Oh Canada: Arts Consulting Across the Border

Borderline. Feels like I'm going to lose my mind.
the border
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I grew up in Canada but left in 1989 to pursue a career as a management consultant in the cultural sector. Our practice, based in New York City, is now focused on the development and operation of performing arts facilities and districts, plus the general advancement of culture through cultural and strategic planning.

As it happens, we’ve had a few projects back in Canada recently. And it’s fascinating to see how the arts and culture are faring in Canada as compared to the U.S.

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The first thing that one notices is the difference in the attitudes of local, provincial and federal governments about funding the arts. Canadians are much less inclined to see the arts as something superfluous or discretionary, and much more likely to provide direct and indirect funding through arts councils, operating budgets and capital budgets, at all levels of government.

There are lots of good reasons to fund the arts, but one of the more interesting motivations in Canada is the presence of the noisy neighbor to the south. As a country, Canada recognizes that it must support the development and presentation of Canadian culture in order that it not be diminished or even swallowed up by American culture, which bombards Canadians every day through all imaginable media. Though Canada is a vast country, something like 75 percent of Canadians live within 100 miles of the U.S. border, within easy reach of most print and digital channels.

I would also suggest that Canada has been much quicker to embrace a broader definition of culture — how people express their creativity and cultural heritage. Though there have been many waves of immigration from Western European countries, Canada seems to be less in thrall of Western European culture and more open to other cultural traditions — from Asia, Africa and the Americas. Here again there are lots of reasons for this, but I’m drawn to the idea that more progressive immigration policies and practices make Canadians more likely to embrace other cultural traditions.

Borderline. Feels like I'm going to lose my mind.
Borderline. Feels like I’m going to lose my mind.

The idea of multiculturalism in Canada has always been different than in the U.S. If the U.S. was built on the idea of the melting pot, Canada has always been more of a salad bowl, meaning that individuals are welcome to hold on to more of their own cultural heritage rather than assimilate the culture of their new home.

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The curious exception to this idea of cultural inclusivity is the disregard and lack of support for indigenous cultures, which certainly mirrors the experience of Native Americans in the U.S. The recent report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Canada refers to a century of forced schooling of aboriginal children as “cultural genocide.” Now they have their version of the “Trail of Tears.”

Selfishly, my favorite thing about going to work in Canada these days is that there is much less suspicion about consultants and our bag of tricks. Perhaps that’s a function of Canadian nice-ness, but I think it’s more about the Canadian predilection to use consultants to defend their decisions. The man who taught me how to do this work, Lou Fleming, did what I believe were the very first facility feasibility studies as a contractor for the Ontario government in the 1970s. There, midlevel bureaucrats were happy to pay for 100-page reports to justify significant capital expenditures on the development of cultural facilities, and thus stay out of political hot water.

Cultural Map of St. Thomas, Ontario
Cultural Map of St. Thomas, Ontario

Happily, Canadians are still inclined to engage consultants, academics and other specialists to help guide cultural development. Canada is at the forefront of initiatives like creative placemaking and cultural asset mapping. And Canadian companies like Hill Strategies Research are producing excellent data and reports on the cultural sector that help drive additional research and projects.

But the thing that drives me crazy about working in Canada is the level of caution surrounding every possible decision or investment. Every option must be explored, in detail. Everyone in the community must be consulted and engaged, multiple times. And, even after all of that, decision-makers must be given ample time to review possibilities, examine alternative scenarios and run sensitivity analyses before any decision is made.

My very favorite experience as a consultant is to present a comprehensive and research-driven report to a client and have them say something like (imagine a great big Texas accent here) “Well, Duncan, I don’t know that your crystal ball is any better than mine. But you’ve certainly given us a lot of good information that suggests that this project is a good idea. So I say we should go for it.” And then they do.

And that’s why I’m glad to be doing what I’m doing in the U.S. It’s fun to go back to Canada and appreciate their views on the arts, culture and consultants, but I prefer to be a cultural warrior here. We have to fight hard to convince our clients of the value and potential of cultural investments. But when they get it, they do it.