THE VISIBLE MAJORITY: We see you now and we saw you then

Funding for visible minorities: a minority within a minority.

Canadian Theatre Review. Issue 63, Summer 1990.

Robin Breon and Brenda Kamino

(As the authors of the following article, we are pleased that it was prescient at the time of its writing – 3 decades ago – but sad that so little has been done to ameliorate the personal and systemic issues of racial discrimination in the arts that are identified here.

The authors (Breon and Kamino) are aware that some words and phrases included in the article that follows are now out of fashion. For example, “visible minorities” is now generally replaced with the more preferable, “racialized people” or “racialized minorities – BIPOC.” Also, the use of personal gender pronouns has been expanded in a much more useful way while the word “gay” is now also replaced with the more inclusive “LGBTQ community”)

Artists are, by and large, a minority within any given society. And artists as a group – actors, dancers, playwrights, filmakers, visual artists, etc. – enjoy far less by way of salary and benefits, job security, pensions, and seniority rights than the average unionized worker on the assembly line or in civil service. The smaller artistic ensembles – be they theatre companies, dance groups, or multidisciplinary collectives – face increasingly difficult times. Yet, historically it has been the smaller companies – who constitute the overwhelming majority in terms of numbers – that have produced some of the most provocative and original work and have consistently acted as vital artistic tributaries providing training, development, and high quality programming that eventually flows into the mainstream cultural institutions.

In Canada today visible minorities working in the arts constitute a minority within this minority. They face the same problems as do all of the smaller companies, only with the added burden of institutionalized discrimination. But the extent to which conditions can improve for all artists in Canada will also be the extent to which we can incorporate greater participation by visible minorities – as performers and creators as well as audience members – during the decade of the 1990s.

In the Canadian theatre of the 90s we shall see an increasing emergence of professional companies dedicated to the expression of the Black, Native and Asian cultural heritage along with more companies who see multiracial, multicultural content as an important part of their mandate. From the standpoint of theatre administration this brings with it a whole new set of complex problems not the least of which has to do with securing proper funding for companies that have three strikes against them from the outset – they’re new, they’re small and they’re not white.

On one hand, they are confronted with a myriad of funding agencies whose criteria and guidelines for project grants and operating funds sometimes shift like sands on the desert. At any one given moment the administrator may be dealing with up to six or seven government agencies starting with the arts councils themselves at the municipal, provincial and federal levels along with Employment and Immigration, Secretary of State, Department of Communications and others depending upon the nature of specific projects. 

Certainly, these government agencies are the most important funding sources for theatre groups representative of visible minorities because they are mandated by law to be fair and equitable in the distribution of their financial resources. Enforcing this principle, however, is something else entirely, and the arts administrator will soon find her/himself dealing with government bureaucrats who range from actively sympathetic to downright hostile. At the same time provincial and federal ministers keep a straight face when they advise small theatre companies in general to “look toward the private sector” for greater support (“partnership” is currently the buzzword in Ontario). This is really a cruel hoax and will lead the arts administrator to expend a great deal of energy on a wild goose chase with the end result being that their organization will have very little likelihood of finding the kind of sponsorship that is available for larger, mainstream theatre companies with their corporate connections and blue-chip boards. 

The reason for this is quite simple. Corporate support of the arts is based on the rather crude philosophy of getting the “biggest bang for the bucks”. If a corporate logo is to be attached to a theatrical production, the corporation demands high visibility and name recognition – thus Phantom of the Opera and the Stratford Shakespeare Festival become viable commercial commodities while the smaller companies do not.

Equally important in this life and death struggle to survive in the arts is the designation of “professional” status – however defined – and the issue of “peer” review and “universal” standards of excellence which is becoming more problematic for funding agencies. Who appoints the arts juries? Do they include visible minorities or people who are sensitive to these issues? Who will judge the judges?

In an effort to actively pursue these questions, the writers (Kamino and Breon) have conducted a series of interviews with both artists and arts officers from various levels of government in order to determine what progress, if any, has been made in these areas. Clearly, these items are on the current arts agenda and will be part of an ongoing dialogue through the 90s.

The Toronto Arts Council, with its budget of 3 1/2 million annually, is currently in a position to put forward a model for progressive change with regard to the participation of visible minorities at all levels of decision making. “There is no question that the work of the Council has been tremendously enriched by visible minority participation”, says Rita Davies, Executive Director of the Toronto Arts Council. “But it did not occur by accident, we had to identify appropriate people and actively encourage their participation.”

