Linda Williams
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The Art of the Matter

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Three magazines have to cover the arts the federal government's way-or else

AROUND APRIL FOOLS’ Day, 1993, Scott Milsom, editor and lone employee-of New Maritimes, sliced open an envelope bearing the Canada Council logo. It was a letter Milsom had anxiously awaited each spring since 1988, when his Halifax-based magazine had received its first small grant-$10,000-after six years of trying.

Across town, another April Fools’ Day missive landed on Jim Lorimer’s desk. Lorimer, the fiercely nationalist head of book publishing companies Formac and James Lorimer, is also the publisher of The Canadian Forum, a position he’s held since rescuing the magazine from financial and administrative troubles in 1988. The Forum, the country’s longest-surviving cultural and political alternative magazine, has received modest funding from the council since 1961. The same week, in the cramped Toronto alleyway office of This Magazine, then managing editor Moira Farr scanned a letter similar to the ones Milsom and Lorimer received. She was keen to see how much money the Canada Council had allocated to This, funded for the past 20 years, especially with the kind of slash-and-burn cuts that had been rumoured ever since the council had announced an eight-per-cent budget cut just weeks earlier.

Given this atmosphere of belt- tightening, it shouldn’t have been a surprise that grants had dropped from previous years: from $40,000 to $30,000 in the case of the Forum, from $30,000 to $25,000 for This, and from $20,000 to $15,000 for New Maritimes.

What did read like an April Fools’ joke, however, especially in light of the letters’ praise for “liveliness,” “good writing,” and “quality,” was the paragraph informing the editors their funding would be cut off entirely “unless a major shift is noted in the magazine’s editorial content regarding the representation and the coverage of the arts.” The letter to This read in part “…proper representation of the artistic disciplines remains problematic and interspersed and in the final analysis it does not reflect the true identity of the magazine.”

The syntax may have been scrambled but the message was clear: the jury that doles out the grants had decided the three titles weren’t “artistic” enough and unless their content changed substantially their funding was going to cease in the case of New Maritimes, as early as the following year.

When news of the threatened disqualifications broke, the writing community suspected more was involved than what Farr termed “mindlessness..” While each publication has its distinctive elements, all three have regular-and often critical-coverage of social and political issues, generally from a left-of-centre perspective. Was the council’s real agenda to weed out left-wing periodicals and stifle voices of dissent? Milsom wouldn’t put it past them: “It is very interesting that the magazines that have been selected are all left-wing political magazines.” He pauses, and grins. “And left-wing cultural magazines too.”

Author and media critic Rick Salutin, a This board member for 20 years, posited another theory in his September column. “The threat is being justified almost entirely as costcutting, and I’m afraid I’m inclined to believe it. The truth is, deficit hysteria and budget-cutting have become forces in their own right that don’t require explicit ideological directives. But when Bob Rae and Floyd Laughren make Brian Mulroney and Michael Wilson look like Keynesians, it’s not surprising if arts bureaucrats get obsessive too. They look for somewhere to cut, desperately: if we don’t, we’ll all die. And here’s an easy method–ditch whatever isn’t purely about arts.”

Huguette Turcotte, the Canada Council program officer who has headed the magazine grants program for four years, offers up a possible third explanation. “It’s not an easy exercise,” she says. “We have to do some things we don’t like. We have to cut some grants to make room for others.”

If that is indeed what was going on at the council, it is a highly unusual move. Generally, once a magazine is admitted to the program, as long as it continues to be published regularly and doesn’t seriously alter its editorial direction or drop dramatically in quality, it stays there until it dies. In the past five years, no other English-language periodical has been disqualified on the basis of no longer fitting the council’s mandate. So what was really going on at the Canada Council? Carol Martin, currently a member of the Forum’s board, spent eight years as a Canada Council program officer during the eighties. She dismisses the idea of political motives behind the scenes, even subconscious ones. But she is nonetheless alarmed at what came out of the jury meeting, and guesses that the jury, faced with diminishing funds and more hungry mouths to feed, chose a standard route. “One of the typical ways to get around it is to narrow down to a more ‘arts’ definition. I know from having worked there that it’s a very tempting thing to do.”

