I Love My City, Always Have, Always Will. But I Need YOU to Support It: A Letter to Michael Litt and the Tech Sector Leaders

Culture isn’t expressed through clean, gentrified space.

I wrote this in 2013 (Why The Art and Culture Fail: Waterloo Syndrome), long before so many other cool initiatives came about. Since then, NIGHT\SHIFT, a festival almost tailor made for tech (STEAM) has come and gone. Neruda Arts has pushed Kultrún World Music Festival into bold existence despite a city that has constantly undermined it by placing the epic failing Big Music Festival on the same weekend, twice. Summer Lights Festival has started up in spectacular ways as well. NUMUS is beyond cool, has been successful for decades, and I bet you have never even heard of it… it isn’t for their lack of trying. 

We bring in world class talent, Michael. We have for decades. I invite you to comb the lists of artists presented in many of the festivals I have mentioned in this and the linked posts. Check out the institutions and look at the artists that have presented in this community. But also… In 2009, seven artists in downtown Kitchener alone received emerging artists grants from the Ontario Arts Council (OAC) – this is a distinction and honour indicating that a practice is well received and supported by the second highest level of artistic funding available to Canadians living in Ontario. We bring in interesting and beautiful things from all over. We export world class talent as well, with many many artists who start here find themselves unsupported and unable to stay. Only one of those seven remains in the region. Many more have been conferred this honour, and most have left for better places to build an artistic practice.

We attract world class because we are world class. Many artists from here have moved, toured vastly, won international acclaim and awards, only to come back without a whisper of their actions and wild successes cracking through the provincial veneers of our media, or indeed your own scene: The Tech Sector.

Oddly, 2009 was the last year I felt like we had a real crack at making multiple scenes emerge. By 2011, I knew we were on a sinking ship. This lines up with two major changes – the Prosperity Council making noise and arts and culture eventually falling under Economic Development (big, big mistake), and tech pushing its way into downtown. If there was any combination of two substances made to kill creative practice, this was RoundUp to the grassroots.

It isn’t just the lack of support for our festivals, our work, it is also that between you, Communitech, and so many other heavily funded, sponsored, coddled and supported tech initiatives have entirely displaced our workspaces and homes.

Tech leaders LOVE to talk about how the Lang Tannery was an empty shell, disgusting and unused before they received millions of dollars of funding to retrofit it into being an office space. This is such a ridiculous misplacement of truth. There were large unused spaces in the Lang Tannery, much like there are in many buildings downtown, but it was also home to several artists, artisans, skilled trades people, dance and yoga studios, and other creative workers. Large “unused” spaces were sites of massive and tremendously cool art parties like the legendary Blue Dot parties (which attract art and culture lovers from as far as Berlin and New York for a single, very cool event that has become increasingly rare because of the lack of space and support). These are things that you and other tech leaders have displaced and removed through your own occupation of space. Know your history. Know especially those you have snuffed so that you can understand now why you miss their contributions, because what you are bemoaning is exactly what we used to have.

The Boehmer Box Factory on Breithaupt was our final large, extremely run down area that we could afford that didn’t have a waiting list a mile long for space. It was unsafe, terrifying especially for women, lacked any security so theft was such a thing, and had leaks in the roof that could transgress a first floor studio, and often packed with studios. It is now being gentrified for… can you guess? No, not cleaned up to provide space for the folk who build the identity of a community that lives into eternity. No. It’s offices. And this last space gentrified is a nail in the coffin for new inexpensive and viable studios anywhere accessible to a community of creatives.

(Also, just to be clear… a small office is not a studio. I know someone is going to make an argument about the Gaukel building so I am stating it ahead: We have a micron of space for minuscule offices for organisations of two. Great if all art was a person and desk… but that is you. Not us. I do imagine your office is not cubicle-sized even still. And this space represents administrations, which are important and do need this affordable space, not the practice of art making itself. Plainly put: it’s just not enough, and simply unsuitable for the bulk of creative practices.)

Any small bit of infrastructure we had left was destroyed by the tech sector.

City of Kitchener Council

Government is so clean looking… so is bureaucracy and red tape

It is true that art gets made in these places when they are run-down. So many good and great artists have occupied downtown walkups, run down factories, and many other areas that would not be deemed fit for most of your colleagues but this has a lot to do with the fact that a huge purse of money in the arts is in the thousands, nowhere close to the millions. The arts, especially in this region, cannot get a break. Where tech has seen literal millions of gvt funding in just the last couple years, the arts are displaced, moved, underfunded and completely left without space. And it isn’t just a lack of space, there is an almost complete lack of interest in making viable, affordable space. But then there is a lack of support around every aspect of art making in Waterloo Region, and yes, you are indeed a major part of the problem. 

In the article linked above, I made a single proposal to fix this. Keep in mind that this was 5 years ago, and nothing has been done to amend this creative drain. The need has grown but the fixes are still remarkably simple. But they require support, funding, and political will. They require you and others like you to listen.

