Art Works Blog

Art Talk with Simon Brault of Canada Council for the Arts

Simon Brault, the director and CEO of Canada Council for the Arts, learned the power of the arts early on. When we spoke with him during a visit to the NEA office, he told a story about seeing a play in the park when he was seven years old. "After the play, the actors would come and talk with the children. I thought it was so powerful; it was so direct. I realized the power of words and the power of saying out loud things that as a child I was living," he recalled. He also had, however, witnessed the struggles his visual artist father faced trying to work as an artist while also providing for their large family. So although he understood the arts as "a way to change life, to grow to be someone else, and to rally people to change reality," Brault went to law school. Law school didn't stick and Brault eventually found himself employed as a junior accountant at the National Theater School of Canada. That job was a turning point, and Brault eventually rose through to the ranks to become the school's director. Today he is halfway through his five-year term leading the Canada Council. As we learned when we spoke to him, over the course of his career he has not only fallen more in love with the arts, but he has become an even bigger believer in the power of the arts to facilitate change. Read on to learn more about the mission of the Canada Council for the Arts, why Brault thinks public funding for the arts is important, and how he's working to change the council's relationship with artists so it's more than just transactional. 

NEA: Can you please talk briefly about the history of the Canada Council for the Arts?

SIMON BRAULT: Canada Council was created by Parliament 60 years ago now, with the intention of bringing public support to arts and humanities in Canadian society. It was [founded] after the release of a huge report that concluded that if Canada were to become a really independent country and to have a future, that the country needed to have its own art system. It’s a very large mandate and at the very beginning it was funded through an endowment, but eventually the endowment was not enough, so it became what we call a Crown Corporation. So it’s independent from the government, but completely supported by the government. We report to Parliament through the Minister of Canadian Heritage. So, it’s a public institution.

NEA: Why do you think it’s important to have publicly supported funding for the arts?

BRAULT: I think it’s really important because art is not or will it ever be something obvious or easily adopted by citizens in the country, because art by definition is pushing the limits of what as human beings we understand, what we value, what we consider to be needed to express our conditions as human beings. If it’s only the market that is deciding if art should or not exist, there are a lot of things in a country like Canada that you will never see. Public funding for the arts is a way to make sure that we nurture an ecosystem where it’s possible to take artistic risks, where it’s possible to present challenging work that may not be popular at the beginning or may never be popular or adopted by population, and to make sure that we give an equal chance to citizens who want to create, who want to express themselves through mastering artistic practice. For me, public support of the arts is a feature of a democratic system…. [That public support] should not be, and it’s not in my country, the only source of funding, but it is a confirmation, a public confirmation, of the importance and the value that we give to artistic freedom, artistic expression, liberty of speech, fundamental features of democracy.

NEA: The Canada Council has recently implemented a new strategic plan. Can you talk about what that means?

BRAULT: The strategy plan of the Canada Council was released a year ago; it covers 2016 to 2021. For a lot of different reasons, we are in a situation where that same period is a period of the doubling of our budget. It’s the first time in my life that we have released a plan knowing in advance what are the revenues that we will have. The plan is articulated around certain priorities, tackling issues that are a priority for Canadian society, namely the reconciliation and the rethinking of our relationships with indigenous people of Canada; the international presence of Canada through and with the arts; and also the advancement of artistic creation and sharing of artistic creation with the vast majority of Canadians, and also doing that in the context of a new society that is reshaped by digital technology. We don’t see digital as a technical issue, first and foremost, but we see that as a change in the way society operates and the way human beings interact. When there’s such a profound change in the way human beings interact, it means that for arts and culture, which is one of the main producers of symbolic content, you need to adapt and find and demonstrate your relevance, taking into consideration that expectations of the citizens are not the same as they were before [the digital era]. We think it’s a profound change…. [The strategic plan] is our roadmap and five years is both a short period and a long period of time in a society that is constantly shifting, but we thought that we needed to tell everybody this is the direction we’re taking and be able to measure the progress according to concrete commitments.

NEA: You’ve talked about the mission of the agency. What is your personal mission statement as an arts leader and as someone who’s working at the intersection of arts and government?

