[Skip to Content]
Ontario Arts Council (OAC)
Grants Advanced Search
Grants Advanced Search

Guide for Operating Grant Applicants and Recipients on Engagement With Social Issues

The research and education publisher Gale defines social issues as “topics or subjects that impact many people [and that] often reflect current events but also represent longstanding problems or disagreements that are difficult to solve. Beliefs, opinions, and viewpoints can be strong, and debate on these topics is a natural outcome of public discourse.”

Art has throughout history engaged with social issues in its purpose, content, and messaging and arts organizations around the world, including in Ontario, frequently create, produce, present, and exhibit artistic work that engages with social issues. OAC has always asked its peer assessors to consider the impact of an organizations’ engagement with social issues in the art it creates, produces, presents or exhibits, as well as in the activities supporting the art, and in its general activity.

This guide has been developed to outline existing OAC material that applicants, recipients, assessors, and wider stakeholders can refer to in understanding how OAC considers engagement with social issues by organizations applying for and receiving operating support. It doesn’t create any new policy, but instead draws from and illustrates the most relevant sections of the following policies and guides:  
Please note that this guide only applies to operating grant programs.


OAC Freedom of Artistic Expression Policy

When considering arts organizations’ engagement with social issues, OAC is guided by its Freedom of Artistic Expression Policy:

“The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees the right to freedom of expression. The Ontario Arts Council (OAC) affirms the right of artists to create and present their work – subject to reasonable limits that can be justified in a free and democratic society – and the right of the public to experience that work. The OAC upholds these rights in its work as a public arts funder, provided that neither a work of art nor its creation contravenes applicable law.”

OAC peer assessment

The OAC uses a peer assessment process to make grant decisions in most programs and operates at arm’s-length from the Government of Ontario. Every year, OAC invites hundreds of artists and arts professionals in Ontario to serve as assessors, directly involving the arts community in evaluating grant applications and making recommendations on grants.
When assessing grant applications, peer assessors must:
  • bring vision, open-mindedness and generosity of spirit to their deliberations;
  • provide fair and objective analysis, based on assessment criteria;
  • treat applications without prejudice in accordance with the principles of the Ontario Human Rights Code;
  • work collaboratively; and
  • express their views while respecting and listening to the views of others.

Peer assessors may consider a grant applicant’s engagement with social issues in the evaluation of their application when:
  • It is described within the application being assessed; or
  • It is publicly available through:
    • artistic work the organization creates, produces, presents and/or exhibits;
    • activities supporting the artistic work; and/or
    • public communications, statements and/or conventional or social media.
OAC recommends that applicants directly include and contextualize their engagement with social issues when completing the application.

Considerations for OAC peer assessors

Assessors will use the Evaluation Rubric – Operating Programs to discuss and score the applicant. The rubric calls on assessors to consider whether the applicant’s engagement in social issues improves, reinforces or diminishes its:
  1. Artistic or Service Quality: Assessors will consider whether the engagement embodies or, at minimum, is relevant to the organization’s mandate and vision; whether it helps develop Ontario and Canadian artistic work; and whether it is backed by relevant knowledge of the social issues and its impact on the arts, and the organization itself, preferably arrived at through broad consultation.
  2. Contribution to the quality of life of Ontarians: Assessors will consider whether the engagement helps create an atmosphere that attracts and welcomes new and existing audiences and participants to engage in the arts from diverse geographic and cultural communities; and whether it detracts from the organization’s relationship with any community in Ontario.
  3. Contribution to the careers of artists and arts workers: Assessors will consider whether the engagement helps build relationships with artists; whether it centers artists’ voices through its art; and whether it grows opportunities for artistic creation, production, presentation, and/or exhibition.
  4. Contribution to OAC Priority Groups: OAC is committed to ensuring equitable access for all Ontarians, with particular emphasis on six OAC priority groups.
    • When the engagement is on behalf of an OAC priority group, the assessors will consider whether the organization has representation in senior leadership from that group, and sustained relationships with artists, audiences, volunteers, and participants from that group.
    • Assessors will also consider whether the engagement detracts from the organization’s relationship with any OAC priority group and/or if it negatively impacts equitable access for all Ontarians.
  5. Administrative/Financial Viability: Assessors will consider whether the engagement increases or maintains the safety and well-being of staff, contractors (including artists), board members and volunteers, audiences and participants; whether it is a strategic allocation of human and financial resources in relation to other areas of the organization’s activities; and whether it impacts the organization’s ability to develop resources or engage audiences and/or participants.
OAC peer assessors are asked to consider the impacts of the engagement in relation to OAC’s assessment criteria, not to make a judgement on the social issue itself. While the evaluation of those impacts will affect an organization’s peer assessment rating, as guided by OAC’s Freedom of Artistic Expression Policy, any art created, produced, presented or exhibited that engages with social issues will not be prohibited or suppressed provided it does not contravene applicable law.

If concerns raised in peer assessment about an organization’s engagement in social issues are significant enough to threaten an organization’s stability, OAC may require that the organization meet additional application, assessment or reporting requirements in order to monitor its health and continued eligibility for funding.

OAC Terms and Conditions – Receipt of OAC Operating Grant Funds

Following the peer assessment process and awarding of a grant, operating grant recipients must abide by the obligations and expectations outlined in the Terms and Conditions – Receipt of OAC Operating Grant Funds and OAC reserves its right to reduce, rescind, or require full or partial repayment of a grant if it is of the view that the recipient has not complied with any of these terms and conditions, including if OAC becomes aware of any improper, irregular, or illegal activities by the grant recipient in the execution of the funded activity. The amount to be reduced or rescinded is entirely at OAC’s discretion.

As outlined in the terms and conditions, grant recipients must abide by all provincial and federal laws and regulations. If there are concerns regarding arts organizations that receive OAC operating grants, where it is alleged that their engagement on social issues has violated the terms and conditions, these are considered separately from peer assessment.

Depending on the nature of concerns raised, OAC is not always able to determine that requirements of the terms and conditions have not been met. OAC is often not the most authoritative entity to investigate allegations of unlawful conduct or to intervene in legal disputes. Should an external tribunal, court or other formalized process produce findings of wrongdoing, OAC will take steps to follow-up from those findings.

If at any point OAC does determine that the grant recipient has not complied with the terms and conditions, the payment of their grant may be withheld or the repayment of a past grant may be required and they may be ineligible for future OAC funding.