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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 14, No. 2 October 2008

Understanding Canada’s Culture-Industrial Complex

by Philip Ehrensaft and Barbara Scales / October 13, 2008

The totality of Canadian cultural production adds up to a cultural-industrial sector in both senses of the word “industry”: an economic sector and the production of material goods. Analysts and business people all along the Canadian political spectrum have become increasingly aware of the importance not only of the cultural sector itself, but of its impact on the economy as a whole.

The definitions of art, culture and cultural industry are one key to the current debate about cultural funding in Canada. The Conservative government claims that it has actually increased spending on the arts. This claim rests on a purposeful obfuscation of the meaning of culture and cultural industries, and the arts subset of culture. In the September 20 issue of The Globe and Mail, James Bradshaw exposed this obfuscation with a fine piece of investigative journalism. He documents how the Conservative claims of increased arts funding are based on fudging definitions and robbing Peter to pay Paul.

Canadian Heritage distinguishes between two cultural “strategic objectives”: SO1, which refers to the broad Statistics Canada definition of the culture industries and its arts subsets; and SO2, which is the anthropological and politically opportune supplement of sports and courting ethnic groups.

The Conference Board of Canada, in conjunction with Heritage Canada, had just issued a major report on the cultural economy when the newest rounds of Conservative government cuts to cultural programs were announced. Valuing Culture: Measuring and Understanding the Creative Economy (August 2008) is the most systematic and up-to-date synthesis that we have concerning the size and impact of the cultural-industrial complex on the national economy.

According to Statistics Canada’s sustained and very serious efforts to generate concrete estimates, the collective economic contribution of the diversity of activities that we term culture contributed $46 billion (3.9 percent) to the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) in 2007. Cultural industries employ an estimated 1.1 million people.

In addition, one can consider the indirect and “induced” leverage of this primary cultural production and distribution. Direct, for example, means making a trumpet. Indirect effects include manufacturing the metal that goes into the trumpet. And induced effects includes the groceries and hockey sticks that the metal workers buy with the income they earn from making metal for the trumpet manufacturer. The indirect and induced effects of cultural production bring the total contribution of culture to $85 billion (7.6 percent of the GDP).

The logical definition of culture encompasses far more than what is commonly understood by “the arts,” whether that understanding focuses on “high art” or includes middle-brow art and lower.

The net cast by Statistics Canada’s definition of culture industry is both wider and narrower than what most people would instinctively define as “the arts”, including activities in commercial art, advertising and television production. Statistics Canada’s definition excludes some notable and debatable aspects: including for-profit theatres and university faculties of music and drama departments which train future generations of artists.

Canada’s Federal support programs cast an even wider “culture” net, which includes sports and support of multiculturalism. These are indeed culture in the broader anthropological sense. But this is very far from the predominant understanding of what constitutes the high culture of the arts.

Creating and diffusing the broad range of symbols and meanings that define a society’s sense of itself became a pillar of the post-1945 Canadian economy in support for arts and culture. Since assuming power in 2006, the Conservatives have, within the broad cultural sector, very purposefully targeted arts programs for cuts, and shifted the funds to sports and multiculturalism. Funding for the arts and culture industries fell from $817 million in 2006-07 to $759 million in 2008-09; 59 percent of funding to 55 percent. Conversely, spending on sports and multiculturalism increased from $568 million to $632 million over the same period.

One might ask why the arts community is apoplectic over minor cuts that amount to less than 1 percent of total funding.

Well, in terms of industrial economics, the apoplexy is utterly rational. The high arts in Canada have evolved into a very successful sector whose dynamism is wedded to exports. Given the relatively small size of the Canadian domestic market, exports are essential for the economic health of Canadian artists and ensembles.

The symbols and meanings of art don’t just fly through the ether by themselves. They require a sophisticated and well-resourced set of training institutions and technological infrastructure to get to market. Canada has had some notable successes in these endeavors..

That success was based on a number of programs including Trade Routes and PromArt, Canadian support programs for artists travel and management representation. Commissions of new creative work and gigs have often combined resources from CBC/Radio-Canada, Canadian government sponsored programs and Foreign government-sponsored programs.

Sectors are organized in chains of production, distribution and consumption. If strategic links in that chain are abruptly broken, negative effects can be very high. This is precisely the consequences of these particular cuts. The travel fund programs were modest but essential matching funds that became available when agents negotiated foreign contracts for Canadian artists. Other canceled programs brought foreign presenters to Canadian arts conventions, efficiently opening doors to outside interest.

Why throttle a successful export sector? Especially since the funds are minor compared to the $250 millions that will be channeled towards General Motors transmission plant in St. Catherine, the $80 million to Ford to revive their engine plant in Windsor or the $350 million for Bombardier’s C-series airplane?

It is more than disquieting that a government would seek to throttle the arts’ success story. These disruptive cuts have been met with consternation by the journalists who write for the business pages, and by business people who have been increasingly active in mobilizing resources for the arts – distinct from sports or multiculturalism - which they understand to be central to their lives and to our society and our economy.

(c) La Scena Musicale