This public letter by Virgil Hammock was published in the Moncton Times & Transcript. It is published, as written, below:
7 February 2016
I am dismayed and disappointed by the move by the provincial government in its recent budget to reduce funding to artsnb (Arts New Brunswick) by $400,000 over the next two years and to move the jurisdiction from its board’s arm’s length status back to direct government control. This moves the board, then the New Brunswick Arts Board, back to where it started over twenty-five years when it was part of the New Brunswick Arts Branch and under direct government control.
I was a member of the board from 1996 to 2002. During my time we spent three years full years, 1996-99, working to make the board an arm’s length professional organization. It was a long and costly process. We were successful when the original act was amended in 1999 to extend autonomy to the board that became effective in 2000. The board should have never been directly controlled by the government in the first place. Arts awards should be made on the basis of artistic excellence via a peer jury and not political patronage. Arts boards both federal and provincial are traditionally arm’s length. The best example is the Canada Council for the Arts. I know, both from my time on the board and before as an arts professional, that the board was not effective when it was a part of the New Brunswick Art Branch and was subject to political manipulation.
It is fine for the current government to say that arts funding will stay a current levels and they will find a more ‘effective’ way of administering grants which will include peer juries. Nonsense, at best, and it is easy to predict that funding will drop in subsequent years. Cuts to the arts are easy and popular. Arts are, to much of the public, a luxury and elitist. Arts are not high on the list of sacred cows for politicians. I won’t go on why arts and culture are an important part of the province’s economy. That’s a whole other letter and their importance is a proven fact.
When I was first on the board we shared a very competent employee with the Art Branch, an experience which proved to be surreal. We would direct her to write a letter to the minister and she, who was the arts advisor to him, would write a reply on his behalf. Such a scenario invites too much conflict of interest and risks unethical professional conduct. We would certainly also hear from politicians about grants that juries made and they didn’t approve of. Moreover, we were certainly made aware of who they thought should get awards. Fortunately, the board, for the most part, politely ignored them. Needless to say it was not a healthy situation.
The reasons for a professional and arm length arts board are many. In the long run it is more efficient and less costly. It has the respect of the arts community and that of other arts funding organizations nationally. When we were part of the government we had a difficult time getting the ear of the Canada Council who did not see us as a professional organization. It was this reasoning that led us on the board to move, with the government of the day’s approval, to amend the act and make the New Brunswick Arts Board, now artsnb, what it is today.
The sorry part is that history often repeats itself. You can be sure that in the not too distant future that an arm’s length professional arts board will have to be reinvented again and it will likely take again three costly years to do so. I am not happy that the hard work that I and my talented colleagues put into making an arts board that all of New Brunswick can be proud of being so easily overturned by the stroke of a pen. It’s not about saving money, because it won’t, but appearing to save money. A shortsighted move by any standard.
Professor emeritus of fine arts,
Mount Allison University.