Public Funding for Arts and Culture in Canada

Federal funding for Canadian arts and culture continues to be a contentious issue with arguments in support of funding battling a call for greater autonomy.

Early themes characterizing the arguments for publicly funded government support have shifted away from an emphasis on national and cultural identity, anti-Americanism, and anti-commercialization, to the recognition that the private and public sectors of the arts and cultural industries are interrelated and, as a result, the state still has a role to play in facilitating the success of these industries. The extent of that role is still being debated by contemporary writers.

The History of Public Funding for Arts and Culture in Canada

Early proponents of publicly funded government support for Canadian cultural institutions and programs called for state intervention in the arts and cultural sectors based on three broad arguments: the need to establish and maintain a national identity; defend Canadian culture from “cultural imperialism,” especially in the form of Americanization; and preserve and develop the country’s artistic and cultural heritage while avoiding its wholesale commercialization.

Although public funding for arts and culture grew steadily following World War II, government support for these institutions and programs began in the late 19th century with, for example, Governor General Lord Lorne’s lobbying for a national artists association and national gallery. These early efforts paved the way for the Aird Commission in the late 1920s which, driven primarily by American dominance of Canada’s airwaves, recommended a nationally-owned broadcasting system to defend against Americanization and provide a means of developing and encouraging Canadian cultural identity.

Many later initiatives continued with these early themes, such as the Massey-Levesque Commission in the 1950s which positioned cultural activity within the sphere of national identity and the Charlottetown debates of the 1990s which argued for multi-level government funding in the arts and cultural sectors.

Support for Public Funding for Arts and Culture

Contemporary writers have argued both for and against publicly funded government support for Canadian cultural institutions and programs. In “The Essential Role of National Institutions,” for example, Joyce Zemans suggests that only national cultural agencies have been capable of providing the resources and networks necessary to address problems of scale, market, and distribution in Canada. In addition, it is these national agencies that have attempted to curb the Americanization of Canada’s communication network. Zemans also notes that the private sector in Canadian cultural industries has succeeded primarily on the basis of public policy initiatives, and therefore the arts in Canada will only flourish with public support and a public-sector strategy.

Arguments Against Public Funding for Arts and Culture

However, in “From Sacred Cows to White Elephants: Cultural Policy under Siege” Michael Gasher challenges arguments for state intervention in the arts and cultural sectors. He suggests that federal funding of the cultural sphere may no longer be viable due to the high cost of promoting and protecting cultural activity; the technological complexity of cultural activity in the modern era; and the changing attitude toward state involvement with cultural production. Gasher draws upon the recommendations of the 1982 Applebaum-Hebert report, which represented a significant shift in thinking compared to earlier reports, such as those produced by the Aird and Massey-Levesque Commissions.

In essence, the Applebaum-Hebert report avoided the anti-commercial and anti-American focus of its predecessors and shifted the role of the state in the arts and cultural sectors from the promotion of a national identity to the facilitation of an autonomous and self-directed cultural sphere. As Gasher points out, the Applebaum-Hebert report’s suggestion that “the essential task of government in cultural matters is to remove obstacles and enlarge opportunities” may be the key to reframing Canadian cultural policy in the future.