Essay #3: Justice is Fundraising

Money is the problem. We say later that it’s not. But here we are saying it is. Throughout the ages, and certainly in Christian traditions, money is seen as dirty; a corrupter of all that is good in us. This belief is a problem. Because in order to make things happen, right now, in this world, we need money. It is one type of power. Money keeps the lights on. Marching in the streets costs money. If it didn’t, marches would last longer. Money is a storehouse for value and is as important to getting where we need to get, as all the other values we hold dear. Values like equity, kindness, intelligence, diversity, beauty, brilliance, and justice. All of these values are necessary. At first glance it appears that money doesn’t need the other values to function, it looks like a one-way relationship. It’s not. 

What if money does need art? What if the values powered by money are directly linked to the mystical market valuations of money? In what ways are market assessments tied to a population’s sense of contentment and well-being? It has been widely said that our two greatest human inventions are words and money. Both are symbols that make it possible for us to communicate and exchange. Without words money, as it has been symbolized and re-symbolized for thousands of years, could not have happened. Maybe money really does need us (and by “us” we mean those who make meaning) because without us there are no symbols. Without us, the North Star is simply “a thing up there” not a guiding light. If this is true, then “our ask” for financial support might be better imagined as “our gift” for offering tools to thrive.

There are lists like this one that are making waves in certain waters. We don’t contest the importance of values like paying people better and making our work more accessible. WE REALLY REALLY WANT THIS TOO. 

However, it is telling that only one of the 45 points in this list are about increasing revenues to pay for all of these values. If you want to add more value to your work, and all the values fundamentally require resources, then 45 individual additional resource requests equals 45 additional resource needs. We believe that 45 additional resources are out there and can be had (or maybe 40, or 30, definitely 20) but we would need to offer 45 (Or maybe 40, or 30, definitely 20) additional gifts in exchange for the additional resources. If we simply list our needs like a set of demands, there is no room for collaboration, no grounds for a consensual relationship. What about a little romance? What if, instead of demands, we created a list of ingredients that are necessary to bake banana bread? The picture on the recipe blog is of mouth-watering banana bread, not the eggs and flour and definitely not the blackened mushy bananas. Ew.

The Canadian Arts Coalition just released the Pre Budget 2024 Submission to the Standing Committee on Finance. In it, there is an ask to round up the annual budget of the Canada Council from $360 million to $500 million. Why? So that Council can “increase funding equity, transparency and innovation”. That’s all it says. No really, go read it. But what is the Canada Council offering the Canadian Government (aka the Canadian people) in return for the 140 big ones? What is the imagined nature of their romance with the people of Canada? Is there one? Or are we, the arts sector, casting and re-casting ourselves as the poor spurned lover that doesn’t understand why we aren’t attractive to our object of desire?

It’s easy to get taken up with the real and present issues facing producing arts companies. There’s a long list of things that need addressing and rarely enough staff, time, and space with which to take these issues on. It’s our contention that in the face of these challenges, the essential connection gets lost. The reason for being there in the first place – making art for people – gets lost. The lights keep flickering but there is not enough power to keep them on, and not enough energy left to see that there might be no one there.

Strategic planning sessions are generally centred on how to get more support for what not-for-profit arts companies are doing. How to tell the story better about what’s being done.  If the walls could talk here’s likely what they’ve heard: “We need more support from the funders. Funders don’t get what we are trying to do. We are necessary. Everybody knows this. We are trying to change the world and they just don’t get that.” 

If the walls could talk here’s likely what they don’t hear a lot of: “What have we really changed? Whose world? And what do you mean by that? Why are we doing this at all? What is it giving you? How are you being moved? How do your parents feel about what you are doing? Your children? Your neighbours? What are we offering that’s wanted? And what can we change?” Before the walls crumble it would be good to know why we don’t hear these questions. What might answers to these questions reveal? 

