KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – In early May we published a little op-ed, Delaying a new Art Gallery building in Halifax doesn’t make cents, wherein we argued that the provincial money recently committed to the building of a new Art Gallery of Nova Scotia (AGNS) is money well spent.
This was in response to a petition signed by many thousands of Nova Scotians who want that money to be allocated to healthcare. Healthcare is in crisis, they say, and spending money on something as unnecessary and luxurious as art at this time is a very bad idea.
Well, that little op-ed caused some lively debate and raised questions I don’t have the expertise to answer.
To further explore why art matters from a societal point of view, and indeed functions as a major economic engine all on its own, I met with Robin Metcalfe, who has thought deeply about these matters.
What is the economic impact of the cultural sector on Canada and Nova Scotia?
People often don’t appreciate how large the cultural sector actually is, and what major economic impact it has on Canada and Nova Scotia.
Ten years ago, in a study that I was involved in, the Conference Board of Canada estimated that the cultural sector accounted for 1.1 million jobs in 2007 in Canada. The arts sector employs as many people as agriculture, forestry, fishing, mining, oil and gas, and utility sectors combined.
We’ve exhausted most of our options in terms of manufacturing and resource extraction in Nova Scotia. For the last 50 years governments have been throwing money at resource and manufacturing Industries, which typically stay long enough to gobble up the money that’s given to them and then close down and move away.
Halifax and Nova Scotia have really high quality of life that is very attractive to people in the cultural sector and we could be a major player in culture, even more so than we are now if we understood that to be part of our general social and economic strategy.
How composing music, writing literature and creating visual art contributes to the economy
It’s also important to note that while I’m arguing the culture has a strong economic impact, it’s wrong to apply strictly economic criteria to core creative production.
When I was involved with the Nova Scotia Cultural Action Network, we looked at different models. We found a very interesting model which is developed by a researcher called David Throsby, who’s Australian.
If you imagine a set of four concentric circles Throsby puts core creative production in the very center of that. That core creative production then generates other kinds of activity that radiate out through areas like design, advertising and cultural industries.
Core creative production includes original composition in music and original writing and literature original creation in the visual arts. These are activities that shouldn’t be expected to earn money. Rather, they are there to generate value that then is employed in other parts of the economy.
The next circle contains cultural Industries, which includes things like music publishing, literary publishing, filmmaking and video games, for example, all of which are areas where we have considerable potential.
I think the decimation of the film industry by the cutting of the of the tax benefits a few years ago with a good example of cutting off our nose to spite our face in Nova Scotia. The film industry generated a huge amount of other activity in other areas. It was also supported by the presence here a large number of visual artists, for example, many of whom have worked on things like set design. They were done here and video games, a perfect example of an area where people with visual arts skills are really in demand.
What we need to be doing in our school system is encouraging creative thinking and major leaders in in the digital economy have said that what they want, what they’re looking for, is people who come out of art college. They’re the kind of people have exactly the right mindset to be able to thrive and to provide really strong value in digital Industries.
The last concentric circle contains the rest of the economy, manufacturing and service sectors for example. All those sectors use design, they use advertising, these various communications tools all of which benefit from what’s generated at the core, which is creative.
What is the role of the AGNS within Nova Scotia’s cultural sector?
The AGNS is an important piece of the infrastructure that enables core creation, because it gives the opportunity for visual artists in Nova Scotia to exhibit their work, and for the public in Nova Scotia to become better aware of what’s happening in visual arts here and elsewhere.
It is very important that an institution like the AGNS also bring in artists from other parts of Canada other parts of the world so that we are part of an international conversation. Our artists get to see good international art first hand. It also sets up relationships of reciprocity, whereas if we if we want our artists to show in the United States, in Australia, in China, we better show French and American and Australian and Chinese artists here, as well as our own local artists.
Many people don’t feel much of a connection with the arts. Why is that?
In North America we live in a culture that has inherited a deep bias against art. If it’s taught at all It’s not taught well in our schools, and the historical circumstances under which settlers arrived in North America are such that our culture still associates the arts with privilege, even though these days visual arts, for example, are significant means of expression by, for example, indigenous artists and artists who come from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Art and cultural activities in general are particularly important in Nova Scotia, because Nova Scotia has significant assets and potential. We have an arts college here, and we have a really large and active cultural community.
However, that community is not well supported. Provincially it’s supported on a very modest level. In the past the city did not support the arts at all, except for a few key institutions, but lately the city has begun to step up. Of course, we have access to federal funding through the Canada Council for the Arts. But if you’re not getting significant funding from the provincial and municipal levels than it’s hard to get more money from Canada Council.
The healthcare versus art debate is misguided, we need both
I’ve used the metaphor of a garden, I can also use the metaphor of the body. The economy and the society are living organisms. When things work well the value that’s represented by money is constantly being regenerated by the the organic processes of our society. But if our society is missing key pieces, then it’s not going to be generating that value.
