Ask Canadians about their priorities for government spending, and funding for the arts and culture will turn up near the bottom of their hit parade (it routinely wrestles for last place with foreign aid). Anyone intimately involved in the sector, however, knows that the response of the “average” citizen masks deep differences within the population on the deemed importance of public support for the arts and culture. While the wisdom of funding symphonies, book publishers, museums and their ilk may be lost on the masses, legions of cultural bureaucrats, mavens and volunteers seem to spend their days lobbying policy-makers on the need for more funds for the arts. In fact, while it is rarely in the forefront of public debate, there may well be no single issue that divides elites and the general public more than this question.

The arguments in support of cultural funding, however, are many, varied, rarely coherent and most often revolve around questions as to which constituency within the arts and cultural community is in most need of, or would benefit most from, this support. Rarely stated, but always implicit, is the premise that Canadian culture (at least at this point) is not economically or commercially viable. Not even whispered, however, is the underlying belief that the average Canadian is not sufficiently interested in any of these forms of cultural expression to pay — either through taxes or at the box office — for our creator community, cultural industries or the public institutions that exhibit and host cultural events.

For their part, many working in the arts don’t seem overly concerned about this state of affairs. A community that believes art is so essential that it expects the many to reach into their pocket to fund its pursuits, also sees its art as suitable only for the few. It should be of no surprise, then, that the conceit of the defenders of culture elicits passive disinterest or active disdain from the people being asked to subsidize culture.

It’s time to consider a different case for culture, one that, I believe, the population would support and that, in the end, would benefit the creator community much more than the current regime of endless subsidies and fruitless failures. This view starts from a perspective normally absent from the debate over funding the arts: focus on the purpose culture serves in terms of society and citizenship. Measure the “value” of cultural endeavours not as the end product (the art), but as the means by which they integrate art into community life. It makes more sense to base support for cultural endeavours on their potential to galvanize the citizenship than on why the various groups asking for support think they’re important.

Here’s a real-life example of how a focus on dissemination rather than creation benefits the public and creators alike. In 1989, a young man named Cam Haynes launched a film festival in what seemed to many an unlikely place: Sudbury, Ont., a mining community that had never before hosted the opening of a Canadian movie. Against all odds, and in the face of much skepticism from the film community, his CinEfest became an overwhelming success. Haynes branched out, launching the Northern Film Circuit in 1992 to take Canadian pictures, and often their directors, on a tour of such cultural hot spots as Kirkland Lake, Timmins and Sault Ste. Marie. In almost every case, the films sold out and the audiences treated the directors as visiting royalty.

Today, Haynes’s Film Circuit visits 106 Canadian centres and has just expanded to include 15 in Britain. This year will see it spread to another 40 in Canada and five in the United States. Total attendance has doubled every two years, now totalling a quarter-million patrons. In Canada, 28 per cent of attendees are there for Canadian films, compared to less than two per cent of the commercial movie audience. In Britain and the States, the entire lineup is Canadian — pretty much the only way those audiences can
see the Canadian product.

And how much of Haynes’s money comes from government support? For the first few years, almost none. Now, having proven his project’s value as a disseminator of Canadian content, he gets approximately half his annual budget — or $300,000 — from government sources. At the same time, the box office he generates earns the film industry five times that — $1.5 million per year. Compare that to the funding agency Telefilm Canada, which spent more than $200 million last year on 956 projects that few people, outside Haynes’s circuit, would see.

Still, the economics of the two approaches is not the real motivation for adopting a new approach to arts funding. The fact is, Cam Haynes’s Film Circuit not only creates a real audience for Canadian films, it also uses arts and culture to bring Canadians together, giving them a greater sense of sharing and, yes, citizenship. The rationale for reframing the case for culture in this way is rooted in the alienation taking place in modern-day Western societies. The Harvard social commentator Robert Putnam calls the phenomenon “bowling alone.” While that pastime is as popular as ever, he observes, the number of bowling leagues and teams has decreased dramatically. So too have the incidence of family get-togethers or having friends over for dinner, and memberships in parent-teacher associations and other bonding activities capable of bringing people together in a sense of community.

Television and the Internet, suburban commuting, two-career families and increased mobility have all led to the diffusion of personal contact and the increasing atomization of modern-day society. The research suggests that these changes lead to the erosion of mutual support, co-operation, trust and institutional effectiveness. In a more optimistic way, the evidence also indicates that when citizens are brought into contact with one another toward a common cause or purpose, there is less violent crime, better educational performance, lower levels of teen pregnancy, improved health and even higher personal incomes. At the same time, culture — viewed in terms of the galvanizing effect it can have on our sense of shared experience — uniquely has the properties required to create that sense of community.

Think of art and cultural expression in terms of their effect on citizenship (rather than as the constituency groups involved in the “products” of culture) and the criteria for funding become crystal clear. If the case for culture rests with its essentialness to community, then the beneficiary of state support — and the yardstick against which eligibility for funding should be measured — must be the citizen. This means funding for authors or publishers who host a reading series in seniors’ homes. For the landlord who puts a revolving art installation in a building lobby. For churches, schools and recreation centres — public spaces that sit empty much of the time — to hold gatherings and discussions around art, music and literature. For festival holders, concert promoters, museums and libraries.

And where would this leave our impoverished creators? Well, in a community immersed and surrounded by art, one that, over time, would come to see its painters, writers, musicians and performers as a core element rather than (as is so often the case today) something tantamount to unworthy welfare recipients. And out of that environment, I believe, would come not only better citizens, but better patrons of the arts. I can see a growing community of people who appreciate the meaning of culture in their lives and are ready to reach into their pocket in recognition of the efforts of the creators (and neighbours) in their midst.

Far from reducing funding for the arts, these changes would require significant investments in infrastructure, public spaces and events that disseminate art and bring culture closer to the taxpayer. This is a case not for retrenchment, but for cultural democracy — a policy regime that, instead of mimicking private philanthropy, would direct public funding of the arts to communities, institutions and organizations working to clasp art and citizenship to a single bosom.