Changes at Canada’s Major Arts Funder Part 1: New Suits

by Rea McNamara on August 5, 2015 Canada + Newswire

Lassonde Gold Jacket

What can a man in a gold suit tell us about the Canada Council? As of last week, a hell of a lot more than you think. The country’s leading supporter of the arts appointed philanthropist and  mining sector legend Pierre Lassonde as the new Chair of its Board of Directors. Lassonde, a literal golden bro of the Canadian Mining Hall of Fame, replaces Joseph L. Rotman, the principal benefactor of the University of Toronto’s business school who passed away in January. The news comes just two months after the council finally released an outline of its #newfundingmodel, which will launch in 2017 and see the current 147 disciplinary programs streamlined into 6 non-disciplinary programs.

Of the appointment, Canada Council Director and CEO Simon Brault obliquely noted in the press release how it comes at a time when the Council and its Board “are engaged in a process of transformation designed to scale up the impact of our investments to support the creation and sharing of Canadian art and literature at home and abroad.”

But given the critical juncture and Rotman’s looming legacy — he was formerly the chair of the Art Gallery of Ontario, and renewed his initial five year tenure in 2013 for another five — it be helpful if the Council could tell us what Lassonde will do, and why exactly he was hired, beyond being “well-known for his ability to analyze and understand the risks, and, even more so, the opportunities of the business world.”

The Canada Council is governed by the 11-member Board, who reportedly meets at least three times a year to discuss the Council’s policies, programs, budgets and grant decisions. In last year’s annual report, highlights included the Board “review[ing] plans for the modernization of the Council’s systems” and approving major program changes and grants exceeding $100,000. (They also met four times in Ottawa at the Canada Council’s new headquarters, and were collectively paid $126,663 for their efforts.) So it appears the board, which is full of suits, has a say on who gets funding; currently, the Canada Council operates on a budget of over $191 million.

So, who is this man in the golden suit and what are his qualifications? He’s a French-Canadian mining millionaire: past president of not-so-great major miner Newmont Mining, former chairman of the World Gold Council, and current Chairman of Franco-Nevada, a gold-focused royalty company he co-founded thirty years ago. It’s frequently praised for originating in the resource sector the public royalty business model where mining companies maintain control of their properties and investors reap the revenues without being involved with operations. (I know, that’s a lot of business jargon, but he spent $2 million on a deal in the 1980s that has since generated $800 million. He’s a businessman who likes to collect Canadian painters like Jean Paul Riopelle and throw big parties in the South of France.) Philanthropy-wise, his record includes funding the building of academic buildings supporting “new entrepreneurship” and since 2006, he’s been chairman of the board for Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec.

Lassonde’s impact remains to be seen, but he’ll likely be the caretaker on the “Strengthening Connections” 2011-2016 corporate plan, which places emphasis on public engagements with the arts and new technologies. The opacity in the Canada Council’s announcement is remarkably similar to the slow delivery of news regarding its granting system overhaul: further details regarding the plan won’t be released until… November. This won’t affect the current cycle of grants, but it certainly gives professionals plenty of time to get worried about the unknowns of all these changes. Perhaps by then we’ll get a better sense of what Lassonde’s direction will be, especially on the next five-year corporate strategic plan.

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