Stéphane Laforest: “This is not the time to ask artists to reinvent themselves”

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This page is also available in / Cette page est également disponible en: frFrancais (French)

Recent announcements from Minister of Culture Nathalie Roy have received mixed reviews from professionals in the field, in particular those working in the performing arts. In an open letter, Stéphane Laforest, conductor of the Orchestre symphonique de Sherbrooke and the Sinfonia de Lanaudière, argues that government assistance only benefits part of the industry and neglects those employed as performers.

At first, like many of my colleagues – especially people from the performing arts – I felt critical of the minister of culture. We were all shaken after two press conferences which announced the opening of drive-in cinemas and the allocation of millions for digital projects or new ways of making art.

We must nevertheless applaud the fact that the minister has succeeded in convincing the gatekeepers government funds to free up $250 million for culture in this time of crisis. I believe that a large part of this sum will be able to help artists in cinema, film, visual arts and especially those who can integrate digital technology into their activities (contemporary music, modern dance, experimental theater, etc.).

Stéphane Laforest, chef

We are all quite happy for these artists. It is clear to me that it is also politically a very rewarding and risk-free gesture. A large number of citizens will be very happy to see District 31 and new Quebec films. That said, what troubles me the most about these two announcements was the lack of sensitivity towards performers, meaning classical musicians, ballet dancers, actors, painters, sculptors and performing artists, who, for the most part, earn between $20,000 and $25,000 a year and often less. They are in a time of crisis, I would even say survival. Now is not the time to ask such artists to invent new ways of practising their art.

The other troubling point concerns who, in reality, advises the minister and suggests the artistic orientation of these announced programs. Are they politicians, civil servants? It all looks like a request for a grant from the Conseil des arts et lettres du Québec or the Canada Council for the Arts, with unverifiable criteria that are said to be open to all but concern only a few specific niches (notably digital arts).

Following all these reflections, I thought of proposing a new way of distributing grants, a new philosophy for granting agencies. Let’s help artists themselves instead of emphasizing the search for new trends. Instead of asking artists constantly to reinvent themselves or add trendy elements to what they do, why not reinvent the way we support their quality of life by giving them the opportunity to work more and earn their living with dignity? Artists must be encouraged to do what they do best, that is, to practice their art. The interpretation of masterpieces in a space with a live audience. What needs to be reinvented, in my opinion, is not the arts, but the what surrounds the arts.

Here are the criteria I propose for subsidies to stimulate the employment of artists:

  • Artistic quality is essential.
  • Attendance at concerts, shows or productions. Organizations that succeed in attracting spectators should be rewarded.
  • Diverse programming. I am thinking here of organizations that put their artists to work and present many events (productions or co-productions) with guaranteed fees.
  • There could be a basic grant, up to $250,000, to ensure the functioning of different organizations such as a regional symphony orchestra, if the artistic level is judged professional and that its season includes five major concerts, a morning school program, a Christmas concert and two summer concerts. If the organization wishes to add original programming, school concerts, digital programs, Canadian music, concerts for newcomers, etc., its subsidy could be increased.
  • Organizations must be encouraged to develop initiatives for young audiences and the next generation of musicians in Quebec. Each bonus item could have a fixed amount decided in advance according to the available budgets. The same system could apply to chamber music groups, concert series, festivals and opera houses.
  • Sound management. We must encourage organizations that have a dynamic board of directors whose members do their jobs (balancing the budget, finding sponsorships, organizing benefit events). They have our future in their hands.
  • Employment conditions. As well as financial health, organizations that hire Quebec and Canadian artists and remunerate creators and performers must be encouraged. Special subsidies could be granted to music, theater or contemporary dance organizations so that they can remunerate their artists adequately and promote Canadian music or new trends (such as digital technology) that lend themselves better to this kind of art. In addition, the government should encourage organizations to pay bonuses to administrative employees (the general manager or others) who create jobs. Finally, aid could be allocated to organizations that need more human resources so that they can organize more events for their artists.
  • The influence of organizations that are visible in their regions in Quebec or abroad (assuming an organization is present in several municipalities). We should reward organizations that advertise well (with graphics, posters, radio, television, etc.). We also need to equip the people who advertise. It is broadcasters who must be on the lookout for new technologies.
  • The quality of partnerships with broadcasters, which give pride of place to local organizations (affordable room rental prices, assistance with promotion and dissemination, availability of rooms for rehearsals and concerts, etc.).
  • The originality of the projects. If an organization wants to emphasize Canadian music, new composers or artists in its artistic mission, or educational concerts, it could benefit from a system of à la carte grants. But orchestras wishing to remain in the traditional symphonic repertoire should not have to suffer for making this artistic decision. They would have their basic subsidy. Major ensembles (OSM, OSQ, OM, Les Violons du Roy, I Musici de Montréal, Opéra de Montréal, Opéra de Québec, Les Grands Ballets Canadiens) could benefit from special criteria, given their status as large ensembles and their international prestige.
  • Ensuring an objective assessment of grant applications. Avoid peer committees, which are not always fair. A committee of experts could assess the professionalism of the organization according to the criteria set out in point 4. Then, take the criteria from 1 to 10 in a grid and apply the number or rating that corresponds to each point for each organism. Thus, one can easily justify on both sides the sums distributed, which is not the case at present.

In closing, we must stop imposing repertoires and new trends on artists. Artists should be recognized as artists. It takes longer to train a classical musician than a doctor. I have been in the classical music business for over 40 years. I have conducted over 1,000 concerts with Canadian symphony orchestras and I am very concerned about our musicians.

I humbly submit that these assessment criteria would advance job growth in the arts while helping our artists earn a decent living. The public will benefit. The economy too.

Translation: Arthur Kaptainis

This page is also available in / Cette page est également disponible en: frFrancais (French)

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