Robert Fulford's column about Sheila Copps & the marketing of culture

(The National Post, December 1, 2001)

Those who run the performing arts and publishing companies of Canada have known for decades a little secret about the bureaucrats and politicians in Ottawa: They're suckers for anything to do with marketing. It's what they think they know, and you need only mention the word to make their eyes sparkle. Ottawa people may acknowledge that their grasp of modern dance or video art is shaky, but they believe they truly understand marketing; every department employs MBAs who studied it in business school, which makes them experts.

Those who apply for federal funding know that you raise your chances of success if you get "marketing" into the title of your brief. Add "international" and you're home free. Theatre companies requesting money to pay actors may get nowhere; they should instead ask for twice as much but stipulate that it's for "expanding our subscriber base in the Greater Chicago Area." The cheque arrives by return mail.

To those equipped only with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. So it's only natural for Ottawa to see the crucial problem of Canadian culture as a failure in selling. This partly explains why Sheila Copps, Minister of Canadian Heritage, showed up on Wednesday morning to talk about marketing at an Ottawa conference on trade and culture run by Carleton University and the University of Ottawa.

Ms. Copps plans (as Robert Fife noted in the Post on Tuesday) to run for the Liberal leadership, as she did in 1990, and anything that makes her look busy and effective can only help. She carries into the campaign certain handicaps, not the least of which is the name of the department she's headed since 1996 (except for that embarrassing interregnum when she was forced to resign and re-win her seat because of a rash promise in 1993 to quit if the GST wasn't eliminated). Has any Ottawa phrase-maker ever come up with a more insipid term than "Department of Canadian Heritage"? It evokes plaques being applied to old buildings, rather than the seething, stumbling, vibrant and occasionally outrageous work of living artists. It's more like a hiding place than a name.

Her larger problem is that, for all her famed feistiness and energy, she's never made herself the heroine of the group she most avidly cultivates, the people connected with culture and communications. She has never overcome the Liberal government's failure to fund the CBC in the manner to which the CBC would like to become accustomed (and which the Liberals, before they took office, promised). The arts community, while complex in many ways, has a simple message for anyone holding her job: Show me the money. Do that and they make you queen of the ball. Don't do that and they may decide that you're the Wicked Witch of the West. Ms. Copps has found it hard to provide the money that the arts community believes it needs. That makes her less than perfect in the roles they demand she play: ambassador, lobbyist, cheerleader and chief patron.

Her hope is to make up in passion and shrewd management what she lacks in funds. She came to the conference in Ottawa to make an announcement, bringing along her praetorian guard, a dozen or so suits from the agencies dependent on her, including Peter Herrndorf, head of the National Arts Centre. They sat in the front rows, applauded, and left when she did. They were there to create the impression that something significant was happening.

It wasn't, actually. She revealed that the government in future will do more of what it has done in the past. A program called Trade Routes will spend $23-million over three years on helping cultural exporters. Does this mean (as some of her listeners suspected) a repackaging of funds from other programs for the sake of making fresh-sounding news? Ottawa money pools are so murky that the question will remain forever unanswerable.

While making this non-announcement, Ms. Copps used all the right words. She said she wants to help Canadian culture seek new markets and "advance the branding of Canada as an innovator." Her press release promised to "enhance cultural trade and brand Canada internationally." (Ten years ago nobody in these circles used the word "brand" in that way; today it is illegal not to.)

Her goal, she said, is to make Canada the world's No. 2 exporter "of English language cultural goods and services." (In French she wants us to be No. 1.) After all, we are dealing in (her press release said) "world-class Canadian cultural products and services." While promising that the government will help everyone do better, Ms. Copps insisted that we are already doing well. She sprayed the room with statistics about an 18% improvement in this and a 34% improvement in that, about the Cirque du Soleil and Michael Ondaatje and somebody who exports millions of dollars worth of hand-crafted violins every year.

She wants us to know that artists and entrepreneurs funded by her department have accomplished a great deal; they are "world class," even if (in most cases) the world doesn't know it. Her job is to brag about how good a job Canada and her department are doing even as she promises to improve it. And, in the meantime, do her best to make something old look new again.

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