Today, when arts councils are largely appointed positions more concerned with regional rather than racial parity, the TAC has appointed two Black representatives to its board of directors. Ayanna Black is a poet and writer and Norman Otis Richmond is a long time broadcaster and popular music critic.

“The TAC is the most unique as far as I’m concerned, especially in the area of accountability. Decisions are made collectively and care is constantly being taken in order to ensure that these decisions are reflective of the arts community,” Ayanna Black stated. 

Both Black and Davies noted that the advocacy role played by the Toronto Arts Council is incontrovertibly linked to the fact that the TAC is made up of working artists at both the board level as well as the committee level. This is a significant difference when compared to the composition and make up of both the Ontario Arts Council and the Canada Council. It should be noted, however, that although the TAC asks client groups to comply with City of Toronto by-laws by signing a statement each year requiring them to be Equal Opportunity Employers, there has been no effort to collect statistics or ensure that this by-law is being upheld to date.

This method of operation and grass roots decision making is in some contrast to the Metro Cultural Affairs Office which deals with the funding of arts organizations throughout the Metro Toronto region. Here there is no council or board of directors – only one director who hires staff and solicits “advisors”. This position was held by David Silcox (now Deputy Minister of Culture and Communications for the Province of Ontario) in the 70s until he passed it on to his associate Irene Turrin in the early 80s – in a move that was highly criticized at the time.

The dilemma for the theatre administrator is to understand that here the game is being played by different rules and one has to act accordingly. The only possibility of change within this level of government may come as a result of the recently completed Program Review of the Cultural Affairs Division which stated: “In order to identify future cultural program and policy directions requiring Metropolitan Toronto Council attention, it is recommended that the Chief Administrative Officer develop a strategy for the review of Metropolitan Toronto Council by 1991, to ensure equitable access (emphasis ours) by ethno-racial groups to Metropolitan Toronto government funding for cultural activities.” At the very least there is recognition here that a problem exists – solving it is a completely different matter.

In order to more accurately assess the needs of visible minorities working in the theatre, the Ontario Arts Council initiated a series of “sounding sessions” throughout the arts community. Led by Theatre Officer Tim Leary and Multicultural Co-ordinator Lina Fattah, these sessions brought together a wide cross-section of theatre artists. In 1988 the Ministry of Culture and Communications designated an extra $1 million to the OAC specifically earmarked for cross-disciplinary “Multicultualism-folk art” purposes. The nomenclature itself was clearly pejorative and suggested that anything under the category of multiculturalism was less in quality than the “professional mainstream”. The OAC was charged with distributing the money nonetheless and found itself in need of a clearer picture of theatrical endeavors afoot, especially those not involved with heritage culture.

The OAC’s multicultural initiatives actually began in 1982 according to Leary who communicated his frustration with the difficulties of dealing with a community that has, he feels, been unaware of the initiatives being made on their behalf. These special outreach sessions, attended by directors, actors, writers and producers from professional, educational and community theatre organizations were intended to raise questions and make recommendations with regard to OAC policy in this area. The participants represented Black, Asian, Native, Middle Eastern, Italian, Hispanic, Ukrainian and Greek among other cultures.

Says Tim Leary, “We don’t want to see any one group marginalized or ghettoized in the arts community. We want to see visible minorities brought on stream as quickly as possible. Certainly, the mainstream cultural institutions will have to participate and do their share in this regard.”

To date, the term “multiculturalism” has carried a “ghettoizational” affiliation, and most participants made efforts to broaden the meaning or to encourage dispensing with the term altogether. Poet and playwright ahdri zhina mandiela opined that, “Multiculturalism is just a meaningless word unless it finds application. We need to see multiracial juries in place and more minorities hired as staff on the various arts councils themselves – this is a beginning.”

Ironically, only a few months before these sessions began, the Ontario Multicultural Association had lost its funding from the OAC upon findings that clearly indicated that the OMA was serving only a small number of select groups and had fallen behind the times in terms of realistically representing cultural groups in Ontario. 

It will be interesting to see the long range benefits that these OAC “sounding sessions” have on theatre in the province. It has been suggested by several participants that an ongoing outreach program or actual change in the structure and composition of the OAC – from advisors, council members and juries  on down would be of the utmost importance.

