Former Executive Director of the New Brunswick Arts Board shares an open letter to NB artists.
I am reaching out to you because your silence is echoing in my ears. You are in the process of losing ArtsNB and you are saying nothing, or very little, about it. I am not an artist, but I have trouble understanding how you can watch an organization like this die with hardly a whimper. This is an organization that you, yourselves, finally managed to build after struggling long and hard. I am deeply disappointed to see you let it go. Let me explain what I mean by reviewing the history of the organization.
In 1987, at an important gathering that brought together artists from the province’s different cultures, you asked the government to create an Arts Board. In 1989, the first Arts Board in our province was established. Obviously, it wasn’t perfect. There were peer juries, but all their decisions had to be approved by the minister. After a while, you decided that this wasn’t working. In 1995, at another major forum on the arts and on cultural policy, you, the artists from every culture attending, asked and even demanded that the Arts Board become an autonomous, arm’s length body. On November 4, 1999, the New Brunswick Arts Board Act came into force. The only glitch was that the professional arts organizations then in existence wanted to remain under the jurisdiction of the government.
Despite this divergence, professional artists viewed the independence of the Arts Board favourably. They could look forward to having the professional arts develop according to objective criteria rather than political ones. What exactly did the autonomy and independence of the New Brunswick Arts Board mean at the time? Three important elements defined it. First, the members of the Board of Directors were appointed by the Arts Board, based on strict criteria and high standards. Second, its administration (the executive director and the staff) was independent of the Public Service. Third, grants and scholarships given to the artists were awarded based on the artistic merit of the projects they submitted, the contribution that the project would make to the artist’s career and development, and the ability of the artist to carry out the project.
In 2008, Shawn Graham’s Government decided to take back the control of appointments to the boards of directors of government agencies, boards and commissions. With that shift, the Arts Board lost part of its independence. And now, in 2016, Brian Gallant’s Government wants to take over the administration of the Arts Board. We’re back to where we were in 1989. We’ve gone backwards 27 years. And you, New Brunswick’s artists, are saying nothing, except a few words in a press release in which the organizations which represent you, and which receive their funding from the government, say basically that, although they don’t really like the idea, they will keep an eye on the situation.
Of the three elements that made the New Brunswick Arts Board an independent organization when it was created in 1999, the appointment of the members of the Board of Directors returned to the control of the government in 2008, and now, in 2016, the administration is returning to the government. At this point, there is only one element of independence left, that of awarding grants and scholarships by peer juries. And the jury process will now be organized by members of the Province’s Public Service. The autonomy has become much more fragile. It will no longer be the President of the Board of Directors of ArtsNB who will be signing the cheques for grants, as soon as possible after the jury has met, but rather the Minister, depending on priorities, availability and the possibilities for good press from the decision. Worse yet, there is no protection for the $900,000 you have been allocated; the amount could change depending on political will. I am not questioning Minister Fraser’s good intentions. But are future governments going to remain committed to his promises?
I’m sure you can understand now why your silence in the face of this situation is such a concern for me.
The future looks grim for the professional arts in New Brunswick. Not only did you create an Arts Board in the 80s, but the Francophone artists among you also built an organization of professional artists to protect your rights and advocate for you. The Anglophones among you did the same during the first decade of the millennium. The recent press release which commented on the government’s decision to repatriate the administration of ArtsNB to the Department of Culture is an example; the spokespeople seem to be sitting on the fence and have clearly compromised their critical distance from the government. Is this because the organizations which represent our province’s artists, and which receive nearly all of their funding from the various levels of government, must put their organizational interests ahead of those of their members? In these circumstances, how much trust can we put in their ability to be the voice of artists? Shouldn’t they be able to maintain a critical distance from the government in order to better advocate for their members? Are they now being muzzled because they rely on the government for their survival?
The Government of New Brunswick is us. All of us. We understood that in the 80s and 90s and at the beginning of the 2000s. That period was a time when we defended our rights with conviction and enthusiasm. It was a time when we felt free to speak the truth about what was happening. It was a time when we made a great deal of progress in developing the professional arts in New Brunswick. What is happening to the arts community now? In 2008, we didn’t say anything when the Graham Government decided to appoint members to the Board of Directors of the Arts Board. Are you going to let the same kind of aberrant behaviour occur without a word for a second time? Are you going to allow others, people who don’t share your knowledge and experience, to have the power to decide what is important for you and for the development of the professional arts in New Brunswick? In my opinion, it is obvious that allowing this huge step backwards will not help us move forward.
In the current situation, the Government of New Brunswick has no other choice than to restrain expenditures. Everyone has to play a part. Cuts to the New Brunswick Arts Board may be justified. If they are, it is up to the Board of Directors of ArtsNB, in consultation with the arts community, to identify the places where it can make cuts. There are other possibilities which would allow the government to save money. For example, what if, instead of transferring the administration of the professional arts to the government, we did the opposite? In other words, what if all the professional arts programs that have remained with the Department were transferred to ArtsNB? There would no doubt be substantial savings to the government in this scenario.
In conclusion, the only people who are really going to benefit from this decision are the civil servants who will probably keep their jobs, to the detriment of the employees of the Arts Board. The responsibility belongs to you, you the professional artists living and working in New Brunswick, to act on these issues that concern you, first and foremost, and to take ownership of the future of the professional arts in the province.
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