Canadian Conference of the Arts winds down after 67 years

Canada's largest arts advocacy agency, the Canadian Conference of the Arts, is winding down operations after 67 years because its federal funding has been cut.

Advocacy group's funding cut, without enough time to create a new business model

The Canadian Conference of the Arts is shutting down after 67 years due to funding problems. 2:19

Canada’s largest arts advocacy agency, the Canadian Conference of the Arts, is winding down operations after 67 years because its federal funding has been cut.

The CCA issued a news release Tuesday saying it would cease operations Wednesday after the federal government denied its request for two years of interim funding while it makes a transition to a new self-sustaining financing model.

National director Alain Pineau said the CCA supported the decision to move to self-financing but a decision by Canadian Heritage department in April to provide only limited transition funding meant the organization did not have the time to change.

Founded in 1945

"We worked throughout the summer to see if we could reach the other side of the river given the conditions. Early signs were very positive – membership renewals, increases in membership fees – but far short of what we needed," he said in an interview with CBC News.

The CCA, founded in 1945 by a group of artists, including painters Lawren S. Harris of the Group of Seven and André Biéler, has a mandate to promote the interest of the cultural sector at the federal level.

It argues the economic importance of the arts and keeps track of what is happening on Parliament Hill, including studying international negotiations and behind-the-scenes policy changes and giving an analysis of the federal budget from a cultural point of view. Among its significant achievements are creation of the Canada Council for the Arts in 1957 and nurturing of institutions such as the National Library and educational program ArtsSmarts.

"We’ve never spoken against the government. We are non-partisan and we’ve followed that throughout our history," Pineau said. "That doesn’t mean that sometimes, we can’t say ‘We don’t think that this is good or we think you should be doing this instead.’ We believe in evidence-based decision making and we try to contribute to public debate."

Spoke out on Copyright Act

Among the areas where it was outspoken was in reform of the Copyright Act, an effort Pineau said was "not particularly welcome."

The CCA had received a portion of its funding from the Canadian Heritage department since 1965, but after the department suffered deep cuts in the federal budget, it learned that funding would be eliminated. Its annual budget is $525,000, with about $390,000 coming from federal coffers, though it previously took a $100,000 cut in 2006.

CCA told Canadian Heritage that it needed a minimum of two years of transitional funding to implement a new business model. It began holding a series of public and private consultations and was in the process of creating a new self-sustaining business plan based on membership fees.

However, the department announced in April that it was willing to provide only six months of funding — about $195,000 — and the CCA board determined it could not make the transition quickly enough.

"Despite our best efforts, transitional support of six months was not enough and we have simply run out of time to develop new revenue streams,"  CCA Chair Kathleen Sharpe said in a press release.

Canadian Heritage defends decision

Canadian Heritage spokesman defended the decision to end funding in an email statement.

"For over 35 years this organization has received up to 60 per cent of its budget from the government of Canada, including this year, where funding was provided to give the council the opportunity to work with individuals and groups it claims as its stakeholders to develop a new mandate and funding model," the spokesman said.

Pineau said the arts sector needs a defender at the national level as it deals with tough economic times and unprecedented technological changes.

"This opportunity to look at issues from a broad perspective and from a common interest perspective as opposed to the tunnel vision that exists unfortunately too much in the cultural sector, that is what the sector is losing," he said. 

The CCA will remain in a "dormant state" for a period of time, in the hope that it can be revived by another interested group.

"My hope and I think it’s the hope of everybody on the board is that someone will pick it up," Pineau told CBC News.

The CCA has about 200 members, including arts groups such as the Royal Conservatory of Music, the Banff Centre, the Writers’ Union of Canada, Actors’ Equity and the National Theatre School.

NDP critical of cut

Opposition critic Andrew Cash said he sees the demise of the Canadian Conference of the Arts as further indication that the Conservatives do not understand the arts.

"This one particular group was a group whose members included the ballet and other mainstream important arts institutions in this country. And when you want to cut something like that off at the knees you're sending the message that you just don't get the arts and culture sector in this country," he said in an interview with CBC.

The NDP MP said the government is micromanaging in the arts sector, by doing things like changing the mandate of the Canadian Museum of Civilization, shifting money so long-supported organizations are cut off and redirecting cash to projects that match their social and political agenda.

"This government consistently wants to reach in to arts institutions in this country and reshape them, rename them, remandate them, disagree in very muscular ways with our exhibits and music videos that they don't particularly like. We have to ask ourselves, is this the role of government, is this the appropriate way for government to invest in the arts and support the arts?" Cash said.