Arts Stigma and Policy

By Jedidah Nabwangu
Social Connectedness Fellow

A couple of years ago, the editorial team at Guelph University’s student newspaper, The Ontarion, published an article addressing the stigma that insidiously surrounds the disciplines of arts and humanities on university campuses. They began with an exploration of the harmful connotations behind the infamous question of, “What are you going to do with that?” the tone of which, they conclude, almost always implies a source of ‘disgrace’[1].

As a graduating arts student, I can personally attest to this statement. In my experience, I’ve gained quite the familiarity with some of the inferiority complexes that form when it comes to certain academic faculties, most notably those that fall under the arts.

In the Canadian context, the stigma attached to the arts has historically been cemented at the policy level. It was only in the 1950s, with the drafting of The Massey Report, that the discourse began to change from one of outright neglect to minimal inclusion. Today, one could definitely say that we’ve come a long way from the days of condemning the arts as being a realm where, “No novelist, poet, short story writer, historian, biographer, or other writer of non-technical books [could] make even a modestly comfortable living by selling his work in Canada.”

With the development of numerous governmental and non-governmental cultural, life and arts programs, including The Canada Council for the Arts, contemporary professional artists now have the chance to apply for grants and opportunities that hold the potential to further their careers[2]. How accessible these opportunities actually are is a completely different story, however.

In 2016, CBC reported the federal government’s plan to increase the Council’s annual budget from its current $182 million to double that amount in the next 5 years[3]. While theoretically this should mean better access to resources for artists, ultimately there have been several issues pertaining to inappropriate allocation, with most funds going towards high-end projects that in turn neglect the needs of those at the bottom who need it the most. Furthermore, competing government interests have further impacted the level of arts funding at the provincial level. In Quebec’s case for example, deficit reduction targets contributed to a significant $2.5 million budgetary cut from their home base arts program, the Quebec Arts and Letters Council[4].

So why should we care about the underfunding of a discipline that we have historically been conditioned to neglect as a priority? The arts serve as support structures in response to a number of societal issues that we all face every day. For example, many artists use their art as therapeutic outlets to cope with issues of mental health. To spectators, art is a form of escapism that can help strengthen relationships with others through bonding experiences. Furthermore, many artists use their platforms to shed light on issues related to social justice and human rights.

With just these examples, one can see that the arts represent a crucial means of advancing social connectedness and social justice. This is why we must continue to support them through policy and programming.

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[1] The Ontarion Editorial (2014). “Fighting the Stigma Against Arts and Humanities” in The Ontarion. Guelph, Ontario: Daily Observer.

[2] Harvey, Jocelyn (2011).¬† “Canada Council for the Arts” in The Canadian Encyclopedia. Canada: McClelland & Stewart.

[3] Abma, Sandra (2016). “Budget Boosts funding to Canada Council, CBC” in CBC News: Ottawa. Ottawa: CBC Radio-Canada.

[4] CBC News (2015). “Quebec’s $2.5M arts funding could hurt creative community” in CBC News: Montreal. Montreal: CBC Radio-Canada.