Oh Canada, Poor Canada IV

Canada Sometimes, culture is better the less you spend on it. 

Not in Canada.

Christopher Hume says,

We have been on a spending spree… And the figures are impressive by Toronto standards: the Art Gallery of Ontario, $254 million; the Royal Ontario Museum, $270 million; the National Ballet School of Canada, $106 million; the Royal Conservatory of Music, $110 million; the Ontario College of Art & Design, $40 million; the Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art, $20 million; the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, $175 million, plus the other projects in the work. All in, we’ve spent about $975 million on the cultural infrastructure.

Now this is roughly what it cost to make Pirates of the Caribbean I, II and III, but, as Hume says, in Canada, it’s a lot of money. 

But $975 million is not the real cost.  No, the real cost is much higher   This is because when we fund culture this way, we actually diminish it.  The opportunity cost is, in other words, phenomenal.  I reckon this cost is roughly equal to the Pirates, Spiderman, and Oceans trilogies combined, but then I’m a trained professional working in the controlled circumstances of a New England laboratory.  (Don’t try these calculations at home.)

Sure, it sounds paradoxical.  Spending more gets you less?  Funding culture dismantles culture?  But
dynamism teaches us, that cultures are like marketplaces, the less you intercede the more they flourish, the more you intercede, the less they do. 

Let’s take three of the big cultural inventions of the last 30 years: Punk, hip hop, alternative.  All of these were invented in the US.  (Evidence for my controversial first choice: The Stooges, VU, New York Dolls, your Honor!)  All were invented without the benefit of state subvention.  Together, expressed in music and in film, they pretty much underwrote the America’s continued, if wobbly, ascendancy in an emerging global culture. 

I’m not saying that Canada could have established it’s own cultural ascendancy, if only the state had spent less.  I am saying spending more virtually guaranteed its present obscurity on the world stage. (And before someone writes in to complain about all the great music coming out of Montreal, let me point out this was made without state subvention too.)

Armies fight the last war.  States embrace the last idea.  There was a time when the model of state sponsorship worked.  My travels in Europe might as well have been a tour of opera houses, each more glorious than the last,  extravagant evidence that cities and states tied their identities to the musical accomplishment of local sons and daughters. (The Paris house, I was interested to note, was funded by private subscription.)

But that model passed.  Culture changed.  Cultural changed itself. Creative technologies got cheap.  Training distributed.  Creative communities decentralized.  Barriers to participation fell.  A wish to participate rose.  A willingness to defer to elite judgment disappeared.  Hierarchy died, the world flattened.  We might say that the culture funded by the state created a world that no longer needed the state.  To persevere in this funding is to discourage the cultural trend that makes funding unnecessary (could this be the bureaucrat’s secret motive)? 

Call it the Yankee revelation: however much you spend, you can’t buy yourself a World Series win.  Canada can try to fund a culture to call its own, but there are no guarantees.  The fact of the matter is that these cultures happen, if they happen, when the state  gets out of the way, when it cedes control.  The new idea is to turn culture over to people working in their spare time, off grant, off license, without control or supervision. This is where culture comes from now. 


Cowen, Tyler.  2002.   Creative Destruction.  How Globalization is Changing the World’s Cultures. New York: Princeton University Press. here.

Hume, Christopher.  2007.  What’s our role on the world’s culture stage?  The Star.  June 04, 2007.  here.

Postrel, Virginia. 1998.  The Future and Its Enemies: The Growing Conflict Over Creativity, Enterprise, and Progress.  New York: Free Press. here

16 thoughts on “Oh Canada, Poor Canada IV

  1. docsanchez

    I think you are missing a crucial point here: Canada is not spending this money on artists creating art, they are spending it on places for them to do their art. Infrastructure only.

    To follow your analogy: they are not making Pirates 1, 2 and 3; they are building theatres for those movies to be shown.

    Without spending the money on building a cinema (or HD tvs) Pirates, Ocean’s 13, or Spiderman would not have much cultural resonance because no one (or hardly anyone) would have a chance to see them. The same is true in the “fine arts”.

    Nothing is being diminished. The artists are still eating KD and struggling to make ends meet and making great art.

