In the universe of cable news and major sports events such as the Olympics, one often has the tendency to equate a nation’s identity with its political leaders and sports celebrities. We know, however, that in the U.S. celebrities can also play a role in how a country is understood in the rest of the world. But with mass communications and globalism, the phenomenon of culture is playing an increasing part in how a people express themselves beyond their borders and how they are perceived. In some, cases, the artists have become greater ambassadors than the diplomats.
A case in point is the sustained effervescence of the cultural community emanating from my home province, Québec, the only French-speaking majority jurisdiction in North America. This year, our cultural affairs ministry is celebrating its 50th anniversary, which is worth noting because, over the years, Québec artists have become more international in scope and in recognition. It begs the questions: Should governments be involved in supporting culture? And to what extent? Has the Québec model been a success?
Clearly, artistic communities primarily depend on their creativity and many talents. In Québec, the duly elected government in 1960 began with a vision that its artists could instill pride and inspire accomplishment if there was support from the people and ultimately, the state.
With the advent of a reform–minded government that eventually led to what historians refer to as the Quiet Revolution (because of its transformational policies in economics, education and social matters), the cultural affairs ministry was created, and later various agencies were established to support the overall aspects of cultural life. This included financial aid to artists and projects, equity investment, fine arts schools, and formal recognition of the status of the artist, thereby providing the artist with some basic fiscal protections. Today, 50 years later, our artists are performing in various art forms and enhancing the province’s reputation at home and abroad. And we are the better for it.
I recall the ‘60s when we were treated to a “pop revolution” with the British invasion, headlined by The Beatles. This spring, New York and other venues in the Northeastern U.S. will be home to an impressive line-up of homegrown talents - a Québec invasion of sorts! - ranging from renowned director Robert Lepage, the Montréal Symphony Orchestra, the acclaimed young conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin to Cirque du Soleil at Radio City Music Hall in June. While the original thrust was directed at the local community to build pride and enhance its national personality and purpose, today Québec can boast international performances in various fields and around the globe.
To be accurate, the product of the last 50 years was primarily supported by the province’s cultural affairs ministry, its agencies and also different cultural institutions established by Canada’s federal government over the years with an increasing level of financial commitment from the private sector. Yes, government investment in culture was important and essential. The growing consensus in Québec is that investing in culture is also smart economically, not just artistically. All told, Quebec artists have become the best ambassadors proving beyond doubt that investing in culture can be a winning proposition.
*John Parisella is a guest blogger to AQ Online. He is Québec's Delegate General in New York, the province's top ranking position in the United States.