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Canada Council for the Arts Director and CEO Michelle Chawla: How we plan to work with you

Michelle Chawla
Michelle Chawla began a five-year term on June 26 as Director and CEO of the Canada Council for the Arts.

The Director and CEO of the Canada Council for the Arts, Michelle Chawla, wrote the following letter to the arts community on December 14.

Dear arts community,

I am humbled to share my first letter as the Director and CEO of the Canada Council for the Arts with all of you. As I reflect upon my first six months, there is much I would like to share about what I have heard and learned from you.

But first, allow me to say that, while new to this role, I have dedicated most of my career to supporting the arts. This is deeply tied to both my personal values and professional commitment. I would also like to say thank you for the incredible work you do. It plays a vital role in the lives of Canadians.

As a leader, I am committed to working with the values of respect, integrity, openness, and connectedness. I believe these values are essential to the work we do, and that embodying these values as we work with others will help us to find better solutions than we could on our own.

Over the past few months, I have had the opportunity to meet with a wide range of stakeholders, including artists, arts organizations of all sizes, arts service organizations, and private and public arts funders at all levels of government. I have also prioritized engaging with the arts community across the country. I have had exchanges in Calgary, Edmonton, Saskatoon, Regina, Toronto and Montreal and I plan to continue to visit more regions across the country over the next year. These meetings have allowed me to better understand cross-cutting issues and the nuances in different regional contexts as well as to more fully experience the breadth and diversity of the arts community.

What I am hearing and learning from you

I know that the arts sector is facing several challenges and is fragile. For many in Canada, the pandemic seems to be a thing of the past, but for much of our sector, the long-term impacts continue to be felt. The arts sector is experiencing an uneven recovery. Some organizations are facing difficulties with lower attendance, subscriptions, and donations. Increased costs are affecting all parts of the sector including creation, production, publishing, presenting, dissemination, and touring. This is coupled with longstanding systemic challenges, such as inequities in our society and in funding models themselves.

I also appreciate these are trying times for many individual artists and cultural workers. As arts organizations manage tight budgets, work and employment opportunities have decreased. The precarity of artists, due in part to low incomes, has also been made worse by higher living costs, and a lack of affordable housing and workspaces.

When it comes to the Council, I know that many of you feel disconnected from the organization, and do not feel well served. I hear your call for fairer access to our programs, for improved accessibility and for a simpler and easier way to apply for funding. I know you are concerned about the composition of multi-disciplinary committees, want to better understand the assessment process, and are interested in seeing additional Council data to increase transparency. I have also heard loud and clear the need for the Council to address the regional imbalances in our funding. Despite these challenges, I am heartened by your interest and strong desire to work together.

Our context and priorities

To help us work effectively together, it is important for me to share with you the context and realities that impact our work. During the pandemic and initial recovery period, the Council delivered time-limited emergency funding on behalf of the government. This has come to an end, and we are now working with only our regular budget.

In addition, like many federal departments and agencies, the Council is facing budget reductions that will impact the way it delivers its mandate in the years to come. While some impacts on the sector will be unavoidable, the Council will do everything it can to minimize them.

The Council is also facing a significant increase in applications and higher average grant amounts requested across many of our granting programs. This reality combined with having only our base budget to invest has meant that success rates have come down. While a challenge for us to manage, the increase in application volume is also an indicator that the Council is successfully reaching new artists and that our funding is becoming more accessible. In the bigger picture, this is also a clear sign of a growing need and demand for arts funding.

Despite the challenging context, I can assure you that we remain committed to our strategic plan. We will continue to foster the rebuilding of a sustainable arts sector. We will continue to prioritize our support for historically marginalized and underserved arts communities. We will honour the commitments we have made to support the self-determination and sovereignty of Indigenous Peoples and Nations. We will also improve regional distribution of our funding.

Strengthening connections

This is why one of my main priorities for the coming year is to continue to engage stakeholders across Canada in various ways. Together with my colleagues at the Council, I will meet with artists, organizations, and funders, speak with you, and build stronger relationships in order to better serve you, the community. I know contexts and realities are different from region to region, so I am committed to visiting you where you are. I am already planning visits over the coming year— to British Columbia, Manitoba, the North and the Atlantic provinces, and the list will grow.

The Council is committed to being more transparent and more present. We will undertake a survey of peers to inform our peer assessment process. We will make more of our data available on our website and also make it easier to understand for the community. While the significant increase in application volume means our program officers have less time to spend with each applicant, you will see greater engagement from Council staff at various levels—whether during virtual town halls, meetings with arts service organizations, in our outreach efforts or our overall presence in the community.

We are working with our partners in the federal family, public funders across the country and others to move the needle on common issues and leverage collaboration and opportunities.

In closing, I want to assure you that we hear you and understand your challenges and concerns. Working together is how we will find solutions to complex issues and continue to build an inclusive, equitable, resilient, and sustainable arts sector that will benefit all communities.

I invite you to get in touch with us to share your perspectives and ideas. I very much look forward to meeting with you and hearing from you.

As the year draws to a close and as I think about the challenging times around the world and closer to home, I believe the voices of artists are essential and that the arts have the power to unite us. On behalf of the Council, I wish you joy, hope and peace for the holidays and for the new year.

Michelle Chawla
Director and CEO

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The Society of We Are Canadians Too created Pancouver to foster greater appreciation for underrepresented artistic communities. A rising tide of understanding lifts all of us.

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We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.