Herménégilde Chiasson: Artists must be supported

Herménégilde Chiasson, New Brunswick's former lieutenant governor, argues that more attention needs to be paid to the province's artists.

Ex-lieutenant governor says the arts have never been viewed as a sector with economic benefits

Herménégilde Chiasson, the province's former lieutenant governor and a prominent Acadian artists, writes that New Brunswick artists need to be supported. (University of Moncton)

The arts are so central and so important to our lives that it would be impossible to produce a list that would cover the whole of its many aspects.

Of course the arts are always associated with culture of which it has become the most privileged form of expression, culture itself being related to identity, which is central to our presence. 

Art is mostly concerned with language, form and content of communication, which is central to our activity and it is well known that people who master these elements can create a strong, inspired and motivated discourse in whatever field they chose to intervene.

Great art is always articulate and will reach us in a way and at a time that we might not expect. It speaks to our body, our mind, our heart, our soul on an intense and unpredictable level.

That is why we, as artists, have a huge responsibility for we have the power of doing magic and, if we do not assume that responsibility we might turn into apprentice-sorcerers for art is truly a powerful tool.

The arts in New Brunswick are not different in their motivation but they are different in their conditions of existence.

Our situation in this province is different and unique and we should address it in order, like in judo, to use it to our advantage.

Arts are a 'centre of innovation'

The arts have always been at the centre of innovation and it should be a model for the other sectors of activity. In that sense, I believe we can create and articulate a new conception of awareness and responsibility. 

New Brunswick, unlike all the other provinces in the country, doesn’t have a focused art scene. I have often wondered whether this might be a problem or an advantage.

The Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton is one of the province's most well-known galleries.
The institutions are scattered in a way that it has become harder and harder to think about them as provincial instead of municipal.

The symphony is in Saint John, the ballet in Moncton and Theatre New Brunswick in Fredericton.

The Beaverbrook Art Gallery is in Fredericton, the New Brunswick Museum is in Saint John, the Galerie d’art Louise et Reuben Cohen is in Moncton and the Owen’s Art Gallery is in Sackville. And so on.

And I am not mentioning the situation taking place on the francophone side, which could easily be compared between the cities of another triangle connecting Edmundston, Caraquet and Moncton. 

This is why, due to the configuration of that art scene, I have always thought that it would be important to design some form of communication, a website comes to mind, to learn from and about each other throughout the province, to keep in touch but also to inform the public about the various events taking place in these different cities.

Thomas Hodd, a Saint John native now teaching at the University of Moncton, in his article “Let’s Get Creative: The Forgotten Role of Culture in New Brunswick’s Quest for Self-Sufficiency,” speaks of the importance of culture in the promotion of a change of attitude and the creation of a new vision for our province. 

He relates the importance of culture in the promotion of a new mentality, a mentality that would take in consideration our imagination and not only the touristic or economic vision of that sector, which, in his opinion is a commendable view but one that will not put the emphasis on creativity, on dynamism allowing the creation of new products and especially the creation of a new image, of a new identity.

On that matter Hodd quotes John Holden, former head of culture at the British think tank Demos, who warns that "regional policy needs to lose its obsession with economic development and to encompass a much broader set of concerns, making culture both a primary building block and an expression of regional identity, prosperity and well-being."

If we are to maintain ourselves as a society, we need to support or at least show some interest or concern for the art being produced here.

Otherwise, we will become eternal consumers of an imported reality that we will end up taking for our own — a very schizophrenic experience and perspective.

New Brunswick artists earn $12,900

Governments (national, provincial and municipal) are now seen as the great providers and the main funding agencies of the arts in this country. According to a recent report 91 per cent of Canadians believe that the government should provide for arts and culture in Canada.  

According to a Hill Strategies report on Canadian artists, our earnings in 2006 were averaging $22,700, compared with $36,300 for all Canadian workers. The gap between artists’ average earnings and overall labour force earnings is 37 per cent.

New Brunswick was one of six provinces where earnings were less than $18,000. According to the Arts Council of Canada that number dropped to $12,900.

[A]rts are still not seen as a sector that contributes to the growth of the economy and the promotion of an image worth millions in side benefits.- Herménégilde Chiasson

Between 1990 and 2005, the average earnings of artists decreased by 11 per cent (after adjusting for inflation). In the overall labour force, average earnings grew by nine per cent during the same timeframe (after adjusting for inflation).

According to that survey, our province has 1,900 of the 146,000 artists that claimed that status in Canada. The majority being concentrated in Ontario, where there are 57,000 artists. 

Numbers have a demogogic way of translating our reality. As president of the Association acadienne des artistes professionnel.le.s du Nouveau-Brunswick, I remember going to Fredericton to meet with the minister of the then department pertaining to culture.

We had put together a report in which we were quoting various statistics on the importance of the arts in the economy of the province.

The minister asked us where we had gotten these numbers. We said from Statistics Canada. He said, “It can’ be. This must be wrong.” And that was it. We got in the car and went back home. 

From that encounter I have come to the conclusion that statistics related to the arts are always subject to a kind of discrimination for we do not seem to fit in the world of numbers.

The result is that the arts are still not seen as a sector that contributes to the growth of the economy and the promotion of an image worth millions in side benefits. 

From that encounter I also came to the bitter conclusion that since we are not credible as entrepreneurs, we might be better effective to use our ability with language, in campaigning and making ourselves more present in the political arena but on our terms, using other resources than these more subdued and discredited numbers of ours.

Problems promoting the arts

We all agree that we need more art galleries, theatres, musical venues, publishing houses and media productions. The problem is always the promotion of these products.

Some years ago, the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency put together a $5 million package for a period of five years for the promotion of the arts that it finally had come to consider as a marketable product.

Most of that money went in consultant fees to figure out what should be done and in the production of lavishly illustrated brochures about the artists’ work.

Most of that money went to consultants who were paid $75 an hour from the moment they left their home while the artists who had all the answers watched the train go by. 

Considering that artists are an above average educated work sector this is truly indicative to what extent they are willing to go in order to accomplish what I would call our mission, for this is a true calling and a responsibility that escapes most people.

Artists provide 'collective voice' for truth

This brings to mind a question with which I have been confronted many times, all my life as a matter of fact, this little voice inside that says: Why are you doing this? Because it’s the only thing I can do? Not really. Because it’s the only thing you can stand doing? Could be. Because it’s a question of sanity, keeping your head together? Most likely.

But whatever it is, we all agree that if our social role might be problematic, our motivations are always clear. As artists we provide a collective voice for the true reasons of living, the main being beauty and by beauty I mean truth.

We live our lives for beauty. We work to buy subsistence but once this primary need is satisfied, we want to surround ourselves with beauty.

From housing to clothing, from commodities to personal care, from our ways of expression to our ways of living, we are collaborating and we long for the creation of an orderly, harmonious and peaceful world. We are against whatever could destroy this fragile equilibrium.

We understand that art is a field of research, of comfort and of communication. It’s a wonderful way of being alive and giving our lives the beauty that we deserve as individual and as a society.

Living here, in New Brunswick, in this day and age, is no different than in the rest of the world. We should never settle for less. Go with the flow, yes, but the flow is going somewhere, to that somewhere where we are expected.

About the Author

Herménégilde Chiasson


Herménégilde Chiasson served as New Brunswick's lieutenant governor from 2003 to 2009. He is also a well-known Acadian poet and playwright. He is a professor at the University of Moncton and is a member of many artistic organizations, including the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts.


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