it is important to have a frank and transparent discussion about funding. We believe there is a shared responsibility to properly fund the arts. First, let us state that we fundamentally believe in the role and function of the Manitoba Arts Council (MAC). We believe in the funding of professional artists, recognizing that the term professional should be heavily and properly nuanced. We also believe professional art programming should be done through MAC. We state this as we strongly believe in the arms length distance from Government as well as the peer evaluation process. When limited resources are involved, we believe this is the fairest and most acceptable way to determine who and what projects receive funding.

We are aware that MAC is undergoing an ambitious modernization of its programming and providing a focus on where it can act. We support these efforts and would hope that the cultural policy will support this exercise. Furthermore, it can provide clarity on the role of MAC vs the role of the Arts Branch. The Arts Branch can be leaders in community Arts, Arts Education, Arts and health, and elements that benefit from government involvement or coordination. Similarly, we want to ensure that art support organizations do not fall through the cracks. Support services are key to the ecosystem of our arts organization. Changes to MAC and the Arts Branch should be done in concert, so nothing is left in either realm. Rather, we hope this coordination allows each to maximize their capacity to support the arts.

We would strongly advocate for a strengthening of the financial capacity and sustainability of cultural organizations with increased and significant investments in the cultural sector. We were discouraged by the fact that the recent provincial budget had several areas that indicated reduced funding for the arts sector. This news came only after a short time of releasing the discussion paper we are currently commenting on. Yet, the discussion paper in question often and regularly mentions that the provincial government has ‘flat-lined cultural spending for many years.’ We think an honest discussion from all parties might start with a confirmation of how long this flat-line has lasted, as we know that a flat-line is actually a decrease in arts funding, considering inflation and increased cost of operations. Flat funding doesn’t adequately address current costs of doing things. We know it well, as Artspace has increased operational costs and we find it difficult to ask our tenants to offset these costs since their operating grants have not and do not increase. Quite the opposite. All this makes funding operational costs difficult. Which makes our roles as stand in landlords very difficult. We want to maintain high levels of service, we want to maintain our building, and provide other such responsibilities at our best capacity, while remaining cognizant that our tenants have no capacity to keep up with rising costs.

When we talk about funding, we often talk about value for money. However, we think we need a healthy discussion on what it is we are measuring and if there are intrinsic elements that are not measurable. As the impact of the arts is far reaching and complex, it is not always evident how and what to measure. Nonetheless, we think there are new and innovative ways of talking about the impact of investments in the arts that unequivocally proves positive value for money.

We also believe in the diversity of funding sources. In other words, we do not believe that funding is the sole responsibility of Government. We are thus encouraged to see that ArtSupport Manitoba, a program piloted by Artspace, was referenced. We have known much success through the pilot program. But it is just that – a pilot program that is still in its infancy. We believe there is a continued role for the ArtSupport Manitoba program and its 27 participating organizations. The model has been adapted for Manitoba from an Australian experience. It is unique in Canada and has provided much sought out support. The core of the program was to increase donations to arts groups, but in order to receive donations, organizations need to be well structured. Thus, the work of ArtSupport Manitoba extended beyond simple fundraising tools, to engage in organization strengthening exercises. We are still seeking sustained provincial support to extend the program past March 2018.

On the topic of diversity of funding, it has been advocated that the Province of Manitoba look to the 1% infrastructure policy adopted by Québec. That is that 1% of every capital infrastructure project be dedicated to public art. This is true for private and public projects. It has resulted in significant presence of public art throughout Québec. As there is much activity happening in Manitoba, we often feel that we do not adequately capitalize on it as a way of incorporating the arts.

Arstpace knows all too well the demands for support services to art organizations with limited revenues and limited human resources. We launched the Arts Management program, a bookkeeping and payroll service program, four years ago. It has provided needed services, and is growing in demand. This is not a fully self-sustaining program. It is our hope to grow so that it may become self-sustaining. We are also exploring other support services we could offer to arts organizations to make them stronger, more efficient and legal compliant.

We also note that the discussion paper does not address the role of Manitoba media. We know that media plays a vital role in the cultural landscape. It is media that carry our stories. Whether it be programming on APTN that was created in Manitoba by Manitobans, or whether it be revues and publications given value and capturing what is happening in the arts in Manitoba as well as promoting our artists. We do not have an accurate portrait of where things have progressed in terms of media in Manitoba and their relationship to culture. It would be a worthy exercise to have an accurate portrait, as it identifies opportunities and potential gaps in our system.

Finally, we also believe the Government of Manitoba can be a leader by setting the example. Governments are asked to communicate regularly to the public. Thus, they could activate local artists and various art mediums to communicate needed information. For example, why not have artists tasked with creating the signage to all our provincial parks? The province used to have one, his name was Réal Bérard. He was also a cartographer, drawing maps of our rivers and lakes, but also capturing the culture found along these bodies of water. Imagine if the Government of Manitoba utilized artists to communicate notices, or even their cultural policy!

It is unclear where to end these comments, as we believe this submission is part of an important dialogue. Thus, we hope that this isn’t an end, that in fact, we will have a chance to reengage in this discussion, to follow up on some item raised, to provide further context or structure to some of the ideas raised, and to encourage that you come back to us with answers to some of the questions we raised.

Maybe the best way to conclude is to thank you again for undertaking this exercise. With Manitoba’s bicentennial coming up, with our globalization being about discovery of happenings in unlikely places, like culinary and architectural wonders on frozen rivers or stories from our multiple reserves, the importance of our artistic capacity has never been so evident. The cultural policy should empower this capacity, through flexibility, honesty, and ambition. We are privileged to work with 60 arts organizations and their countless members, and thus we see everyday the impact art can have. Some of it we try to measure, others we just feel it, we just know it, as the smile of Syrian refugee seeing a film they made giving them a voice, is not something that is measured, it is felt.




NB: Art by Sean Rodd