Change Is Hard: Why Artists and Arts Institutions Have a Right to Be “Freaked Out” about the Canada Council’s New Funding Model

Changes are afoot, ladies and gents. As many of you may know, particularly if you follow the arts and culture scene—and even more particularly, if you are up on all the latest funding news—the Canada Council has announced some rather sweeping changes to the way in which they administer funding for artists and arts organizations. Yesterday,’s Frank Moher posted an editorial in support of the shake-up occasioned by the Canada Council’s New Funding Model. In it, I was tickled to note that they quoted a tweet of mine from last week, reacting to the news:

I feel special.

I was not so tickled that they seemed to imply that the anxiety communicated in my tweet was somewhat hysterical and perhaps even unmerited. In my defence, the tweet was rather tongue-in-cheek, intended to provoke discussion (which it maybe didn’t do) more than impute panic (which it maybe did). But even so, regardless of the intention of my tweet, and regardless of the potential merits of the new model, I did and do stand by the idea that artists and arts institutions have a right to be ‘freaked out’ about the whole affair.

Change is hard.


I’m not afraid to admit that I find change to be freaking hard. I don’t think I’m the only one. We are all guilty of a little twinge of anxiety when our lives begin to veer from the status quo. Whether it’s a new boss at work, taking a child to kindergarten for the first time or even just finishing up with a big project, a little bit of apprehension about what comes next is to be anticipated. It tells us that we care about what came before and it suggests that we care equally about what comes next.

Personally, I find the idea of a leaner, meaner new model to be a cracking good idea. Does this model fit the bill? I don’t know yet. None of us do. But I’m willing to hold my judgment until I see the new model, in detail, with my own two eyes. And though I may indeed be open to new approaches and experiences, though I may embrace change, it is not baseless nor is it shameful to confess to some fear of the unknown.

Knowledge is power.


And unknown this new funding model really is. In his recent article in The Globe and Mail, Russell Smith hits the nail on the head when he says that the guidelines are vague. To be fair, they have to be. Cutting 147 clearly defined programs down to 6 is no mean feat—of course some wiggle room will be necessary to encompass as many arts and artists as possible. But it is this vagueness that acts as a breeding ground for concern.

Indeed, expressing concern about the model is an open invitation to the Canada Council to provide more information, to show us how the restructuring will help Canadian arts and culture and to share with us all of the research and statistics that have undoubtedly gone into creating this new and hopefully innovative approach. To express doubt is not, as backofthebook’s editorial seems to suggest, to “throw our hands up and walk away”—it is to engage in a meaningful conversation, to assert that our ideas and our concerns deserve a “fair shake” as well.

I am sure that the Canada Council will begin to fill in these gaps as they continue to reveal their new ‘master plan,’ but in the mean time, until we get some more concrete answers as to how these six programs will be administered and just what it means to those artists and organizations who count on Canada Council support, we will be in limbo, left to wonder just how we fit in.

Time is money.


One of the stressors that I, in particular, feel with respect to the new funding model is the amount of time it will take to prepare the submission. Here at PQL, we spend hours upon hours upon hours preparing and revising and proofing funding applications. The prospect of learning a new system, whose structure and adjudication are as yet a mystery, is understandably daunting. And these babies are no joke.

From the very beginning of my employment at PQL, I was made painfully aware of just how much effort goes into proving our worth time and time again:

When you start a grant application, you figure you won’t have a problem ticking some boxes and answering a few questions about the press. You figure you’ve done your share of applications and the like to get into a decent undergraduate program, or grad school, or what have you, so it’s the same thing, right?


You quickly learn that there is a fundamental difference between talking about yourself and talking about your company, especially when your company has a particularly rich history stretching back almost 40 years. So you consult past applications and various resources, you talk to your boss and compile several informative and fairly comprehensive paragraphs.

Then you cut sixty percent of it, because you’ve only got space for about 250 words.

After a quick mental break and a steaming cup of coffee, you go back to it, repeating the process for the next twenty questions. Four hours later, you emerge from a frenzy of typing and cross referencing, wondering absently why your coffee’s so cold, and when did it get so dark? You read back what you’ve done—all two pages—and feel the cold hand of panic wrapping its bony fingers around your heart. [Read the rest here »]

And this is with a familiar system and a game plan! Imagine the prospect of starting from scratch. Of course it’s not terrifying to do this, but for a small company with a million and one other things to do, spending the time writing about past achievements is much less exciting than planning future ones.

And money is money, too.


None of us expects a handout, and we are all eternally grateful for the various Canadian funding agencies that make it possible for us to publish emerging authors as well as pillars of the canon. We don’t take this assistance for granted, but we do admit that it is desperately needed. Any disruption to the current system is naturally apt to engender some unease, particularly where it offers the opportunity to disturb the entirety of our operation moving forward.

But it is not fair to suggest that we refuse to stand up to the challenge. I can’t speak for other artistic communities, but I like to think that I am familiar enough with publishing to know that government grants are essential to fund new and creative thinking, continued cultural diversity and distinct national appeal of Canadian literature. If we published the latest Dan Brown or James Patterson, we’d be all be rich, but Canadians wouldn’t have discovered Elizabeth Hay and Annabel Lyon and Andrew Pyper—all authors who published with PQL early in their careers. In order to continue in this important work, we need to work in concert with the system, which we have done and will, without question, continue to do.

But imagine interviewing for your job every year, knowing that asking for a bonus is probably futile and that you may just as easily suffer a pay cut or lose your job as be rewarded for good work. It’s not your fault—it may not even be your boss’s—but it sure as hell doesn’t make you feel comfortable about your future prospects.

 * * *

All of this is to say that we, none of us, know just how much the Canada Council’s New Funding Model will affect the Canadian arts community. Our anxiety is a natural response, particularly when there is simply not enough information to go around. What we can say is that our concern is justified. When the proposed changes hit us where it hurts, when time and money are at stake, we are entirely within our rights to admit to some trepidation as to how the changes might affect our future.

We needn’t swallow change for change’s sake just as we wouldn’t blindly expound upon the virtues of the status quo. Our anxiety indicates that we care about the future of the arts in Canada, that we are willing to engage in the process of reform and that we will continue to make suggestions for improvement moving forward.

We are not Chicken Little, crying out that the sky is falling. We are rather an entire community of Little Engines that Could, looking for a way forward, hoping for the best, but still protecting our best laid plans from running off the tracks.


What do you think about the Canada Council’s New Funding Model? Are you wishing for more information? Nervous? Anxious? Excited? We want to hear from you. Let us know what you think in the comments below.sig

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The Porcupine's Quill would like to acknowledge the support of the Ontario Arts Council and the Canada Council for the Arts for our publishing program. The financial support of the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund (CBF) is also gratefully acknowledged.