The statistics bear Martin out. While the program’s budget was over $2 million in the late eighties, by 1993 it had fallen to $1,952,000-$11,000 less than it had been seven years before. Meanwhile, in the visual arts and interdisciplinary category, into which the three threatened periodicals fall, 17 magazines applied for new funding in 1990, 10 in 1991, and last year saw another six at the door. The only successful new applicant in 1993 was the Vancouver-based Rungh, a journal of South Asian culture and commentary.

What bothers Martin is the ad hoc nature of the council’s decision. “It’s not usual to change guidelines at jury meetings or to change direction like that. It would usually go to a broader meeting.” The guidelines Martin refers to include the sentence: “The arts or literature in Canada must be an important and regular, not occasional or peripheral, editorial focus of the periodical.”

But discussions with two jury members who contributed to the not enough-art decision suggest they felt the outcome was reasonable. Terry Sellwood, a publishing consultant with Indas, a Toronto publishing fulfillment house, puts it simply. “The three magazines did not have high artistic content,” he says. Like Turcotte, he brings up the question of accommodating new applicants in a program crowded with the old guard. “A magazine that’s been around as long as they have-I don’t want to say it’s time to give someone else a chance” He trails off, then asks, “Unless the older magazines die, how is the money freed up?” But a comment Sellwood makes at the end of the conversation indicates he may have some qualms. “People’s lives are at stake here. It’s not a fun job.”

Another juror, Lesley Johnstone, who comes from an art history background, also raises the idea of shutting down existing support systems so that other magazines may live. “A new magazine would come in we wanted to support and there’d be $2,000. There was just no money to do it.” And Johnstone says the question of arts coverage is an old one. “Over the last few years we’d been asking the magazine’s editors to address cultural content. The idea was that the Canada Council was there to fund cultural magazines. Those that weren’t fitting in 100 per cent we had to look at.” Catherine Keachie, executive director of the 300-member Canadian Magazine Publishers Association, puts the blame on the council’s too-narrow definition of culture. “If a magazine is about social justice, politics, or health care it’s apparently not culture in the view of the Canada Council. Somebody should have said ‘Stop,'” Keachie says, shaking her head in response to seemingly arbitrary definitions. “And nobody has.” 1nNovember, the CMPA sent an open letter to then chairman Allan Gotlieb and the council members, making an articulate and thoughtful case about the discrimination against magazines. “Books, visual and performing arts are inherently artistic expressions regardless of their subjects; magazines are artistic expressions only if their subjects are books, visual or performing arts,” the letter read.

It went on to illustrate how certain issues covered in the magazines would receive funding in other forms. “An article in New Maritimes on the environmental impact of a Nova Scotia pulp and paper mill contributes to the magazine’s disqualification for funding. Explore the same subject in a film and it would be eligible for council funding.” (In his interview, Terry Sellwood invoked the flip side of this argument. Asked whether the book reviews and excerpts the magazines regularly carry qualify as art, he responded: “There’s a question of the definition of art-if it’s a review of a political book is it art?”) Writer Alberto Manguel made mush of the council’s position in a July column in the Globe. “To demand that, in order to receive a subsidy for which we, the public, pay taxes, a magazine comply with some abstract definition of art, is not only a prerequisite of distressing stupidity but also sets a dangerous precedent,” he wrote. “It implies that true artists should wash their hands of the messy aspects of society, refrain from the more adult business of politics and wander off to their garrets to compose ditties and paint pretty pictures which will not offend society’s decent taste.”

So if the guidelines haven’t changed, and the magazines haven’t changed, why does the hand no longer fit the glove it has been wearing for years? “It’s an extraordinarily obtuse reading of the guidelines,” says Lorimer, “to be able to read them and say, Okay, the Canada Council will only support periodicals that review books, and magazines about opera and dance.”

Staffers at the magazines feel their books contain plenty of arts and culture coverage already. The Forum, for example, which publishes 10 issues a year, last year doubled its book review section from four to eight pages, and regularly runs poetry, fiction, and film commentary. It also frequently features pieces like Tony Hall’s scorching commentary about Momingside, which appeared in December ’93, and the eight-page article portraying big business, the government, and the media as bedfellows that ran in the January/February ’94 issue-the same issue that carried Mark Abley’s indepth interview with author and broadcaster Michael Ignatieff.

