Revolutionizing public arts funding

Simon Brault

Simon Brault is the Director and CEO of the Canada Council for the Arts. He has been active in the cultural sector for over 30 years. He was previously the Director General of the National Theatre School of Canada.

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Welcome to Countless Rebellions, the podcast series that explores the limits and potential of social innovation with academics, practitioners, and activists from across Canada. This series is produced in Montreal, on the traditional and unceded territory of the Kanien’keha:ka or Mohawk peoples, a place which has long served as a site of meeting and exchange amongst nations. In this episode, I speak with Simon Brault. Simon is the Director and CEO of the Canada Council for the Arts. While Simon is technically an arts administrator, as someone with the childhood aim of becoming a social justice lawyer, his work extends to arts advocacy and seeks to directly change people’s lives. In our conversation, we explore the intersection of art and social innovation and Simon’s unique pursuit of social change.  Simon moved from Montreal to Ottawa to take on an evolving role as CEO of the Canada Council for the Arts where he is rethinking how arts funding can exist in a time of shifting priorities and exploring how arts can fit into a larger project of social change.

Brault: I decided to come here from a city that I really loved, Montreal – from a job that I loved.  And the only reason why I decided to come here was because I thought it was possible to change the way public arts funding is made. I thought that it was about time to reinvent and give a new legitimacy to arts funding. I was observing what was happening all over the world — I was observing that public support for the arts was declining. I was observing that in many countries, it was threatened by governments. And it was not declining and being threatened only because of lack of money, but also because of a lack of reinvention from those bodies who were still operating with assumptions that are 60 years old. Arts funding institutions became prisoners of the entitlement of the clients, and they were not paying attention enough to ordinary citizens and to their impact on the whole society. They were more responsible to serve specific clients —  a very tiny, tiny majority of the population, but without taking into consideration what would be the social benefit of what they do. And so this is what I wanted to change.

Simon works at the intersection of art and social benefit and increasingly works with social innovators. So, what distinguishes art from social innovation?

Brault: I think what distinguishes social innovation and art is the desire, the end-state. When you are doing art, most of the time, you don’t have an idea of what is the expected or desired end-state. You enter into a creative process, you’re looking to express something important for you as an artist. And you work, you work, you work. Finally you find something, and that something  —  if it is authentically well done, if it’s different from what was done before, if it challenges emotions or thoughts of the people surrounding you  —  that piece is art. Social innovation, I think, when you try to do social innovation, the desired end-state or a desired end-state — something you would like to see happening – is like the engine that drives your work with others to innovate. It’s a different way of working, but there are many things that are similar because, again, you need to be fearless, you need to be systematic, you need to be persistent, as a social innovator or as an artist. You need to be authentic, you need to be true, you need to stick to your values — not compromise. So, there are many, many things that are common, but I think it’s two different processes, and again, the desired or the end-state is more of a driver in social innovation than it is in art.

Art by definition is all about uniqueness. But I think social innovation is both a process and a result.

But I think that a lot of people are social innovators without knowing that they are social innovators. It’s because they just found ways to address issues or problems that are new, that are unexpected and for which there was no recipe book. When I was in Argentina recently, I went to neighbours — very, very challenged neighbours of Buenos Aires. And I’ve met people there, leaders, who really created fantastic innovations — these were social innovators. (I don’t think they would call themselves social innovators.) You know, one of them told me, when the crisis hit years ago in Argentina, it was complete chaos. And he said, “We were here, we had nothing to do, nothing to lose, we were completely abandoned by everybody, and we just kind of decided, OK, where do we start to do something”? They started with this idea that the only way to reconquer dignity was to find ways to create jobs. So they started to build a bakery. And after they realized that, OK, it’s not enough to give people jobs. So they created their own school. All that without any support from the state, all that from bottom-up, and today, they do have the best, the most well-equipped school in that neighborhood, they have this huge bakery, they commissioned artists — textile artists — to do uniforms for kids to go to school, and they sell that. They do a lot of things that are absolutely innovative in that context but when I asked them, “From where did you take all those ideas?” they said, “We had no ideas – we just were absolutely desperate to do something, and we built it.”