Culture is critical in many levels to the healthy maintenance of that body. You don’t say, well, I can’t afford a kidney because I have to invest in my heart. You need a heart and a kidney. To think that we can starve culture in order to feed health care for example, is very problematic. We’ve been starving culture for the last hundred years here. It’s been radically under supported in relation to other developed countries. If we compare ourselves to to Denmark or France or Germany or England or most other developed countries, even China these days. I think we’ll find that that we’re not doing as well as we think we are.
I’ve mentioned how core creation generates economic activity, it’s also important in terms of health. There’s been countless studies that show that access to culture and cultural expression, whether it’s as consumers or producers, is critical for mental health and general physical health. It’s up there with access to nature, which is also being discovered more and more as being critical to our overall well-being.
We can’t talk about the well-being of Nova Scotians without talking about the role of culture in that.
Finally I’d say that if we think we don’t have the money we have to look at why that is. One reason is because we’re not a healthy body politic because our leaders don’t understand the integrated and coherent ways in which the different aspects of our society work together. to reinforce each other and support each other.
The other thing we need to consider is that we are living in a society that’s radically unequal in terms of the distribution of income. The rich are getting fabulously rich, to the point one percent owns a scandalously large amount of the economy, while the rest of the society is getting poorer. It’s showing up as the withering of the middle class.
Governments are always saying we can’t afford this we can’t afford that, what they really mean is they don’t want to tax their friends and they don’t want to tax the corporations. So the money is there. We are the wealthiest society that has ever existed in human history. We can afford healthcare and we can afford culture.
I would say it’s art for humanity’s sake. Art is probably the highest expression of what it is to be human, and we have to ask ourselves. for what we want to be healthy and live long if we don’t have a healthy culture.
Austerity never saved anybody. The Europeans made that mistake by imposing austerity and it destroys economies and destroys cultures destroy societies. The money is there. It’s just in the wrong place.
Why all this is especially relevant for a poor and predominantly rural province such as Nova Scotia
I wanted to make a couple of other points about Nova Scotia in particular. One is that we’re a very rural province. The Maritimes and the Atlantic provinces in general are far more rural than most of North America. We don’t have really large cities. We also are much older than most of North America, we have an ageing population.
And so we can see our communities withering. I have a home in Sheet Harbor Passage. The emergency room is closed several days every week because of the lack of medical staff.
Now part of the reason is the lack of money, but it’s not just the lack of money. It’s also because we don’t support culture and the rural life of Nova Scotia. We shut down our post offices, we shut down various services. Some of these are federal decisions, some are municipal, some are provincial, but these decisions are made one by one on a purely economic basis without looking at what their larger consequences are.
If we had a coherent program for sustaining life in rural communities, we would invest in various types of infrastructure including public transportation, broadband internet. For another key example, we would invest in culture in those areas. We would invest in the AGNS, so that artists who are able to live and work on the Eastern Shore have a place to exhibit their work.
If we keep just spending money to pay for healthcare and for an ageing population in withering rural communities without doing the other work, we will just run out of money. We have to think about what kind of society we need to generate the wealth so that we can afford to live in rural communities, so that we can afford to grow old here.
More than anything else Nova Scotia should be moving towards an environmentally sustainable cultural-based economy. If we are investing in culture, in education, in health and in environmental sustainability we would generate enormous economic benefits. Without investing in those things we will continue to decline.
Why was there so little push back from the arts community when people started complaining about provincial support for a new AGNS?
I think that the cultural community has not been good at developing a united voice. One of the reasons for that is in the cultural community people are very much organized around their particular disciplines. Musicians are part of the music community, filmmakers are part of the film community, and we certainly have interactions between those communities, but we tend to organize around our media and not around the cultural community overall.
That’s why I was part of the Nova Scotia Cultural Action Network. Our effort there was to give a voice to the cultural community in terms of what’s intelligent policy overall. So I think we need more organizing along those lines, so that culture has a stronger voice, a voice that reflects its actual importance socially culturally and economically.
It’s important to put these points of view forward. Often it’s a matter of people not being exposed to alternative ways of thinking. A good example of shifting the discourse is what’s happening around Extinction Rebellion, and the action of younger people around climate change. It’s been safe for a long time to deny climate change, or to not really deal with it seriously. But these days there is a significant part of the population saying we are going to die, our culture is going to die, our species is going to die, our planet is going to die if we don’t act now.
I think that we’re at a point where our society has to ask itself fundamentally, what do we want to be if we’re going to continue to exist? We have to think seriously on every level about what we’re going to be as a society.
People are often surprised by the fact that attendance at museums is constantly rising. Sports, which are heavily promoted by the media, are actually not doing well in terms of audience. Millennials are reading more books than their parents.
Nova Scotia has everything except leadership. If we had visionary leadership, we could take off like a rocket in this province.
With a special thanks to our generous donors who make publication of the Nova Scotia Advocate possible.
Subscribe to the Nova Scotia Advocate weekly digest and never miss an article again. It’s free!