Farr also stands up for her magazine’s cultural content. “We cover the arts. Maybe jury members simply didn’t read it this year and just thought it was some dreary thing banging on about politics.” Published eight times annually, This runs short stories and fiction, along with a regular feature called “Art & Soul.” Recent topics included a detailed look at electronic-mail art, a profile of a Toronto theatre troupe that gets young people off the streets, and the valedictory address of a literary magazine publisher who had recently folded his title partly because of funding problems.

Of course, both the Forum and This also frequently feature stories like Lorraine Johnson’s lament that environmental issues didn’t make the agenda during the federal election, which ran in the January/February issue of This or Joyce Nelson’s 4,000-word piece on the threat of the Trilateral Commission, which appeared in the December Forum. But they also carry material that falls into the literary nonfiction category. Assessing the two magazines’ importance, Globe magazine critic Morris Wolfe says, “This and The Canadian Forum, our two liveliest left-wing magazines, not only publish fiction and poetry but reviews and criticism. Their discussion of cultural politics frequently enlivens public debate on those issues,” he says. Wolfe, for example, believes Daryl Duke’s piece “Programmed to Fail,” on the decline of the CBC, which ran in the Forum in March ’93, and the responses and rejoinders that ensued, hastened Gerard Veilleux’s resignation. “The contribution of these magazines to our cultural life is, I believe, incalculable, especially when newspaper coverage of the arts is in serious decline.”

New Maritime.” the only alternative magazine on the east coast, has the lowest profile of all three-Wolfe doesn’t know it well enough to comment. Unlike the Forum and This, which have paid circulations of 6,000 and 8,000 respectively, New Maritimes reaches roughly 2,000 readers with each of its six issues a year. The magazine has a homemade feel-two-colour covers, pulpy recycled stock, and grainy photographs-that reflects its modest $63,000 annual operating budget; while the Forum and This would be hurt by an elimination of council funding, New Maritimes might well be killed. Each issue has a book review section, and fiction and poetry are regular elements. Feature pieces include ones like the unfavourable piece on folk-song collector Helen Creighton that ran in September ’93. It sparked a February Globe column by Bronwyn Drainie that was hotly discussed in letters to the editor. The magazine was one of the first periodicals to publicize the Donald Marshall Jr. case, and regularly takes on issues like the “development is employment” philosophy behind the building and subsequent closing of the toxic phosphorus plant in Long Harbour, Newfoundland. But to get a real feel for the magazine, ask its Nova Scotian editor to describe it. “Our idea of what constitutes culture is all wrapped up in politics and social life, social history, particularly in the Maritimes,” says Milsom. “Everyone is rolled up in the same flour bag and everyone is coated in the same batter.” Rene Bonenfant, head of the council’s writing and publishing section, echoes this philosophy, if somewhat more blandly. “It’s not easy to draw the line between culture, arts, and what life is about,” says Bonenfant. Still, the drawing of that line is precisely what the council has now pledged it will reevaluate. Slated to begin sometime this month, the review is supposed to revamp the periodicals program in consultation with the magazine community. Interestingly, Bonenfant feels differently about the books side of his program. “There isn’t a problem with the book industry,” he insists. Periodicals would tell you the only problem is that books get 84 per cent of the entire pot. Of the $12 million allotted in 1992/93 to the writing and publishing program from the $11 O-million council budget, $10 million went to books and $2 million to magazines. The three threatened magazines fell into a category in which $520,000 was allocated for 21 magazines. With a few of those book dollars, the three magazines could bid their funding troubles goodbye.

Jim Lorimer is sure the review, when it happens, will bring the council to its senses. “I’m very confident that when the Canada Council looks straight at the issue and says The Canadian Forum is not a cultural magazine, there will be lots of people to disagree,” he says. “The Forum is the defining magazine of the Canadian culture-if it doesn’t fit with their program there’s something wrong with the Canada Council, not The Canadian Forum.” Moira Farr, who has since moved on to Equinox magazine, was equally resolute about her title’s claim to being “cultural”; “We’re a magazine that deals with Canadian culture and social issues. That includes the arts,” she says with finality.

Meanwhile, Bonenfant promised that when the three magazines’ applications went through this January’s jury process, their eligibility would be judged under the same mandate-without any arbitrary changes to the rules. Milsom, Lorimer, and Farr’s successor, Naomi Klein, were expecting word around April Fools’ Day.

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