If we are not asking these questions then institutions are performing service and justice – not practicing it. The tether to the very nature of our gift, our offering has been severed. And without this connection, all our shared or divergent concerns about the climate, equity and justice are left sitting unsupported on the pavement. The performing arts sector has become a bit like someone whose house has burnt down paying an electricity bill so they can keep the lights on. 

Here is what we (Owais and SGS) have come to understand. There is a common belief, or is it a belief held in common? Or is it a belief said aloud?  The belief that: “Capitalism is bad and neo-liberalism is what particularly made it bad, and now everything is forever locked into the hands of a few”. And because of these (rarely defined) concepts the world will end, and there is nothing to be done besides making work for next to free, and using up our youth, in lockstep with these unsolvable sets of circumstances. “At least our intentions are good.” We say. We know. We feel.

But. Do we? How? Like how do we know this? 

Or is believing this simply the path of least resistance? If we keep it there, like if we keep the problem THERE, in a place that is so unreachable that even Pikkety can’t unlock it, then maybe this belief can anesthetize our concerns about the general lack of access to support. 

Or is it possible that we are mistaken? Have we internalized a narrative about the lack of access to the point where we have stopped asking? We mean, really asking. If the arts are valued and we all agree, then not asking is bad business and bad relations. If the arts aren’t valued, then we need to find those who do believe in the value of the arts and ask them. To not do this is also bad business but it’s even worse relational work. 

But here’s the rub, it is true, we don’t have access. And by “we”, Owais and SGS mean the performing arts sector. Generally speaking “we” don’t. Fundraising is already tilted in the direction of those who have access. A silver spoon was only ever placed in a handful of kings’ mouths. And since the pandemic, there are even fewer kings than before, and inequality has increased at a crisis-inducing rate. (Even though statistically it has recently decreased. It still feels like it hasn’t, and feelings drive us.)  And while class has always been a primary organizing force in this country’s history, it does appear that the level of class segregation is at a high. Yet chips on our shoulders, only weigh down our shoulders, and it only hurts “us”. And they can hurt “us” a lot.

We propose, whether you feel powerless or powerful, whether you are someone with few resources feeling small, or someone with a lot of resources feeling the burden of privilege – we propose to all of you that you have more power than you realize (or are willing to take on). There is power in being small, in the freedom that comes with not having anything to lose, with the gift of nimbleness and infinite potential. There is also power in having resources of course, but that power is not just limited to the resources themselves. There is symbolic power, the power to draw attention, the power to multiply power simply by validating with a stamp of institutional approval. But power only turns the lights on. What do we need the lights for?

We talk about values. Their importance. Their necessity, and at the same time we discount the very thing that is also indisputably a value – money. Why don’t we value that universally understood measurement of value as much as we value our noble goals of justice? 

Money is the problem. 

It is also part of the solution. 


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One response to “Essay #3: Justice is Fundraising”

  1. Mélanie Dubois Avatar

    I have a lot of thoughts but these felt like they were worth sharing:

    How many arts organizations in Canada operate as charitable, non-profits because their product is not commercially viable? And why does commercial viability seem to be such a bad word in this sector?

    I am pretty new to the art form I currently produce, and I am not a lifelong fan of this art form. This seems to stand me apart from the vast majority of my colleagues.

    I keep hearing from more experienced colleagues that my ideas around providing audiences with programming that they actually want (for instance, by testing new works in front of audiences through workshops, previews, etc. and making adjustments based on their feedback before a new work has its DORA-registered premiere) are too *commercial*.

    When this came up at a conference recently, I asked in earnest whether the art form I produce is expected to make money. The response? “Goodness, no!”

    We all seem to be lamenting the loss of audiences and supporters (and spaces!) for the work we produce. Even before the pandemic or the recent Artscape news dropped, this has always been a hot topic at industry gatherings.

    Yet we don’t seem to be willing to actually find out what people want. Perhaps we don’t know how to ask? Or worse, we believe we know best and that our audiences just don’t get it… but we still expect them to buy tickets??

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