Notes from an Intern:
Reacting to Jan/Feb 04 & Sep 05:
The Influence of Money

As some people may have noticed in the not so recent past there was a week with no new blog post. The office has been abuzz with our Christmas promotion (which runs until December 31st!) and I have sadly had little time to write. With that said I offer a “Franken-blog” if you will. What follows is a post about two issues from two separate years of Alberta Views. If I believed in serendipity I would say I was meant to write them together as both articles share a similar idea (completely by accident!).

Graphically, these issues are vastly different. The Jan/Feb 2004 issue has an old logo that takes up the upper third of the cover. Inside there is a mix of gloss and mat paper, with differing colour patterns (some pages are black & white and others are colour). The cover image is of an artist’s studio with easels and artists painting a nude model. The September 2005 is a huge contrast, with a picture of Queen Elizabeth II and Premier Ralph Klein cutting a legislature shaped cake in celebration of Alberta’s centennial. This issue is all glossy and full colour with the new logo. It is also a smaller issue, counting only 71 pages versus the 76 pages in 2004.

Where the two issues unite is between the two articles I discuss below. Both confront the subject of sponsorship and funding in two necessary social structures: the arts and academia. Both of these structures are indicators of societal health and both are affected by funding problems. With government cut backs funding needs to come from elsewhere and corporate funding seems to fill this void, whether for good or bad.

Part 1:

Alberta Views’ Jan/Feb issue in 2004 focused on the arts and the immensity of talent in Alberta. In an article entitled “Three Views on Funding the Arts” management consultant Lori Ann Edwards, The Message Parlour owner Blair Cosgrove and Theatre Junction founder Mark Lawes shared their opinions and experience about Alberta’s art scene. Hailing from different backgrounds their perspectives differ greatly but they all manage to agree: art is important in society.

Sponsorship and funding seem like a perfect way to ensure artistic growth. Both parties benefit: corporations can improve their reputation by demonstrating community involvement (not to mention a tax write-off), while artistic ventures can gain some mobility to do what they always intended without worrying about making ends meet. But does financial support mean they have to create according to someone else’s vision?

Cosgrove says yes, he writes, “We believe that money gives us power. But art gives us a power far more potent.” As an owner of a communications and public relations agency in Calgary, he understands the influence of currency, both financial and social. “I want artists to be freer to pursue their dreams, to do what they love so the rest of us can enjoy the fruits of their work. I want artists to behave less like businesses, not more.”

In theory I support this completely, however one thing causes me to worry. Without having to worry about making ends meet, like every other citizen of this province, there is no guarantee that the funding is spent prudently. Nowadays you can write anything off as a career expense with the smallest amount of reasoning. My concern with blindly funding people (in general) is how well they will use this privilege. For this reason, I support Lori Ann Edwards position that even art organizations need to be aware of their financial situation.

“Unfortunately, many arts organizations in Alberta still see themselves as exempt from the key criteria that an organization—any organization—must meet to become a thriving business. There’s a pervasive notion that solid business practices ‘really don’t apply and wouldn’t work in our organization,’” writes Edwards explaining how art institutes and organizations have not fully grasped their ability to reach out and contact other groups with strong financial backgrounds to assist them on their boards. They are constantly keeping art in the art family instead of bringing in a ringer that could jump-start them into profitability.

As Mark Lawes explains, not all funding is bad. “The well-being of the arts in Alberta is in question, and many generous financial supporters and volunteers are attempting to address this crisis. The Alberta Arts Stabilization Fund, for example, came about because of the financial difficulties of several large arts institutions in Alberta. The focus of the APASF is to assist arts organizations in the development and the application of business principles, and reward companies for sound financial management as well as the ability to generate revenue and become self-sustainable.”

Part 2:

In 2005 Alberta Views published an article written by freelance writer Alison Azer investigating the effect of corporate sponsorship in academic research. Her main concern is academic integrity and the influence industry has over research through funding.

“If universities are shifting toward a model guided by the market’s “invisible hand,” who decides which questions get asked, and who gets to ask them, who finds out the answers, and who gets to own them?” Azer writes.

Through the example of Dr. Thomas Stachel, of the University of Alberta, and his partnership with DeBeers, the South African diamond company, Azer wades through the large sea of information that surrounds corporate funding. “German-born Stachel arrived in Edmonton in September 2001 under the splendid title of the Canada Research Chair in Diamonds. He presumed the necessary funding for his laboratory accoutrements was awaiting his expenditure. It wasn’t,” explains Azer.

The lack of funding forced Stachel to seek it elsewhere. When the then-Students’ Union president Mike Hudema (cover of June 2010 issue of Alberta Views) caught wind of the deal he protested it on ethical grounds. “Despite the romantic images of its ‘diamonds are forever’ campaign, DeBeers has a record of human rights abuses, including support for South Africa’s apartheid regime, displacement of the Kalahari bushmen, and complicity in conflict diamonds [diamonds used to buy arms in wartorn countries],” says Hudema.

This is one of the complications that Azer explains is a by-product of corporate funding in academic research. Other negative effects are result skewing. For this she turns to Dr. Nancy Olivieri and her experience with corporate funding in medical research. Oliveri had agreed to perform a clinical trial for the generic drug company Apotex. “Initially results were positive, but Olivieri claimed her later results suggested the drug was neither safe nor effective,” Azer explains. When she attempted to communicate these concerns Apotex refused to acknowledge the results as anything but positive. She was told she could not disclose the information to anyone because of a clause in the agreement. She went public anyway.

“I would guess there are thousands of researchers who are being pushed into fudging their clinical trial data,” says Olivieri. “Not a week goes by that I don’t receive e-mails from medical researchers grappling with the gag-order culture of conducting clinical trials on behalf of the pharmaceutical industry.”

Azer explains that a 12.6 per cent increase in sponsorship funding had been accepted by Canadian universities in 2003 since the previous year. Sponsorships can have immense upsides to them, providing funding for employment and research that would otherwise not be available. The power that corporations have over research puts the fundamental nature of academia at risk. “The general consensus is that if current trends continue, research that does not attract the corporate eye will get left behind,” writes Azer.

An Intern-al Conclusion:

Where artists must worry about profitability, academics have to struggle daily with relevance. To be an academic, in a way, is to think beyond your time. There is a need to see passed what is current and to find solutions to future problems. There can be intense pressure to provide answers to questions that have not even been asked. Having an outside organization or company fund research is a form of validation for the minds asking the tough questions.

As I read my way through Alberta Views history it is becoming clear how many important issues exist outside the hot topics that frequently claim all the public attention. There has been an evolution through the years of this magazine, graphically and stylistically, but what is comforting is that it’s obvious the mandate has stayed the same. It’s focus on Albertans and issues that affect them has remained constant so no matter what issue I pick up I know that it will be relevant to my life. That is such a breath of fresh air in a world where mass media is all about sensationalism and what will cause the most waves, whether it is significant to the public interest or not.

Sincerely,

Nicole (The Intern)


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To read the issue mentioned in this article, click here and here.