How marketing ate our culture – implication for Waterloo Region

Target Scream

I am reading a book on how marketing culture has supplanted our past culture. It is sparking a lot of thought. I wrote yesterday, musing on if it matters and then today I woke up somewhat resolute on a particular aspect – marketing as it pertains to creating an authentic and vibrant arts and culture scene.


I am more and more convinced that we fail so miserably at retaining artists, building arts and culture scenes because we use the building of these scenes as a marketing device. There is barely a market in the city for the most commercialisable arts (paintings and take home items that you can purchase), never mind a market or even an appropriate case built for creating, building and maintaining artists, an arts scene or culture beyond the most banal. There is a place for marketing an arts scene, and we are in desperate need. However, using a non-existent culture as a centre point for attracting talent is really not wise, and creating a scene for this purpose is desperately misguided.

Somehow I think the arbiters of taste (those who make financial decisions on culture) either don’t understand their constituents, or don’t understand the implications of supporting mostly banality – it’s quite likely both.

I am not criticising the amazing festivals we do have. I am particularly fond of the Tapestry festivals (Multicultural, Latitudes, Tri Pride, the festivals that celebrate diversity) and the arts/music oriented festivals (Blues Fest and the like). I can even get a buzz off of the irresponsible nostalgia of Cruising on King. But these are one weekend per year and they treat usually the most commercialisable end of culture – or the most typical. The ones that reflect excellence in art (I mean real and true excellence: the stuff that is built on wonder, innovation and won’t likely fit on a wall in your house, or on a television, or work well on radio but require presence to experience) ail, underfunded. I like to muse on how these could flourish into something amazing if they were well supported. We are one of the only cities I can reckon that has outstanding festivals in three arts disciplines (visual, performance, and sound and music).

Snoopy Woodstock best friend

If Waterloo Region is so concerned with excellence, why are they not seeing the excellence that is here, and work to build it?

We are really good in the business-tech sector at recognising the accomplishments of our clever innovators. And yet in the arts, we have some people who have developed extraordinary innovation right here in the Region: the stuff that the rest of world celebrates FOR us. They win lots of grant money, draw international audiences, build downtown economy with their audiences and work, but aren’t hired to speak about making a living as an artist over Toronto professional fundraisers by our own agencies – whereas in other industry, support comes from the homegrown makers of success. (Look to Communitech and their amazing top-down supported, but bottom-up built home grown mentoring networks: the question is that if there is a successful formula in existence, why aren’t the arts and culture support agencies following that lead? And even more important, why aren’t we demanding that they do?) They have propagated success in the community – but also into far reaching places by recognising those who have done the impossible and built new and amazing things out of our post-industrial Region.

Our appreciation shows in the lack audience, in the stubborn inability to recognise excellence and innovation in the arts and support it, demand it.

Thomas Kinkade

It’s pretty, and I would love living there, but all his art looks like this. And none of it is the stuff that drops you jaw in wonder.

Art is not a tool for recruitment. It is not an ad campaign. Oddly, when done well, it serves as both- but not when this is an imposed case for the making and building of culture and cultural product.

The Creative Class experiment has utterly failed

Even though this is recognised in more and more places, we are still somehow hoodwinked by Richard Florida’s bells and whistles approach to building culture. Using this approach as motive means that we become a city of Thomas Kinkades – the most marketable art on the planet – which unsurprisingly lines up more with the banality of some of our most funded cultural pursuits (ironically, these are currently diminishing as we grow and recruit more young professionals which should indicate a clear lack of interest, yet they somehow maintain the most monetary support despite their decline).

Vibrant culture can’t be a here today/gone tomorrow transient thing. It requires a constant push towards excellence, and if talented painters can’t make a go of it here, then the really exciting stuff, the stuff that breeds wonder but requires a grown-up, well supported arts scene will never maintain a space in this city, and we will be left with the detritus of marketing Thomas Kinkade art over and over again. We will bleed excellence to other communities who are all too happy to get our hard working innovators, and our advertisement campaign style culture will ultimately continue to fail on the levels of wonder and authenticity.

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