  2. Paul

    re: the above post, hume doesn’t seem to be question the expenditure as much as the existing support for the arts (that would drive usage of these facilities): “By contrast, not only did the City of Toronto give nothing to local cultural projects, it charged development costs from all and even levies an encroachment fee on the ROM because the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal extends into city-owned air space. Are these the actions of a city committed to the arts?”

    canada’s had some great cultural one-offs in the past few years (e.g., atom egoyan’s work up to “the sweet hereafter”, janet cardiff’s recent popularity), but the closest thing to a trend is/was the english-language rock/pop coming out of montreal: the stills, arcade fire (now relatively huge), broken social scene, godspeed you black emperor (and their side projects). the ny times even published an article documenting montreal’s prominence on the indie rock scene. given that these are english-language banks in a francophone city, my guess is that they weren’t the beneficiaries of any government support, eh?

  3. steve

    On the alt-rock scene, didn’t Metric and The New Pornographers come from Canada?

    Grant’s broader point is well-taken. The resources poured into propping up prestige art institutions come partly at the expense of private expenditures on cultural products. Of course, there’s the occasional positive spillover, where some classically trained artist ports his or her skills over to something original and creative that people will voluntarily pay to consume. But on balance, these kinds of publicly funded arts bureaucracies strike me as genteel mafias conspiring to dole out taxpayer loot to their buddies.

  4. gary

    As always, a thought-provoking post, Grant! With regard to support for the arts, “fine” or not, it seems wise to avoid “either/or” thinking. Art, like (most?) other things in life resides on a continuum. At one end are the most antiquated, but important traditions, at the other are “edgy” innovations, and somewhere in the middle is the current “state-of-the art.” In market cultures, the middle needs no support, but environments for innovation frequently need to be seeded and, to be maintained, traditions require some support.

    In The Shock of the Old, Technology and Global History Since 1900, David Edgerton reminds that “The obliteration of even recent history has been continuous and systematic” and then makes a persuasive argument that “The historical study of things in use, and the uses of things, matters.” Traditions, in technology, the arts, and many other things, are important portholes into the past that help us view the future with a more enlightened perspective. Support of museums, whether holding material (e.g., fossils) or ephemeral (e.g., 19th-century music and dance) items help inform our perspective in important ways.

  5. LK

    not so fast grant…you’d be surprised at the number of canadian success stories that appear to be ‘organic’ and self-made that receive scads of government funding…such as nettwerk, home of sarah mclachlan, barenaked ladies, avril lavigne, etc.

    click here to see how much the fed govt gave them in april 07


    PS yes the new pornographers and metric are from canada steve P: the NP’s are from vancouver and metric are from toronto. again, both bands are able to benefit from funds such as videofact that provides financial support for canadian artists for the production of music videos and various fed govt programs that underwrite the cost of touring, etc. indie ain’t exactly what it seems. not to say that a lot can’t be done on the cheap. it definitely can. just wanted to set the record (sic) straight re the illusion of complete and utter indie-ness.

  6. Brian Kenny

    “All of these were invented in the US… All were invented without the benefit of state subvention… America’s continued, if wobbly, ascendancy in an emerging global culture…”

    Seems to me you are describing a ‘hedonic treadmill’ — One can spend (or earn) a lot of money, but the absolute amount doesn’t buy more happiness. One only feels good if one is doing just a bit better than the neighbors. In this case, Canada’s neighbor to the South is the bride of hedonic happiness, while Canada is always the bridesmaid. The best C can hope for is a wedding crasher and a fling now and then.

  7. James

    Britain was a pretty creative place during the ’70s and ’80s too.

    Admittedly, we had the advantage of having a crumbling class system to kick against. But you could also make the case that all sorts of creativity was enabled by student grants through art schools and livable-ish unemployment benefit.

    Could we say that subsidies can be a good idea but should only been given to people who haven’t achieved anything yet?

  8. Andrew

    I am very persuaded by the argument that “museums” (ie cultural institutions) are crucial to the way in which nations “imagine” themselves into existence. The past has to be reinterpreted in terms of the national narrative, which is always presented as heroic and progressive. Without these institutions a nation would have a serious identity crisis.

    This is not inconsistent with the creativity of popular culture since the Old Establishment always subverts the New Establishment (not the other way round!).

    One small example:

    You have Bob Geldorf starting out in a punk rock band in the late 70s. At this stage he is Anti-Establishment.

