Arts policy in Newfoundland and Labrador began with the development of cultural self-consciousness following Confederation. The Smallwood government, which came to power in 1949, did not have an arts policy as such, but it could be said that all of its activities touched on the question of cultural self-consciousness one way or another. The origins of arts policy can therefore be linked to certain events or cultural landmarks that the Smallwood government and its successors considered important enough to fund. But until 1971 that policy was implemented through an arm of the public service, namely the Division of Cultural Affairs. Since then, as in other provinces of Canada where governments have taken a proprietorial interest in culture, a tension has been maintained between the need for long-range policy for funding and promoting the arts and cultural industries and the servicing of short-term demands.
The first sign of a formal arts policy in Newfoundland and Labrador may be traced to 1966, when a voluntary group was formed under John Perlin to organize a committee with responsibility for the performing arts during Come Home Year (1966) and Canadian Centennial Year (1967). The first of these celebrations was a scheme to attract thousands of expatriate Newfoundlanders to return and share what was advertised as the province's characteristic milieu. Come Home Year achieved two things: it created an irrevocable link between public funding and the arts, and it reinforced the idea of a distinctive Newfoundland "culture" that could be displayed and marketed.
In 1967, the Smallwood government went further when it decided to build an arts and culture centre in St. John's as its major Centennial Year project. (Subsequently, it also built a network of smaller community arts centres on an ad hoc basis in Corner Brook, Gander, Grand Falls, Stephenville and Labrador West, this last completed in 1986.) John Perlin was invited to administer the St. John's centre. However, as Perlin has stated, there was no clear direction for how it would operate. He was given "absolutely no instructions" except to report through the deputy minister of Provincial Affairs, James G. Channing. In later years, these centres developed as venues for all types of amateur and professional arts and as sites for touring companies. Meanwhile, successive governments took measures to develop policy, under changing circumstances, through other initiatives.
In 1972, the Moores government transferred responsibility for the Newfoundland Public Libraries Board and the Arts and Letters Competition to the Division of Cultural Affairs and funded them directly out of departmental estimates. In 1980, the Peckford government created the Newfoundland and Labrador Arts Council. For a time, the Division of Cultural Affairs also provided an annual Publishers' Assistance Programme to support provincial publishers, but this was later discontinued by the Wells government. It also began a Sustaining Grants Programme for professional performing arts companies, followed by a second programme for literary and visual arts and provincial arts organizations. (Responsibility for these was later transferred to the Arts Council.) Finally, a yearly Art Procurement Programme for purchasing visual art to be displayed in public buildings was begun in 1982.
With the early success of Come Home Year 1966 and other events oriented towards tourists, government became more conscious of the power of culture for economic benefit. Following the celebrations marking the 400th anniversary of the arrival of Sir Humphrey Gilbert (1983), the Peckford government established a permanent anniversary and celebrations committee to identify major anniversaries which could be linked to tourism. (This committee ceased operations after Soiree '88.)
During the 1990s, the development of the arts and cultural heritage become more firmly entrenched as part of the political agenda at both the federal and provincial levels. Three significant events marked the change of attitude within the province of Newfoundland and Labrador. The first was the report of the Provincial Arts Policy Committee chaired by Patrick O'Flaherty. This report ranged widely over all dimensions of arts policy and made fifty recommendations, some of which found their way into subsequent government policy statements. The second was the signing of the Canada/Newfoundland Co-operation Agreement on Cultural Industries, 1992-96, which provided $5 million for research and development, product development, marketing, distribution, and training for individual artists in specified fields. At the end of the agreement, the process was continued for two to four years under the Canada/Newfoundland Agreement on Economic Renewal, $3.75 million being set aside for culture and tourism. The third event was the Wells government's Strategic Economic Plan (1992), a watershed in cultural policy which put forward twenty-two proposals for the enhancement of the cultural sector.
In following the Strategic Economic Plan, government first configured a Department of Tourism and Culture with a broad mandate to capitalize on provincial culture for economic benefit. In its subsequent policy statement "A Vision for Tourism" (1994), under the rubric of Cultural Tourism, it claimed that the province would benefit from a variety of attractions, including local performers, artists, filmmakers and writers who were "becoming recognized for their unique styles and points of view." Second, in preparation for the 500th anniversary of the Cabot landfall, it established a free-standing corporation with its own CEO and staff to manage the ambitious events planned for 1997. (In the face of criticism, this corporation was discontinued in 1995 and a new structure formed to take it through to the end.)
Out of the Strategic Economic Plan came two policy decisions that have influenced policy to this day. Government first undertook to "immediately initiate a consultation process" that would "build on the extensive research and consultation of the Economic Recovery Commission, the O'Flaherty Report and other sources." An advisory committee to the minister, the Hon. Roger Grimes, was duly formed under the chairmanship of Dr. Katy Bindon, principal of Sir Wilfred College, in 1994. However, this committee did no more than review existing policy, and it was dismantled in 1996 without the opportunity to make fresh recommendations.
Second, with the establishment of the John Cabot (1997) 500th Anniversary Corporation, the arts community met and discussed ways of showcasing the creative resources of the province, and the Year of the Arts 1997 programme was conceived. Developed and managed by the Newfoundland and Labrador Arts Council, the program was financed to a total of $1.2 million, with $500,000 and $700,000 coming from the Provincial and the Federal Governments respectively.
The provincial government appears determined to carry the arts along as an adjunct to major commemorative events. With the conclusion of the John Cabot celebrations, it is seeking ways to capitalize on succeeding anniversaries such as the 50th anniversary of Confederation (1999) and the 1000th anniversary of the arrival of the Vikings. From time to time, however, certain decisions echo the recommendations of the O'Flaherty report, "Drawing Conclusions," and its plea for a more permanent infrastructure. Such a decision has created the Newfoundland and Labrador Film Development Agency, begun in 1997 with a budget of $1 million over three years to encourage local film makers and attract producers from outside the province. This is the most recent example of the tension between the need for an overriding arts policy and the need for government to respond to the times.