BRAULT: I think my personal direction is to make sure that we stay relevant in the society, that we don’t take anything for granted, that we develop the capacity to be strategic and the capacity to reinvent ourselves constantly because we live in a society where the resilience of individuals and the resilience of our organization is probably the most needed capacity to grow and survive. I’m really interested in reinforcing and generating everything that is needed to be resilient. Empathy is a very big value for me, trying to decode and anticipate how and why things are changing and mobilizing people to live that and to grow and to learn. I think as a leader I’m anything but a caretaker of status quo. I’m not a bureaucrat. I don’t protect the organization because I’m in charge of the organization. I’m trying to, as much as I can, advance the capacity of the organization to remain relevant, to reinvent itself, to be supported and valued by people outside of its own employees and its own clients, so by the society. It’s a big project, but this is what I like to do and this is what I believe in.

NEA: You have said previously that it’s important for the Canada Council to be inspired by artists. Can you talk about the relationship between artists and the council?

BRAULT: I think our relationship should go far beyond being transactional. I know that the most basic relationship the Canada Council has with the artists is that we fund them. So they need us because they need the money, and we need them because otherwise we don’t have any purpose. We’re having transactional relationships with artists constantly, and we need to do that. This is what we are paid for. But there are always artists in the society who are already five, ten, sometimes twenty years ahead of the society because they are envisioning or they are touching or they are expressing and articulating issues or problems or malaise, or difficulties that, as human beings, we feel are there. We feel that we need to understand them better.

I remember years ago I was watching Robert Lepage, a major theater maker in Canada, and worldwide now, in one of his shows. It was a fabulously staged scene of an ancient Japanese martial art battle. There was beautiful choreography and all of a sudden [during the performance] he got a phone call from a cellular phone. [The choreography] was interrupted and he answered the phone. Very few people had cellular phones at that time, and what we saw on the stage is what today we live every day. [At that time] it may have been the first time I saw a cell phone, and it was like, “Wow, we will be interrupted in any of our most sacred protocols by that instrument one day.” But, I did not know that for sure. I don’t know if he knew that himself, but he was seeing that coming probably. This is a very basic example, but I think there are a lot of writers and a lot of storytellers and choreographers that are saying things that we absolutely need to hear. They are saying it in a way that sometimes is very opaque, sometimes very codified, sometimes very foggy, but I think that as an arts council we should get inspiration from that because they are taking risks. If they would not take those risks, the arts would not be relevant anymore.

I also think that the Canada Council needs to be there in the conversation with artists to sometimes just listen…. We’re confronted now in Canada both on the question of our relationship to indigenous peoples of our land and also to diversity because we still have a very white audience. It’s too white on our stages, and it’s not reflective of the population we have and of the world that we live in, and some artists are saying that, and we have heard it a lot. As a public funder we need to not only acknowledge that, but we [need to] hear that [and address that] in a strategic plan and see what happens. Sometimes we are reactive; sometimes we are proactive. Sometimes we are patiently observing what is happening, and sometimes we need to be bold and courageous. We need all that to have a significant relationship with artists and to also be able to say that we are truly listening to artists.

NEA: Fill in the blank: The arts matter because...

BRAULT: The arts matter because they are the proof that we are human beings and also because, and I will quote a very famous poet, Cesare Pavese, because “life is not enough.” Art is the proof that “life is not enough,” and it give us the possibility to expand the horizons and the possibilities that we consider to be given to us.

NEA: Is there anything you want to say before we end?

BRAULT: For the Canada Council, exchanges with colleagues all over the world are important. We talked about inspiration or being inspired by artist, but one big source of inspiration, for me, is always what is happening in other countries and other contexts. Every time you’re in conversation with people doing similar work as your work, you try to understand the context, but beyond the question of different contexts, you can find ideas or attitudes or sometimes vocabulary or sometimes approaches that you never considered. I feel that the world stage is a huge school where you can learn a lot and, hopefully, if you have a good exchange people will also learn from what you’re doing. The possibility of constantly learning through international conversations, exchanges, and meetings is really precious, and I think that in the world we live in right now they are even more important than they were before because everybody is facing complexity and everybody is facing change. Finding people who are like-minded or are at the different moment of their journey is useful, inspiring, and sometimes comforting, and sometimes challenging, but I think it’s essential. I just want to say that our relationship with the National Endowment for the Arts is precious for us.

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