So, I think, you meet social innovators who are ignorant of any theory of social innovation and they are really important. And the same thing for the work of artists. I’ve met great, great print makers in Nunavut, and one of the most famous ones — she’s probably now 90 — she has been celebrated and decorated at the highest level in Canada, and I asked her, so why did you decide to become an artist? She told me, “Because I saw someone when I was a young girl who did a carving and sold it. And I decided, OK, maybe I can do something beautiful enough to sell it and provide food for my children?” So, her incentive to become a great visual artist has nothing to do with visual arts training or anything like that, but she’s nevertheless a great artist.

What are the differences and similarities between arts and social innovation? And what can social innovation learn from the arts?

Brault: Social innovation is different because, yes, in social innovation, one of the biggest questions constantly is what is the scale of that innovation? It’s true that some people can work sometimes their entire life on something that is something really, really small, but they want to change that. And they are an innovator. The big question is: is it possible to scale up what they did? I think that social innovation, to be significant, needs to be reproduced, needs to be scaled up — needs to be transferable to other situations. Which is not the definition of art, for instance. Art by definition is all about uniqueness. But I think social innovation is both a process and a result. And I think that both the process and the result of social innovation, ideally, should be transferred or should be scaled up, should be put eventually at another scale to have an impact on the state of all our society. I think social innovation can learn from art the idea that everything is possible. The idea of — not the idea but the practice  —  of being bold when you create something, and the sense of not being afraid of unpredictable results.  I think that social innovation, in fact, can borrow from the arts and from artists — from some of their processes and some of the knowledge that the artists have. And I was mentioning that example that I saw in Argentina where a kind of prominent leader — a social innovator — decided to partner with artists because the artists were bringing something — some kind of a beauty, some kind of an aesthetic — that would be more powerful to communicate what they wanted to communicate. Because what they were trying to do there was to create jobs, they were trying to build things that are useful for people — so clothes and bread and all of that. But they also wanted to be able to do that in a way that is beautiful and that brings something spiritually — [something] that objects without any artistic edge or intervention would not bring. So, I think art can bring that.

I think where we need the most social innovation right now is around the question of inclusion. Diversity, yes, but inclusion.

Why are beauty and spirituality so important in the pursuit of social innovation? Why is that?

Brault: I don’t think you can do any social innovation if you don’t tap into what are the most positive and the most powerful values that human beings are carrying. So, how do you find that? How do you allow those qualities or those resources that every human being has? One way of doing it is through art. It’s through culture. And we know that. We know that even how we treat autism — I mean, we know that if you want to go and really find in any living human being the most profound motivations, you can usually access those motivations through their artistic expressions, or through their way of engaging with something that is outside of them but that is beautiful. With social innovation — yes, there is something related to reason — to be rational and all of that — but there’s something much more profound than that. That’s this idea of emotion. I think that all these kinds of capacities that human beings have are stimulated, enlightened — they are nurtured by art or by the appetite of expressing something that has some artistic value.

One of the things you mentioned – that social innovation is like a professional thing, and there are methodologies —

Brault: Yeah, sure

—and there are best practices and all that stuff, but I think more than a methodology or kind of a profession, it’s a movement of like-minded individuals.  

Brault:  —impulse

What would you say the task of that movement should be?

Brault: I think where we need the most social innovation right now is around the question of inclusion. Diversity, yes, but inclusion. Because I think that we live in a society that is generating more and more and more exclusions. This new era of capitalism is really built on, not only exploiting people, but excluding people. And, for whatever reason, every pretext now is good to exclude people from having a say on the future of our society. It’s money, it’s handicap, it’s difference, it’s colour… So if social innovators could find ways to promote and actually organize and really enhance inclusion of the excluded, I think it would be a huge task and it would be a fantastic achievement.

Thank you for listening. My name is Scott Baker, this is the Countless Rebellions Podcast brought to you by the McConnell Foundation. To hear more, be sure to check out the other episodes. And if you heard something interesting, share it with someone whom you think might like it. Countless Rebellions is produced by Adjacent Possibilities in collaboration with Brothers DePaul. To learn more about the McConnell Foundation and the work of their grantees, visit