    Simply by surviving and becoming influential (show-business marriage, the Live Aid concerts in the 80s, campaigner against African poverty) he becomes New Establishment, wealthy rock royalty, hob-nobbing with the great and the good (and also the great and the evil – ie Tony Blair).

    Eventually he will be absorbed into the Old Establishment – in evidence I would cite the recent photograph of Sir Bob Geldorf, Knight of the Realm, in WHITE TIE AND TAILS, medals and orders of chivalry pinned to his coat, attending a lavish banquet.

    Ultimately the “Bob Geldorf Story” will be put in a museum (using “museum” in its widest context) and interpreted for visiting school parties (and studied for post-grad history students etc) as part of the national narrative (how “we” ended African poverty).

    And to reply to James – I see no sign that the British class system is crumbling.

  9. James

    You are right of course Andrew, a class system is still there. I’m just not sure that it’s the same system that we had in 1970.

    And anyway, perhaps crumbling is the natural state of all our institutions: there for us to kick but never strong enough to stop us kicking.

  10. botogol

    “The new idea is to turn culture over to people working in their spare time, off grant, off license, without control or supervision. This is where culture comes from now”

    I think this is always where it came from. Opera didn’t start with state funding, it started and was kept afloart by rich patrons, as it would be now, in the absence of the state.

  11. steve

    A few points:

    Punk was started by the Ramones, in New York. Even the Sex Pistols admitted that.

    I highly doubt that state subsidies had much to do with the (so far minor) success of Metric or the New Pornographers. Especially subsidies for museums and such. And since they participate in the English-speaking North American music market, they would be at no disadvantage calling for subsidy relative to bands that started in Michigan or Florida.

    Why can’t these institutions flourish on the private contributions of rich Canadians the way US institutions benefit from the donations of rich Americans? I suspect there is quite a bit of “crowding out” of private contributions by public support.

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  13. Anonymous

    I totally agree with this blog and I think Canada is very poor. Many Chinese who cannot get into university in China, or even good high school in China can become professor in Canadians universities such as University of Toronto. This suggests how bad Canada is. I think these charlatans, incapable people will make future Canada exactly like current Brazil which even loses the democracy and freedom.

    Canada is considered developed country simply because it is near the USA; however, the uncontrolled immigration, quacks and incapable people, and communism from Asia, Middle East and South America will destroy the democracy and freedom in Canada and will eventually make Canada another Brazil.

    I think Canada shall not continue to be a member a G8 because even current China’s living standards and economy is much better than Canada, and lots of countries such as Australia, the Netherlands, and Denmark are much much advanced, modern and developed than Canada. Compared with these high standard countries, Canada is simply a developing and poor country.

    The educational corruption in Canada is very severe. There is no university entrance exam in Canada, and university admits students on the basis of their high school final year scores. In order to earn money, the private schools in Canada give every students high scores in order to earn money. The average score in Canadian high school is about 98 out 100 in maths, but those students who get 100 in maths do not even know Sin30 degree is 0.5. And even Canadian university professors do not know how to prove it either, though they claim they got PhD in maths. This fact hightlights how poor and corrupt Canadian education is.

    In public schools, the students give teachers money and the teachers give them high scores. This kind of culture was brought in Canada by those Chinese communism who immigrated from China. The Canadian diversity and multiculture are really excellent. The whole society has been diversified by communisms’s corruption, dictatorship and crimes. There are so many Chinese criminals that Toronto police department has to open a Chinese version website.

    Nowadays, you can even buy university diploma with money. For example, Canadian York Univeristy’s Schulich business school’s diploma can be bought by 20000 CAN because there are lots of Chinese who immgrate China’s Cash for diploma to Canada and make Canada a part of communism union.

    In Canada, the exam questions are always leaked out before the exam. For example, many teachers open the file and tells their students the questions of Canadian nations maths competitions of University of Waterloo before the exam.

    Right now, Canada is even more corrupt than China and Canadians like to cover up everything because they really feel it a sham that they have so many bad immigrats and communisms in their country, and they regret that they made the immgration policy. They wish they had never allowed any immigrats but now, it is too late to change. They understand very clearly that current Brazil will be future Canada, and probably future Canada will be much worse than current Brazil because there are too many Asian communisms in Canada.

    The good and capable people all go to the USA, and the bad leftover go to Canada, which looks like World’s garbage can.

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