The problems have only gotten worse, but it isn’t because artists don’t know what is happening, it isn’t because we haven’t been attempting stop gaps (literally a small festival here is called Stop-Gap, and Collective Identity partnership with THEMUSEUM has also been about giving artists a much needed platform), and then collectives like Art District Gallery. It is because we haven’t been listened to, and instead, patriarchal approaches have reigned with leaders such as yourself who do not have the research, the knowledge, or the simple facts of creative practice under their belts. You and your equally unknowledgeable colleagues are listened to and regarded as experts instead of the real experts in our community who live this reality, study this reality, research this reality and watch other communities overcome this reality through measures well considered, well researched, well applied work there, and are ignored here. Or even worse – turned into talent attraction schemes – money thrown at symposia or yet another consultant that confirms what leaders in the arts and culture communities have been saying for the better part of a decade.

“Biggest point is that you’ve got it wrong. You can’t use the arts solely as a talent recruitment device… cause then you fund the wrong things. You build the wrong things. You focus on arts that you think make sense. What you aren’t seeing is that the artists who live here moved here for the same reasons why anyone else does. They are also in love with the vibrant and crazy stuff in the water that makes Waterloo Region shimmer and pulsate and their arts reflect this. Pulling in one-off acts and shows may be good for a night, but they do not celebrate that common thread that we all possess that only this geography can lay claim to. They are not the bread and butter, or the culture development that we need.”

It isn’t about the great outfits. It’s about having grit.

Clean cities aren’t great and interesting cities. Jane Jacobs had a lot to say on this but a thing that stands out to me are that cities that are truly exciting and vibrant are cities where the narratives, the voices, the creative heartbeat of the city rises to the surface in a cacophony of joy. An interesting city is a messy city. Toronto’s Queens Quay is a dead zone despite its clean glass towers but Kensington Market is thrumming with life, thriving and breathing with every person rich or poor, every walk of life, pigeon, millionaire or rat blended in to a crowd of bright shining beauty, and the tireless beat of curious and living feet on the streets – art, music, live theatre, and economy singing from the very asphalt, especially before it too started to gentrify because it was so damned cool. San Francisco was seriously interesting when it was messy – a hodge podge of queer folk, sex workers, artists, People of Colour all finding homes in the Mission, in the Castro. It is a paling and increasingly sad version of its older self, especially when I talk to those very mentioned who made the place interesting get displace into further reaches, and dangerous accommodations outside of the cores they built.  Heaven forbid we ever, ever become the sad, gentrified, racist, classist, sexist cities of Silicon Valley. We are already deep in with hate crimes and being uninhabitable for women – tech isn’t going to change this.

 

It isn’t the artist you pay to graffiti your walls who is making a statement, making a change. They are delivering a corporate statement to a corporation. Their narrative isn’t a community narrative. It is your company narrative paid on your company dime. Yes, office art is important and please keep giving artists opportunities to make your walls match your aesthetic sense and sofas. But art that sounds like the heartbeat of a community isn’t clean. Hamilton is exciting for a reason. It isn’t clean, polished, devoid of the messy corners. Now that it is beginning to gentrify, Hamiltonians are railing against it. There is a creative pulse because of the affordability of space and support for artists to settle there.

But this didn’t happen because a business leader painted a corner and said “artists come here”. It happened because the arts community could have a chance to organise, and make their city worthy of an artistic practice. In 2013, I also wrote an article about how it was less expensive to put an entire audience on a bus to a theatre in Toronto that has been been rented, buy this audience dinner and drink, and then get them home – cheaper than renting space in Waterloo Region for making theatre happen here. This has deepened significantly in the last five years. At this point, we could charter a coach, bring the audience to a casual fine dining restaurant, serve several premium cocktails or whiskeys, bring them to the show, and take the chartered coach home with a bottle of wine and gift bag for each person – all for the cost of space rental. This is without the audience paying a single red cent.

You are starving us.

And your talent attraction schemes makes even the most beloved of artists cringe. Gross.

monty python fart trumpet“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.”

You want brain drain? It isn’t engineers that we are missing. From Arts and culture fail miserably in Waterloo Region – I need to hear from YOU

About this Vital Signs report

It’s only gotten worse.

“From 2011 – 2012, people working in the culture sectors have declined from nearly 9000 in Waterloo Region to 6000. That is a whopping 3000 fewer arts and culture workers in a region that already suffered from too few to begin with.

“Now look at that pie chart. The largest piece of the pie represents all the gears and mechanics going into the arts and culture sector: technical employees.

“The creative arts on that pie represents 1120 workers. That means just a little over 1/6th of people doing cultural things in the city are actually involved in the creative arts instead of creative commercial business. Not negating the rest of the culture pie you see there, but this is a miserable number. Half a million people in Waterloo Region.. 1120 working in creative arts – likely includes organizational administrators and others similar – not purely the creative artists themselves – I wonder what that number would be. Your odds of meeting someone born  with 11 fingers or toes (1:500) are close to your odds of meeting a genuine, bonafide working artist in Waterloo Region.

