Ontario’s Culture Strategy: Monetizing the Arts

Mike Robichaux

It’s a new year, kind of, and the Government of Ontario is getting ready to roll out its first-ever provincial Culture Strategy. The draft plan is slated for release this winter (so, any day now), and will be based on an extensive process of public consultation through which Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals have tried to get to the heart of what Ontarians think is culturally important.

If the preliminary discussion paper released last year is any indication, the new Strategy is likely to be about as broad and nebulous as an interstellar helium cloud.

The thing is, how do you even delineate “culture”?  If you’re a nineteenth-century aristocrat named “Theodore,” the definition might be as narrow as Baudelaire, impressionist paintings, and neo-classical ballet set to harp music. If you’re a twenty first-century sub-national government, on the other hand, “culture” can mean anything: opera, heritage landscapes, video games, public libraries, science centres, daytime soap operas, old buildings, or “events that infuse our communities with vitality.”

To the Government of Ontario, “the possibilities of culture are endless,” and can include pretty much anything so long as it “shapes or profoundly enriches our lives and communities.”

Basically, culture is everything that isn’t something else.

The problem with Ontario’s approach to cultural policy is thus definitional: what does success look like for a strategy that encompasses so many different and competing sectoral goals? It’ll be fairly easy to tell if certain parts of the plan are successful—if the government subsidizes the local video game industry, for instance, and that industry goes on to produce video games that a lot of people play, then the Culture Strategy worked like gangbusters.

The waters get a bit muddier when we we’re dealing with something like grants to local poetry journals—publications with relatively small and stable readerships that don’t respond much to the amount of money the government happens to be throwing around.

So when we take stock one or two or ten years down the road, how can we say whether or not, on the whole, the strategy achieved its strategic goals? How do we know if certain parts of it need to be improved, and how to go about improving them?

These questions are not unique to Ontario. In fact, scholars have been posing them since the concept of “cultural planning” first became a government responsibility, sometime around the early 1990s. Prior to this, different national and regional governments had varying degrees of involvement in the arts sectors of their respective constituencies. In France and Quebec, for example, centralized “culture ministries” have been a part of national life for the better part of the last century, and are seen as important tools for promoting a sense of national identity. Britain has historically been more reserved in its use of public authority to promote the arts, seeing “cultural pursuits” as private affairs not linked to any overarching national mission. America, for its part, has taken a more, well, American approach to cultural policy, funding the arts less directly, and largely allowing the private sector to dictate the value of artistic endeavours.

(If you were wondering, this is one of the reasons why American cinema is so often characterized by explosions or cars that transform into giant robots, and French films less so).

Before the 1970s, Ontario’s tact was mostly in line with the British model: restrained and mainly reactive to the ad-hoc demands of the public.  But this started to change with the formation of the Ministry of Culture and Recreation in 1974. Not long after the province’s cultural policy began to centralize, the concept of “culture” itself started a long expansion—from a more circumscribed meaning that primarily referred to what might today be called “high culture,” to a catchall “anthropological” definition that describes various “ways of life.” 

By the early 1990s, a body of literature had emerged that advocated for government involvement in “cultural planning,” which could be distinguished from regular old cultural policy by the fact that a) it wasn’t only concerned with “aesthetic” forms of culture such as painting, music, or performance art, and b) it had a strong regional and developmental focus.

Cultural planning was as much about urban development as it was funding the arts—the idea was that by developing  strong “cultural sectors,” municipalities could enrich the lives of their inhabitants while simultaneously drawing in tourist dollars and bolstering “cultural industries.” This shift from a focus on promoting the arts for the sake of promoting the arts to promoting “culture” as a source of economic growth was made plain by the creation of the Ontario Ministry of Culture, Tourism, and Recreation in 1993. Culture (itself a blanket term) was now only one component in a comprehensive economic plan that the Ministry’s annual report promised would “provide increased opportunities for economic growth, job creation and community development in the province.”

Since 2000, over half of the mid-sized cities in Ontario have developed their own cultural plans that similarly blend arts, tourism, and economic development into a kind of “policy soup.”  Sometimes the elements come together well enough. The establishment of “arts sectors” in various municipalities—spaces that simultaneously draw tourists, enrich the lives of locals, and provide artists with venues in which to promote their work—are often touted as examples of successful cultural planning. Other times, the conflation of arts and revenue generation don’t mix as well: cultural plans often attempt to make things like museums and art galleries self-sustaining, self-funding institutions, an initiative that usually entails a reduction in operational funding from government and higher ticket prices at the door. On a normative level, some have argued that an approach to cultural policy that lumps roadside tourist attractions in with traditional forms of artistic expression leads to a kind of commodification of the arts, whereby creativity is only valued insofar as it can be packaged and sold for middle class consumption.

Even the newly established arts sectors in Ontario municipalities—the towering achievement of the province’s cultural planning movement—have been taken to task for the gentrification they can bring to formerly affordable neighbourhoods.

As I’ve said, most of this has been happening at the local level. Municipalities and the federal government have traditionally been the biggest funders of the arts, and Ontario has mostly played a support role by dishing out money to fund various local initiatives. The forthcoming Culture Strategy, however, seems to suggest that the province is ready to play a more active role in coordinating its cultural industries.

The draft plan has yet to be released, so it’s hard to say exactly what this new concept of a provincial level cultural “strategy” is going to look like in practice. The breadth of policy areas covered in the aforementioned discussion paper—as well as the language of job creation and economic growth used throughout—suggest that it’s likely just a meta-sized cultural plan by another name.

Whatever the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport’s public consultations yield , it might be time for the Government of Ontario to consider de-aggregating artistic expression from economic development, and carving out a specific and defined space for less marketable art forms.

This isn’t to say that Ontario should necessarily turn away from the business of subsidizing cultural industries and stimulating growth in the creative sector, only that it should reconsider treating these inherently macro-economic concepts in the same way that it treats art that contributes to society in a non-monetary way. If, for example, policymakers were to develop an “arts plan” separate from its overarching developmental goals, it would have to be acknowledged  that art and creative endeavours have an intrinsic value beyond the amount of revenue they can generate. This would likely require the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Sport to look to less traditional indicators in order to evaluate the success of its policies. For instance, Telefilm—the crown corporation responsible for funding Canadian films—has started to consider various non-economic variables when determining how successful its projects have been, such as the amount of critical acclaim and foreign press they’ve received. This might be a more appropriate way to approach state funding for certain forms of artistic expression, as throwing them in a bag with what are essentially municipal development projects is only generating confusion and a focus on more bankable art forms.

As the role of the state in fostering and funding culture continue to evolve, the government of Ontario must decide where its ultimate goals lie with respect to cultural funding. The cultural planning model doesn’t seem to be going anywhere for the time being, but it might be time to asses how well it’s working, and doing so could require municipal and provincial governments to look beyond their balance sheets.


Mike is a graduate student at the University of Toronto (previously McGill). He grew up on Vancouver Island but now sticks mostly to the ten square blocks surrounding his Toronto apartment. His interests include politics, post-punk, and 80s slasher flicks. He can’t believe he’s thirty.



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