In a more general discussion about the future of theatre in the 90s, Peter Stevens, financial officer for the Canada Council acknowledges the fact that the dreaded GST (goods and services tax) might very well mark the difference between life and death to small and emerging theatre companies. 

“Companies will have to decide who picks up the tab; the already dwindling theatre going public or the theatre companies themselves, for whom an extra seven per cent off their box office receipts will jeopardize that delicate break even point.” 

This realization comes in the wake of revenue minister Otto Jellinek’s aggressive support of the free trade legislation and his feelings that politicians should not hesitate to tamper with the “arms length” funding principle as it applies to the Canada Council. Couple this with Jellinek’s attack on Buddies in Bad Times, Canada’s oldest and only on-going gay theatre, and one is lead to believe that his comments were not made in isolation – that they are representative of a growing body of opinion within the federal cabinet that portends ominously for the future.

The writers’ guess is that of the smaller companies at risk here, the first to go will be the newest and among them many of the non-white companies struggling to present their first seasons. The question becomes one of whether high risk companies should be given help above and beyond what is available to companies with more traditional mandates – or will these smaller groups be abandoned all together?  The latter is a practice which contradicts the purpose of art but unhappily may become the reality of the 90s.

On the subject of visible minorities and their general participation (or lack of it) in the theatre, Peter Stevens noted that their has been an increased awareness of the problem through symposiums such as the Talent Over Tradition conference on “non-traditional” casting. Stevens also stated that the Canada Council is making efforts to fairly represent the multiracial diversity of this country in its composition of juries. Says Stevens: “However, finding jurists that are available and willing to serve is something that is sometimes beyond Council’s control – especially when we must also ensure a fair representation geographically, the selection of juries becomes doubly difficult.”

Keven McKendrick, theatre officer for the Canada Council, is currently in the process of formulating recommendations in these areas to help guide policy for the Canada Council.

“To be able to grow and develop on their own terms seems to me to be the essence of the problem. Visible minorities in the arts face special problems and we need to identify these and seek solutions that are fair and equitable. In the past, I think there has been a certain lack of communication in many areas. For instance, how can we adequately address the question of training – for administrators as well as for performers,” McKendrick noted.

As the current theatre officer, he admits that their has been a certain amount of “buck passing” in the past when it comes to providing adequate funding to groups representing minorities. For example, the Secretary of State for Multicultualism – which funds a number of community based performing groups – may refuse funding to a group because they are too “professional” (i.e. may use actors who are hired on a Guest Equity contracts) while at the same time the Canada Council may refuse funding to the same organization because in their estimation they are not professional enough.

On the question of providing a climate of equal opportunity in employment, McKendrick observed that “informal discussions” have been initiated with Tarragon theatre and others as well as the Professional Association of Canadian Theatres (PACT), but he stopped short of suggesting that such a clause should be inserted into the Working Agreement believing it to be “premature”.

During the fervent years of Canadian theatre in the early 70s, the administrator was in most cases a fellow artist who was doubling in a variety of capacities. Administration was the onerous but necessary task that had to be done in order to meet grant deadlines so that the creative work could go on and people could be paid. But the work did get done and the administration of the theatre went forward as an intrinsic part of the creative process itself.

Today there is a whole new school of arts administration. Students can major in the subject at university where they take classes in “management and planning” and a variety of others that teach them the importance of a strong boards of directors, organizing volunteers and the interrelationship between the public and private sector. When they graduate it is often with the intention of becoming an “arts officer” with some government agency or an administrator with one of the mainstream cultural organizations – theatre, ballet, opera, the symphony – it doesn’t matter which, their skills are generic and transferrable from one area to the next.

What is missing in this context is a dedication and a commitment to the nature of art itself. This is not to imply that financial skills, with a good knowledge of accounting and budgeting principles, are not useful tools – on the contrary, they are indispensable for an arts organization to run properly. But we might well ask the question – after having been trained in the proper use of tools and materials, what is it that we are building?

And in this regard, what is the role of the administrator when encountering problems outside of the syllabus such as institutionalized discrimination? How many visible minorities are presently receiving the requisite training to provide them with the skills necessary to survive in this increasingly competitive arts climate? Will the next decade provide an expanded context for artists from many different ethnic backgrounds to celebrate Canada’s pluralism or will we see a narrowing of the field – a retreat to the “high” cultural ground of dominant ethnocentric values that have prevailed in the past?

Finding the answers to these questions may well take us into the next millennium.

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