Bring Out Your Dead! (Better yet, bring out your artists)

(Opinion piece by Kelley Jo Burke, SAA president, but trust me…this is just from me…..)

I have a friend who’s one of the true Eeyores of the world…gloomy by nature, and proud of it. So when the new year began with the dollar plunging along with the price of oil, the environment passing any number of points of no return, the reverberations of Paris still sending paranoiac shivers out in all directions, even as more and more Syrian families washed up as flotsam with every turn of the Mediterranean tide, well … he just couldn’t have been happier.

“The end is nigh,” he rumbled. Corroboration of the apocalypse is the prize in the Cracker Jack box to him.

“You know what happens next?” he said, “They take back all the money they said they were finally giving back to the arts…and the CBC…and the museums….and the universities.”

“But that would be stupid,” I said, “Everyone agrees. We need to diversify our economy if we’re getting through this. Expand R n’ D.  Bring in new kinds of companies that need divergent, creative thinkers, who want to live in arts and education rich communities.” (I’ve taken to talking like that since I got the gig on the SAA board—forgive me.)

Now he was grinning like a particularly manic Cheshire Cat—I was just making his day.

“Yah but that doesn’t have anything to do with anything. The gods are angry. They’ve dried the oil revenue well, and made the stock market crops wither in the fields …something has to be sacrificed to appease their wrath. That would be you.”


“Yup. You. Artists. Soft academics. INTEE-lectuals….you’re the lambs. The lambs we can spare. Off you hop to the slaughter.”

“I’m not going anywhere. There is nothing that cutting the arts can do to make the mega-money people playing silly buggers with the global economy behave better.”  I wasn’t at all happy about the way he was looking at my neck.

“Of course not. Your blood will be a paltry drop in the bucket. But it will make everyone feel better.”

“Not me.”

“Well, clearly not you. But there aren’t that many of you….so it will make most people feel better. And— if we cut you off, we won’t have to turn the babies out of their cradles in the hospital.”

“Are you kidding me? The arts budget is the equivalent of a rounding error in the average health budget!”

“You’re so selfish. Think of the children.”

“I am. I’m thinking of mine—the two in graduate school in particular. Dead lambs can’t pay tuition.”

“It’s the end of the world as we know it.  Natural law says you go first.”

“But it will make things worse.”

“Now you’re getting it,” Eeyore guy leaned back, deeply content at having paid the precious gift of pessimism forward.

He’s right I thought. That’s exactly what they’ll do. How Like Them.

But I also thought—what does he know? It could go differently. Sure that’s the pitch that most governments, at most levels, and all stripes, have gone with, in the past. Cut the arts, education, heritage…it won’t do anything, but it will look like an effort to trim fat is being made. And in the face of global economic change—tectonically big and relentless–appearing to do something is a lot easier than actually implementing change that gets ahead of the shift. But isn’t that the point? Everybody’s done it. It never helps. And at some point, surely, people are going to notice that.

I know it’s hard to get people to change their minds—but once that change does get moving, it’s also hard to stop. Used to be, rock n’ roll was bad, tobacco improved the health, and pastel rayon suits with matching belts and shoes were appropriate office wear.  We got over that. We can get over this too.

This little lamb chooses to believe that, this time, people won’t buy the notion that pulling support from the arts ecology will make the hard times go away. They’ll remember that not only did it not help any of the other times—it did make things worse.  She chooses that.

She’s still buying some sort of disguise—something to hide the fleece.

I mean, I’m a hopeful lamb—but if my friend is right, and it is the apocalypse—no need to advertise my location. I’m sure the angry gods will find me in good time. 

Kelley Jo Burke is an award-winning playwright, director, storyteller, CBC documentarian and broadcaster, and mother of three. Her plays include the upcoming Somewhere, Sk., Ducks on the Moon, The Selkie Wife, Jane's Thumb and Charming and Rose: True Love.  She was the 2009 winner of the Saskatchewan Lieutenant-Governor’s Award for Leadership in the Arts, the three time winner of the City of Regina Writing Award, and the 2008 Saskatoon and Area Theatre Award for Playwriting.