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Q&A: Canada Council CEO Simon Brault on how the new funding model will affect writers and publishers

Simon Brault (photo: Tony Fouhse)

On June 26, Simon Brault celebrated his first anniversary as Canada Council for the Arts’ director and CEO, marking a year of dramatic transition for the arms-length national funding organization.

In January, Brault announced a major restructuring of the agency’s 147 discipline-specific grants. Six new streamlined programs were revealed in June, with more details expected by the end of 2015.

Brault spoke to Q&Q about how the changes to the funding model will affect writers and publishers.

What has been the general reaction since announcing the changes? All the reactions were more or less the same: artists and the arts community want us to maintain excellence as the ultimate goal. People repeated over and over how much they value peer assessment. We also heard very clearly that people want disciplinary expertise to continue to be valued.

People told us they want flexibility, clarity, simplicity, and, I would say, predictability, especially arts organizations. They want us to help them predict what their near future will be in terms of funding. We also heard a lot of comments about carefully planning the transition to the new model.

These are all consistent with comments we’ve heard over the last 10 years. All these values will be maintained, and I’d say optimized, with the new funding model.

How will predictability be maintained? A lot of people are concerned, for instance, that we will no longer have multi-year grants. They want to know if there would be more than one application deadline, or even two, and that there will be clarity in the objectives of each program.

All these concerns are legitimate. We do understand that you need to have a system where there’s the capacity to react really quickly, but also to guarantee some predicable revenue streams.

Will any of the new programs address changes in digital publishing? The answer won’t be, as it was in the past, creating new specific programs; it will be more about integrating those concerns into the context of the larger granting programs.

One program is about developing the artistic practice. We want to make sure that there is money here to test new approaches and ways of dealing with shifting technological and sociological behaviours.

Currently, only publishers are eligible for touring grants. Will this open up in the future? Could a group of authors be eligible to produce their own book tour, for instance? There will be more flexibility both nationally and internationally, because this question of touring and engaging with audiences is really important. Those two programs will be open to authors, no doubt. You won’t need to create a big company or come with something really heavy to benefit.

When the details are unveiled at the end of 2015, people will see how it will work.

How will the funding model affect published authors? The Canada Council is currently supporting literature both as an art practice and in publishing. What you will see in the future is that very special attention will be given to creative work to make sure authors are well remunerated. I think it will be clearer in terms of how the Canada Council will support you if you’re an author or poet or novelist, than if you are a publisher. That distinction of what I would call the creation of literature, and the presentation and engagement of authors directly with their public, will be easier to understand and to report than it was in the past. It will give authors clarity of purpose and expectations will be well articulated.

What about for publishers? Publishing is a very specific practice, especially when you look at the Canada Council: it’s the juncture between what is purely artistic and what is more of an industry model. And it’s rare because we don’t have that for other disciplines.

We will absolutely value and respect that legacy for the future because it’s how it exists, but it’s clear that the changes that are impacting publishers are not exactly the same ones that impact writers.

We won’t deal with writing and publishing as its own separate entity, but will deal with artistic literary creation in the context of broader programs. This is not to say there aren’t links, but we think the situation of writers is closer to the situation of other creative artists than to the specifics of the publishing world.

What are the next steps before launching the new model? We’re really working on the details of the programs, and I want to make sure that people understand that at the end of 2015 there will be extensive tours across Canada to meet artists of different disciplines. We need to explain the new programs as we enter into 2016, which will be a year of transition.

The shift is radical in terms of its ambitions and the commitments we are making, but it’s not radically shifting in an abrupt way. We want to build a future, but not at the expense of the present.

 This interview was edited and condensed.