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This article was published 6/9/2019 (216 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
A program that has exposed thousands of Manitoba students to the arts for nearly half a century is "destined for collapse," says an author who has been involved for more than 30 years.
But Margaret Shaw-MacKinnon doesn’t plan to let that happen.
"I’m planning to change the program," she says defiantly.
Shaw-MacKinnon is among many veteran artists who were caught off guard by sweeping changes made by the Manitoba Arts Council over the past 10 months. Last December, the council unveiled the new "arts-in-education" program, dubbed Artists in Schools, which folded together and replaced the former Artists in the Schools and ArtsSmart programs. The latter supported long-term collaborations between teachers and artists to integrate the arts into regular curriculum.
The program began in the mid-1970s with the goal of getting students excited about the arts through in-school residencies and workshops led by professional artists. Although the mandate remains the same, there’s a new format and exhaustive application process.
Artists, rather than schools, are now responsible for finding a teacher to work with and submitting an application for each workshop or short- or long-term project they want to pursue.
Once all of the necessary pieces are gathered — including input from teachers — applications are sent to a peer assessment jury, where artistic merit carries the most weight.
Previously, school staff could look through the council’s directory of pre-vetted artists, select a person or organization to work with and apply for funding.
The results of the first round of applications under the new system were announced late last month. Shaw-MacKinnon was denied funding for both of the projects she submitted.
"An artist and a teacher can work for three weeks devising an excellent program for the school and then the jury can say no," she says. "We were both so excited about this and normally, that would 100-per-cent get passed."
Shaw-MacKinnon says she’s concerned the added work and uncertainty will deter teachers from working with artists and affect the success of the program in the future.
"They are not going to waste their time after they have had a couple of failed applications," she says.
Even artists who have been approved for funding aren’t pleased with the process.
"It took me probably 40 hours to fill out a grant and I filled out four grants, so basically I didn’t leave my house for three weeks. The amount of work required is just exponentially higher and it doesn’t feel sustainable for me to keep working in schools if I have to do that much unpaid work."
"It took me probably 40 hours to fill out a grant and I filled out four grants, so basically I didn’t leave my house for three weeks," says a Winnipeg multimedia artist who asked not to be named for fear of jeopardizing the funding they received.
"The amount of work required is just exponentially higher and it doesn’t feel sustainable for me to keep working in schools if I have to do that much unpaid work."
A group of disaffected artists who’ve long been associated with the initiative have laid out several issues in a petition they plan to present to the arts council. A rough draft sent to the Free Press, includes concerns about the $1,500 cap on travel expenses for northern and remote communities, the elimination of the artists directory and removing the requirement for schools to provide partial funding to artists.
Beyond issues with the fine print, there is frustration with the way the changes were rolled out; specifically what is perceived to be a lack of communication and transparency.
"They moved forward without consulting with us, we the artists, who have been in classrooms, in the hallways, in the staff rooms, who have seen first-hand what does or doesn’t work," says Randy Guest.
"Administrators, some of whom have never been in any schools, tell us what would or would not work… which to me is outrageous, frankly."
Guest and his wife Leigh-Anne Kehler have worked with the program for 19 and 20 years, respectively. Aside from an email from the arts council in early 2018 inviting them to an information session that never materialized, the couple say they had no idea what was coming down the pipe.
"Change happens, it has to happen, but to not go to where the wisdom is kept and just assume that you know everything on your own, it doesn’t work," Kehler says. "If we have a Manitoba Arts Council, for goodness sakes, that should be an organization that opens conversations with artists, not closes them."
The decision to leave veteran artists out of the planning process appears to have been intentional, according to two longtime participants.
Hiroshi Koshiyama and Naomi Guilbert are members of the Japanese drum group Fubuki Daiko, and have been working with the program since 1997.
On Oct. 11, 2017, Koshiyama and Guilbert say they met with a council staff member and the organization’s then-chief executive officer, Akoulina Connell, to clarify rumours they had heard about forthcoming changes to the program.
During the meeting Guilbert says the staff member told them that, "It was intentional that they did not include senior artists on the advisory panel because they did not want to include anyone who was resistant to change."
"It was a shocking thing to hear and it seemed so counterintuitive," Guilbert adds. "They assured us that they had our best interests and the kids’ best interests in mind and that they would take care of everything and we would not be adversely affected.
"If we had known the details of the changes in the program, yes we would have actually resisted them, because in our opinion they don’t maximize the experience of anybody."
Previously, Fubuki Daiko ran drumming workshops at 12 to 15 schools every year. This year, the group received funding for only six.
Manitoba Arts Council executive director Randy Joynt — who took on the role in August 2019 — provided a written statement to the Free Press, but declined to comment further.
"The long-standing Artists in the Schools program has been updated to reflect an evolving Manitoba and continues to provide Manitoban students with meaningful opportunities to engage with artists. Projects are selected for funding through a rigorous and competitive peer assessment process to ensure equity for applicants and quality artistic experiences for students. We recognize that updates to programs can be challenging and the Manitoba Arts Council welcomes feedback to inform our processes," the statement read, in part.
The changes are part of an organization-wide restructuring over the last few years. The main goals of the revamp, which are outlined in the agency’s 2017-22 strategic plan, are to streamline its programs, reduce administrative overhead and create a more accessible granting process.
To meet those goals, the organization has implemented an online application process and has reduced the number of individual grant programs from 54 to 15.
The arts council is an apolitical arms-length provincial agency. Policies and decisions are made by a 15-member board appointed by theLieutenant-Governor-in-Council and the organization receives an annual operating grant from Manitoba Sport, Culture and Heritage; in 2017-18, that was roughly $9.7 million.
That same fiscal year, the council awarded $410,901 in grants to the Artists in the Schools program, which saw 33,000 students and 90 artists participate in 220 residencies and projects in schools across the province. The amount granted during the new 2019-20 application process was not made available to the Free Press.
In the midst of growing tensions between artists and the agency, storyteller Jamie Oliviero is concerned a key part of the arts education program is getting overlooked.
"I know the worthiness of this program, I know what happens when you go into a school and you work with the kids… and you see what they take from it," Oliviero says. "I think that aspect may be getting lost in the shuffle here."
Eva Wasney reports on arts, culture and life for the Winnipeg Free Press.
Updated on Monday, September 9, 2019 at 9:49 AM CDT: Corrects that Randy Joynt took on the executive director position at the Manitoba Arts Council in August