‘Ask for a seat at the table’ | Simon Brault, CEO Canada Arts Council

Ahead of his participation at the World Summit for Art and Culture, taking place in Valletta next week, the Director and CEO for the Canada Arts Council Simon Brault speaks to Teodor Reljic about why creative practitioners should not feel hesitant about approaching the ‘big issues’, and take their rightful place as movers and shakers in society

Simon Brault - Photo by Tony Fouhse
Simon Brault - Photo by Tony Fouhse

You have been Director and CEO for the Canada Arts Council since 2014. Which aspects of your previous experience in the field of arts and culture did you find to be most useful to you in this new post, and why?

I’ve worked in the cultural sector for over 30 years, mostly in Montréal. It’s a primarily francophone city, with a diverse population made up of immigrants from many countries worldwide. The arts and culture have a vital presence in Montréal – you can feel it on the streets… it’s a part of the everyday lives of all citizens. That experience has definitely shaped my expectations for public engagement in the arts. My two decades as CEO of the National Theatre School of Canada informed my thinking on the reality of cultural institutions in the 21st century. It also put me in daily contact with students, giving me a deep understanding of the challenges faced by young and emerging artists – which explains my commitment to open up our funding to better support them. 

My volunteer involvement with several grassroots organisations and initiatives convinced me of the huge impact possible when leaders work together across sectors for a common goal. Working with Culture Montréal (founding member and Chair from 2002 to 2014), the Musagetes Foundation and other non-profit organisations allowed me to collaborate with politicians, business people, artists and everyday citizens, and to crystallise my ideas about the links between participation in the arts and citizen engagement, community building and improving the quality of life of a city. 

Through conferences on Agenda 21 (a movement to make the arts and culture a pillar in the UN’s sustainability goals), I discovered the potential of international movements and most recently, in Bilbao, I had the opportunity to meet other leaders with shared convictions working to bring the arts to the global issue of sustainability. 

Finally, the 10 years that I served as Vice Chair on the Board of the Canada Council prepared me well for my current role as CEO. The experience showed me clearly that the organisation needed to transform to scale up the impact of the arts, for Canadians and for society. I was able to quickly get to work and initiate our transformation, fully aware of all the challenges and opportunities it would entail.  

Your book, No Culture, No Future, makes a strong case for the importance of the arts in communities and everyday life. With this in mind, what advice would you give for cultural stakeholders of all kinds – be they government bodies, corporate patrons or even the artists themselves – and how would you wish for them to prioritise the public dimension of the art works and cultural initiatives in question?

I would advise leaders in the arts sector to reach beyond their usual partners and audiences. We can’t be afraid to ask for a seat at tables where the big issues of the day are being discussed. We have to show our fellow leaders in science, economics, education, and health sectors that the arts can contribute in a meaningful way to social cohesion, healing, sustainability and economic development. 

This is the philosophy behind some of the Canada Council’s recent initiatives. For example, we recently launched an initiative to welcome and engage Syrian refugees in the arts in Canada. Through this, these new Canadians have access to books, performances and exhibitions free of charge. 

In terms of priorities, the public impact needs to be at the heart of everything we do – arts funders, arts organisations and artists. In many cases, we’ve made it part of the funding criteria for our clients. 

Obviously as the CEO of a public funder, public engagement is something I take extremely seriously. But I also believe in it strongly as a citizen of the world – as someone who wants to build a better future for my grandchildren, and their children, and so on. I can’t imagine a bright future without an arts-engaged society. How can we begin to plan and give voice to the kind of society we want without drawing on the expressions and innovation of our artists? Their creativity is after all, our most renewable resource!

If I can give one last example that I’m especially proud of: our new approach to supporting Indigenous arts. Globally, there is a movement to recognise Indigenous self-determination – and in Canada it has come to the forefront of public discussion. In response to this, the Canada Council is now addressing our support of Indigenous arts as an issue of nationhood. The main way we’ll do this is through an Indigenous arts program, called Creating, Knowing and Sharing, which is informed by the notion of self-determination and self-governance. This means it will be guided by Indigenous artists’ values and worldviews, administered by staff of Indigenous heritage.

It’s not our role to lead cultural self-determination. But we have an obligation and a responsibility to support Indigenous artists and communities to lead it, on their own terms. This approach is also a perfect example of shared leadership – something that I’ll be discussing more at a panel on Cultural Leadership at the World Summit.