‘Arts and culture are indispensable to society’
For the past year, Jennifer Dorner has served on the Board of the Canada Council for the Arts. The director of Concordia’s Faculty of Fine Arts (FOFA) Gallery, Dorner was one of six new members appointed to the Canada Council last spring by Minister of Canadian Heritage Mélanie Joly.
The position is the culmination of Dorner’s many years of arts advocacy.
For more than six decades, the Canada Council has provided grants, awards, promotion and resources for professional artists and arts organizations, fostering the study and enjoyment of arts and culture throughout the country.
Dorner’s commitment to arts advocacy, cultural policy and social justice has spurred various initiatives that connect the arts with broader communities. It is a personal mandate that lends itself well to her position at the Canada Council.
During a recent conversation with Sarah Amarica, exhibition coordinator at the FOFA Gallery, Dorner reflected on her time so far at the Canada Council and the future of Canadian arts and culture.
‘The council has been navigating a major transformation’
Sarah Amarica: Looking back at your first year as a board member of the Canada Council for the Arts, what has your experience been like? How have you enjoyed serving on a board with such reputable leaders of the arts?
Jennifer Dorner: The experience has been extremely rewarding and fulfilling. It’s been an absolute pleasure getting to know the executive management and fellow board members. We all bring in specific skills, background knowledge and experience that I feel have collectively been extremely beneficial to the organization.
This year has been particularly eventful. The Council has been navigating a major transformation under the remarkable leadership of the director and CEO, Simon Brault, with an incredible team at the Council.
SA: How has your background in local arts and independent associations — be it your involvement with artist-run organizations or the Independent Media Arts Alliance and Canadian Arts Coalition — contributed to your role as a board member?
JD: Having been an arts advocate for many years, I have a very good understanding of the cultural sector in the broadest sense. First off, I know the numbers — how many billions of dollars culture contributes to the GDP, how essential art education is for the intellectual development of children, how indispensable arts and culture are to society.
Second, coming from the media arts sector, I have seen rapid growth in terms of how emerging artists are using digital tools and the incredibly innovative works that are being created, and how cultural organizations have embraced technology and are doing outstanding work.
I’ve also learned that artist-run organizations across the country have such an intrinsic role within communities, both in urban centres and in rural parts of the country. My experience at the FOFA Gallery has been a good reminder of how impactful small investments can be.
Before 2016, federal funding was not keeping up with the growth and developments within the cultural sector. Needless to say, I was thrilled when the 2016 federal budget was unveiled, pledging $550 million in funding to the Canada Council over five years.
SA: In this vein of historical reinvestment in the arts, the Council launched their New Chapter program last year, a special one-time competition, funding hundreds of artistic projects across the country. What did this program hope to accomplish, especially considering its launch on the 150th anniversary of Confederation?
JD: This program was a unique opportunity for artists and organizations to be ambitious, dream big and create artworks and initiatives that would otherwise not be possible. It was also an opportunity for the Canada Council to take greater risks with the kinds of works it could support, and in doing so invigorate the arts in communities across the country.
This invitation to the cultural community was met with enthusiasm and tremendous appetite; over 2,000 proposals were submitted, with 201 successful applicants. I’m very proud that the Canada Council has prioritized redefining relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples of Canada.
For many of us, the connection to Canada’s 150th is about setting the stage for how we as a country aspire to develop and flourish in the coming 150 years — reconciliation with Indigenous peoples being of utmost importance.
SA: In the last year, the Council has taken a prominent leadership role by emphasizing inclusivity, equity and diversity, and implementing policy changes that respond to reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.
This past January, the Council even published a strong stance against harassment and sexual misconduct in the cultural sector. What does it mean for a major funding body to make these kinds of policy changes and social commitments, and how do these changes affect artists, writers and organizations?
JD: The Canada Council is well respected and is recognized as being vital to the cultural sector; it has always responded well to shifts and changes in the artistic community and in relation to society as a whole.
We are very lucky to have Simon Brault at the helm. He has a very good understanding of the economic and social contributions of arts and culture, and is an excellent spokesperson, championing arts and culture as a fundamental pillar of society, especially in today’s climate.
Canada Council policy and position statements reflect a discourse that is informed by a diversity of artists and cultural workers in all parts of the country.
Last fall, the Council published a document supporting Indigenous art in the spirit of cultural self-determination and opposing appropriation. This had been a prominent topic in the cultural community for many years, and even the FOFA Gallery contributed to the discussion in 2016 when it hosted a roundtable discussion that examined cultural representation and appropriation in media arts. I feel that the Council’s official statement brought clarity and understanding to a complex question.
More recently the Council issued a strong statement on sexual harassment and sexual misconduct, and is currently reviewing its granting policies to more effectively address situations that involve artists or organizations receiving Canada Council funding.
I’m also encouraged by the younger generation, including the many students who I’ve met at Concordia, who are organizing community discussions and advocating for responsible, respectful, equitable workspaces. This important work is happening at all levels, and the future looks promising.
SA: As you continue with the Canada Council, what does the future look like for Canadian arts?
JD: This is a very interesting and exciting time for the arts in Canada. This historic investment is now making its way into artist studios, collectives and cultural organizations from coast to coast to coast.
We will see incredible, innovative, influential works in all artistic disciplines, in all kinds of spaces. The investment also means that many of these artistic productions will reach international audiences and that Canadian artists will have a more prominent role on the world stage.
Regarding what this means for prospective students in the fine arts: now is a good time to join the arts and cultural community!
Find out more about Concordia’s Faculty of Fine Arts.