A Cultural Policy for Montreal : Arts or the Neoliberal Agenda?

By Norma M. Rantisi and M. Jason Blackman

The City of Montreal recently drafted its first formal cultural policy. While the policy seeks to link culture with economic development, it uncritically embraces the role of business in the arts and fails to promote the value of art for art’s sake—for its inherent value. In the context of contemporary neoliberalism, the balance between the economic value of culture and its other attributes has become an ever more delicate one.

The Link between Arts and Economic Development

In January 2005, economist Richard Florida presented a picture of Montreal ‘s burgeoning creative sector to the city’s local board of trade. He suggested that Montreal is well positioned to take advantage of the new economy. Montreal ranked highly among North American cities in indices measuring the size of the artistic community, population density, cost of housing and the proportion of bilingual or trilingual residents. Florida asserted the significance of creativity and the arts to innovation and, by extension, urban economic development and competitiveness.

In highlighting the connection between culture and economy, Florida acknowledged the broader significance of culture and its multifaceted nature. This and similar discourses emphasize how culture contributes to environmental, social and economic goals, above and beyond its inherent aesthetic value. However, Florida ‘s visit also underscored the challenges involved in supporting the arts and cultural institutions. His study of Montreal was commissioned by Culture Montreal, an independent non-profit organization with a mandate to promote the arts and culture in the city. This organization distinguishes itself from established arts groups such as the Conseil des Arts de Montreal (which is concerned mainly with the disbursement of grants to local artists) in that Culture Montreal is open to any citizen interested in promoting culture, and it engages in research and analysis to support educational and advocacy functions. Over the past four years, this group has been lobbying the City of Montreal to adopt a cultural policy, a draft form of which was released around the time of Florida ‘s visit.

The timing of the two events was not coincidental. Culture Montreal has sought to pressure the City to show greater commitment to the establishment and implementation of the policy and to fund it. According to the chair of Culture Montreal, “The media frenzy inspired by Richard Florida will have the net advantage of getting the attention of politicians from all levels of government as well as capturing [sic] the imagination of the business community.”

We will look critically at the defining principles of the draft cultural policy and the way it was developed to show the challenge that the City faces in managing and providing adequate support for the arts. Within the context of neoliberalism, the emerging emphasis on economic dimensions threatens to subordinate the arts to economic development and give greater authority to private actors.

Evolution of the Arts: From High Culture to Commerce

Sociologist Lily Kong suggests that there have been three distinct phases characterizing support for culture in Western capitalist countries. In the 1950s and 1960s, the arts were seen as a reflection of economic development rather than a contributor to it. The emphasis was on the professionalization of the arts. Support generally came in the form of subsidies, which were earmarked for major cultural institutions, particularly the “high arts,” such as museums, theaters and symphonies. The boundaries between high art and popular culture as well as those between culture and the economy were clearly defined.

In the 1970s and 1980s, culture was viewed as a critical resource for community building. Policymakers and activists recognized the links between cultural assets and social and political agendas, such as the integration of ethnic and racial minority groups and distressed communities. In this period, the existing hierarchies between high and popular art were disrupted, particularly in light of the expansion of electronic media and the increasing accessibility of art forms.

It was not until the 1980s that the potential links between culture and the economy were formally recognized. A number of trends prompted this paradigm shift. De-industrialization was a major factor. The loss of manufacturing jobs in low-wage regions created the need to establish new “competitive advantages,” as competition could no longer be based strictly on cost. Consequently, products and services had to be differentiated in the marketplace and culture was a means to do so. Since most cultural activities are concentrated in cities, local policymakers have identified cultural industries as a component of their economic development agenda. The recognition of the culture-economy link is evident in the place-marketing initiatives of cities whereby officials exploit local cultural assets and amenities to stimulate tourism and lure investment (e.g., New York City ‘s South Street Seaport or Montreal’s Gay Village ).

The growing interest in cultural industries coincided with another significant trend, the slashing of government budgets. Government support for the arts, long viewed as a subsidy, has become an easy target in this period of neoliberal governance. In response to the cuts, arts agencies have been forced to present economic justifications for public arts funding. Arts advocates now attempt to quantify the broader economic value of culture in financial and employment terms. While this approach brings greater prominence to more commercial forms of art and heritage and spurs greater interest on the part of private sector actors, the focus on economic aspects risks siphoning resources away from emerging artists and non-commercial forms of art.

