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My Three Years at the Alberta Foundation for the Arts

Updated: Jul 6, 2023

BY MARY ROZSA DE COQUET


After twenty years of leading the Rozsa Foundation as President and subsequently as Board Chair since 2017, I was delightfully surprised in 2020 - three months before the pandemic - to be asked to become a director of the Alberta Foundation for the Arts (the AFA) and assume the role of Board Chair. Now here we are, three years later, and it is hard to believe that my term at the AFA has ended already. However, before I shift my focus fully to furthering the work of the Rozsa Foundation, I wanted to share some insight into the important ‘behind the scenes’ work that was accomplished these past three years, as so much of the work at the board level goes unseen by the community the AFA serves. It is also my hope that the sharing of this knowledge will contribute to the accountability of the AFA to continue these actions for which the groundwork has been laid, ensuring more effective support of our provincial arts sector in the upcoming months and years. Starting a new board position at the onset of COVID restrictions - along with five other brand-new directors - was daunting, and it meant that the first task was to foster board engagement and focus as we would be meeting exclusively on-line. The board had been reduced in size to just seven members, so there were definite gaps. In addition, the committee structure did not capitalize on the members’ strengths. Since we wouldn’t be traveling to get an on-the-ground sense of the arts throughout the province, the Minister agreed to recommend two additional members which served to contribute to greater geographic, gender, age, and ethnic diversity on the board. Within a year, we had completely revised the board competency and attribute matrix, developed a succession plan to ensure off-setting terms, and recommended outstanding candidates for the future to ensure continuity and diversity – critical developments as strength at the board level is essential to optimize impact for beneficiaries and stakeholders. It turned out this diverse board also demonstrated the AFA’s commitment to the development of a pluralism policy. Thanks to one board champion, this work was underway but needed a push from the board in the face of stretched staff resources. Wishing to lead by example, we created a meaningful land acknowledgment video and started the development of an Indigenous Advisory Council. More fulsome implementation of the policy is now underway via experimental grants, targeted collection acquisitions of visual art, and a review of accessibility at all levels. Both board and staff have had and will continue to take the time to further examine equity and social justice practices and encourage the sector to do likewise. Early pandemic days saw the staff consulting with Canada-wide colleagues and researchers, including the Rozsa Foundation, to provide up-to-date data and analysis for artists and arts organizations as they struggled to understand who their audiences had become. Significantly, the AFA is now able to conduct its own research on behalf of the arts sector as the ‘shared resource’ relationship with the government department was renegotiated. Other notable internal changes include the introduction of a more thorough audit process, regular risk assessment and mitigation at the board level, and the inclusion of the AFA Executive Director’s annual review with his government assessment. These typical board functions are what the AFA expects of arts organizations, and so leading by example is vital. One of the most impactful endeavors the AFA board reinstated was extensive community consultation, not only to understand the many challenges of pandemic restrictions but more importantly to develop a new three-year strategic plan that will (hopefully) commence this year. I trust the arts sector will hear their voices in this plan once it is circulated. The AFA has committed to an annual consultation and is exploring new ways the board may spend more time listening and learning. Of course, funding for artists and arts organizations is one of, if not the most, important functions of the AFA. In 2020 and 2021, the AFA managed to maintain operational funding in an environment of plummeting revenues and decreased budget allocations. In 2022, a donation program was developed which will benefit from matching dollars, should the government oblige and follow through on our suggestion. One key objective in the new strategic plan is advocacy; advocating for the arts not only to encourage public appreciation and participation, and to nurture cross-sectoral work, but also to attract increased financial support. The board has moved quickly on this goal with the impending provincial budget, and it is my hope that the provincial government will increase its arts funding allocation as we have requested. Should this occur, and again I encourage decision-makers to make sure it does, I will feel that I have done my job. As I step away from the AFA, I feel it is well-positioned to deliver on its new strategic priorities. During my term, the AFA grappled with the pandemic fall-out but is now ready to confidently move forward. I regret not having the opportunity to see this work through to fruition, but a new Chair and board will bring fresh ideas designed to fulfill the AFA mission to champion the arts and, in so doing, ensure a healthier society. It has been a privilege to serve as Board Chair of the AFA. I would like to thank my fellow AFA board members and the staff team, and I wish my successor all the best. I will carry the many insights gained through this work over to my ongoing role as Board Chair of the Rozsa Foundation as we continue to support and serve the arts community locally, provincially, and nationally. Mary Rozsa

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