Plant Wave (cropped) by Nicole Beno
Is This an Ecosystem or a Zoo?

By David Maggs, Metcalf Fellow on Arts and Society

Us culture types love referring to ourselves with earthy-sounding metaphors — the cultural ecology, the choral ecosystem, the theatre ecosystem, etc. But what are we describing when we say that? Do we think our sector and sub-sectors are systems with high interdependence, rich trophic flows, and strong regenerative capacity? Or are we describing collections of similar entities facing similar problems? For the next few posts, I want to explore this instinct to see our sector as an ecosystem — a view that asks us to shift our focus from the parts, to the relationships between those parts. That is, an attempt to see the workings of a forest, rather than the collection of trees standing in close proximity to one another. I will pursue this both here on my own and in conversation with special guests over the coming months.

One way to consider how much of an ecosystem the cultural nonprofit sector is, is to consider our apex species. Apex species are the species in an ecosystem that have no predators. They do not face the standard risks to survival. In natural systems they indicate overall system health. If you have an apex species, you have a strong, healthy system — you see the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, the Canadian Opera Company, Tafelmusik and say, “Wow! Classical music must be thriving in Toronto if it can support all these big creatures.” But, of course, there is another way to support apex species, and that is in a zoo. Here the presence of apex species tells us less about the nature of the system itself, and more about how established forms of care and feeding distribute the fresh hay. So, which are we? An ecosystem or a zoo? And why does this matter?

The reason this matters is not because we love to pick on those big institutions. It matters because ecological systems can do things that zoos cannot. An ecological system can innovate in ways unavailable to a zoo — it can foster dynamics of regeneration and emergence, produce synergies, and cultivate greater resilience. Systems like this are “autopoietic,” meaning they have the ability to regenerate, but to do so, they must be deeply integrated and highly responsive to their surroundings. By contrast, with enough zookeepers, air conditioning, flown-in food, and antibiotics, zoos can keep polar bears in San Diego. Cut out those external inputs, however, and collapse is not far off.

But let’s not get too lost in metaphor here. Our interest is not in whether our cultural systems are actually ecosystems or actually zoos. Our interest is in the values we all have in mind when we evoke such ecological terminology — relationships, integration, regenerative capacity, and resilience — and how we can nurture more of them. I appreciate our fondness for ecological language as it shows that these values matter to us, even if we don’t know exactly what they look like in practice in cultural contexts. With this in mind, there are three themes I want to explore: 1) optimizing funding strategies (my focus in this post); 2) turning apex species into keystone species; and 3) embracing obsolescence.

In Canada, the term “two-tiered system” evokes the evils of free market dynamics, competition, and the abandoning of care by government — so long as you are talking about healthcare. If you are talking about cultural policy, it means the opposite, as the two-tiered system of “operating vs. project” funding is created and maintained by government policy. Operating funding — as the name suggests — indicates funding that supports the overall operations. It is stable, flexible, and once an organization is “in,” highly assured from one year to the next. By contrast, project funding is one-off funding an organization can receive for specific expenses associated with a specific project. It does little to help the organization survive and grow, and organizations compete for it, year after year, with little assurance of success.

The distinction can feel like the difference between domesticated and wild animals: those who sit back and have their meals delivered annually, and those who go out and hunt for food at the risk of starvation. Balk at this characterization if you wish, but ask operating clients if they would like to switch to project funding: all will say no. Ask project clients if they would like to switch to operating funding: all will jump at the chance. The inequity here is undeniable. Everyone wants to be on one side of this differentiated system, and to escape the other. (Full disclosure, I am involved in Camber Arts, which receives provincial operating and federal project funding, allowing me to simultaneously experience the luxury and precarity of this system).

Given that equity in its various forms is such a big topic in the cultural sector nowadays, it surprises me how little attention is paid to this issue. Clearly, it’s hard to defend this system as fair, but is it good? Does it promote overall systemic health? Or does it support institutions working more or less towards their own isolated stability? Does it cultivate priorities of innovation, relevance, and diversity? Or does it stall and even disincentivize systemic change? Is it a considered, strategic form of intervention? Or is it an inherited, hodge-podge legacy, held in place by the lobbying capacity of those on the sunny side of the divide?

Forgive me for sounding rhetorical, as these questions do deserve genuine asking in open and expansive settings. In discussions I have had with arts leaders about this issue, it’s typically raised as “should we get rid of operating funding?,” which then gets heard by everybody in the room as “should we get rid of the good part and lump everyone in the lousy part?” Such discussion rarely gets very far.

I think we all know this needs to be a question of a third space, one that may not exist yet, but is hinted at by the more durational forms of project funding some councils are exploring. Given that the Canada Council for the Arts maintains a 50/50 split of operating to project funding, just imagine a scenario of doubling the pot of project funding, allowing it to support more applicants, nurture projects and programming that are highly responsive to present conditions, serve more stabilizing, operational needs for a wider number of organizations (prioritizing sectoral resilience over institutional resilience), and offer more multi-year project funding while avoiding the lock-in and class divisions inherent in traditional forms of sustaining or operating funding.

In trying to provoke a discussion, I don’t want to assume the answer is obvious. I admit, however, I am not convinced that the two-tiered system is best for the sector at this time of extraordinary flux, where responsiveness, innovation, emergence, and regeneration are arguably greater priorities than the stability of the lucky few. Furthermore, in the discussions I’ve had about two-tiered funding, I don’t hear much principled defense of it, rather, we seem to assume it exists because changing it would produce levels of resentment and political fallout no decision-maker wants to face. Is this the case? Are funders responding to the potential wrath of the few rather than the rising needs of the many? Or are they wisely maintaining Canada’s cultural bastions during a time of unprecedented instability?


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