Evolution of Montreal ‘s Cultural Policy

It is within this context that the City of Montreal proposed to draft its first cultural policy. The idea of a cultural policy was introduced as part of a municipal election campaign of what was then (in 2001) a newly formed political party, the Montreal Island Citizens Union. In its program statement calling for a cultural policy, the party acknowledged the importance of supporting Montreal ‘s creative potential: “…culture represents much more than dollars and jobs, but it should be noted nevertheless that it is a major sector of the economy, representing more than $3 billion per year in the Montreal region alone.” The statement recognizes the need to integrate cultural issues into the philosophy of municipal administration, rather than treating them in isolation.

Upon taking power in January 2002, the Citizens Union launched a process for the creation of a cultural policy. To this end, as part of the broader Citizen’s Summit, the party sponsored a cultural workshop in June 2002 that served as an incubator for the cultural policy. The workshop included representatives from various arts disciplines, leaders in cultural industries (such as film, literature, recording and multimedia), as well as heritage preservation groups and business leaders. Key issues and challenges were identified, including the need improve local libraries and neighborhood cultural centers, which could contribute to the broader quality of life and the artistic potential of all citizens.

Following the Summit, the City appointed a committee of local stakeholders, primarily representatives from the traditional arts disciplines. Over a period of twelve months, the committee developed a set of guidelines for the elaboration of the policy, which were released in November 2003. Then, towards the end of 2004, the City released a draft policy.

The draft cultural policy is still being finalized. In its current form, it centers on five primary axes. The first axis is focused on increasing the accessibility of arts and culture by upgrading Montreal ‘s public libraries and by fostering better links between educational institutions and cultural institutions. Secondly, there is a call for enhancement of the city’s “living environment” through the development of cultural poles as well as a public art intervention plan. In the third axis of development, there is recognition of the need for greater direct support for artists, which would be channeled through the Conseil des arts de Montreal, while the City would deal directly with organizers of major festivals and institutions. The fourth axis entails the promotion of Montreal ‘s image and reputation by maintaining its distinct francophone character while remaining open and inclusive to minority communities. Culture here is seen as a potential trademark for the City to exploit. In the final axis, the City attempts to define what its role will be in cultural development. The City sees itself assuming a leadership role, although it explicitly states that it does not have “the ambition or the financial capacity to take the place of [higher levels of] government.” It cites the need to diversify its sources of revenue and rely on a diverse range of public and private stakeholders.

Cultural Policy in the Neoliberal Context

When the draft policy came out for public consultation, Culture Montreal was quick to react. Its reaction encapsulates the challenges and pressures that remain in instituting such a policy. As an independent entity, Culture Montreal provided a critical assessment based on the perspective of artists and arts institutions. On the one hand, it commended the City for acknowledging the centrality of culture to urban development and for addressing all the constituents that ensure cultural vitality (including citizens, established artists, emerging artists, cultural industries and public and private actors). However, Culture Montreal also criticized the policy for lacking substance with respect to implementation and financing. Much of the responsibility for cultural programming presently resides at the level of the local boroughs since they are responsible for the neighborhood cultural centers. This begs the question of how the City can coordinate and oversee policy across the boroughs and foster a common vision of development rather than just downloading responsibility to the borough level, where resources are already stretched.

As for the responsibilities at the city level (such as urban development and heritage), there are few mechanisms to ensure input from existing cultural organizations. Culture Montreal questioned the City’s ability to solicit the involvement of business and higher levels of government, and to generate new sources of revenue. How could such an involvement be assured? On what terms and whose terms? The City has shown little initiative to redistribute its own resources and to set up mechanisms for inducing and more importantly, steering such partnerships. In the absence of these initiatives, the City is viewed as just “handing the job to others.”

These criticisms notwithstanding, Culture Montreal is in full agreement with the City on the need to further engage the private sector, particularly in light of the City’s fiscal burdens and the growing centrality of culture to economic dynamism. The group even suggests that if the City treats culture as a “business asset,” it can ensure business’ participation in all aspects of cultural development. Culture Montreal ‘s adoption of the culture-cum-economic development discourse and its growing rapprochement with the Board of Trade of Metropolitan Montreal illustrates that even it increasingly views support from business as the new “Holy Grail.” And for its part, the Board of Trade appears to have taken the bait. Shortly after Florida ‘s visit, the Board published its own response to the draft policy, citing the need to encourage businesses to adopt cultural patronage as a corporate value and to promote networking between business and cultural groups by having business people sit on the boards of cultural organizations. The question and challenge that remains in this context is how the City and non-profit groups, such as Culture Montreal, can ensure that culture is valued by interests that are not solely, or even predominantly, economic.

Norma M. Rantisi is a member of the PN Steering Committee, co-editor of the PN E-newsletter and assistant professor in the Department of Geography, Planning and Environment, Concordia University (Montreal). M. Jason Blackman is co-editor of the PN E-newsletter and a graduate student in the School of Community and Regional Planning, University of British Columbia.

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