“This is abysmal. What a hell of a failure, Waterloo Region.”

And then the part that I never wanted to attach to you because I have such memory of you as a compassionate person who lets his strength flow from a deep and good place…

The lack of authenticity and concern

“Can we stop listening to business people about building the arts community now, and start talking to the arts community about building their own? If I need to know about a car, I ask a mechanic. If I need to know about my persistent toothache, I talk to my dentist. Why does the city think the mechanic can cure the toothache without making the pain worse??

“Successful business acumen doesn’t lead to understanding in the arts. These operations run on a shoestring budget – some hiring up to 200 artists in a year (MT Space) on an operating budget less than a single C-Level executive salary in a tech company – and they persist! Condescension on behalf of enabling organizations (there’s a backward thing for you), goonish behaviour on behalf of our bureaucrats and a serious desire to be hands off is destroying the core culture of this Region. The problems are extensive: From funding to facilities. From zoning to endless red tape covered permits. Art here needs to be more than a function of economic development, even if it does develop the economy.”

So for goodness sake, Michael Litt, and all the other tech leaders bemoaning our lack of scene – you are killing the thing you are crying over.  If you want it back? Start supporting what’s here.

Put your money where your mouth is. I challenge you, and other tech leaders to stop with the bs rhetoric about how we need the arts to attract talent and start supporting the talent you have.

We should have a Christie Digital Centre for Inter Arts

We should have CAFKA and IMPACT both floated with unique budgets of over 200k just by industry/tech here alone

Kultrun needs to be supported as a cultural home for the many, many people who benefit from their programming in music that makes the soul connect to here even if “home” is a notion of distance and separation

We should have Night\Shift (most recently defunct and deeply mourned) and Summer Lights be thrumming with energy for their one-night art party wonderlands, instead of having them struggle to pay the artists who make this happen for the entire region

We should have the Vidyard Grand River Film Festival

We should have the OpenText Kitchener Waterloo Symphony

The Conrad Centre should be the Waterloo Region Centre for the Performing Arts

We should have KWAG have a list including you and your colleagues as diamond level sponsors

Boehmer Box art throwdown

If only they didn’t treat artist like children.

Much like a startup’s needs are wildly different from OpenText, an individual artist has entirely different needs than a theatre company. A big complaint is about our lack of unity… and this, frankly, does not exist. We are all artists, but we are not cut from the same cloth. Asking us to toe a line and ask for the same things is like trying to sandwich Christie Digital in with company of two that develop wicked websites. There is no lack of unity but instead a diversity. And this is what makes us so damned strong, so completely resilient enough to stay in one of the toughest cities in Canada to get a break despite the endless attempts to throttle anything from happening here in any real, connected way.

We should have an arts centre that is strongly supported, funded, and a home for an arts council who can express the diverse needs of our community. There needs to be homes for visual arts, for theatre arts, for music that are not top down governmental impositions placing banal and boring speakers and workshops in front of our talent.

We should have governmental support around our bricks and mortar institutions. Where the Kitchener Aud building is budget line, Centre in the Square, THEMUSEUM, the Canadian Clay and Glass, the Button Factory all struggle to keep their roofs from leaking. And most of these are owned by the cities and region… This is egregious and desperately sad. We are a region that does not cherish its cultural assets and this needs to change. By saying this, I am saying that we are a region that doesn’t cherish its stories. We are a region that doesn’t cherish its people. Because always, and ultimately, art in all of its differences and manifestations are narratives representing our reality as a society. By killing the arts, you kill your own stories, the voices of the people who live, work, and play here. You drop out of the timelines of history and out of public importance. No wonder your perception is that no one wants to move here (despite the ever growing vast suburbia encroaching on wild and farmlands at every turn). No wonder you think we don’t exist. You haven’t listened to our stories.

We need you to support us because you need us. Just like we need you. Symbiosis.

So I add to my challenge of supporting the arts financially – get outside, here in Waterloo. You chose to stay here for good reasons but you seem more divorced than ever from these. Go to openings. Go to shows. Get to the galleries. It may be intimidating at first but just in the same way I used real, alive language here, there are so many of us who would love to tell you the stories about why the things here, made here, being shown here matter – including me. I would love to be a docent to show you an entire world of voice that you and your tech sector colleagues are missing. Support the arts, Michael. Don’t just be an industry leader but become one of the many important Canadians who truly help to build our cultural narratives representing diversity and change right here in Waterloo Region. Stop spouting this nonsense put out by the bureaucrats and bean counters. You and your colleagues are the people who can make a difference – a real honest difference, just by looking into the grassroots and putting your time and work into caring.

6 thoughts on “I Love My City, Always Have, Always Will. But I Need YOU to Support It: A Letter to Michael Litt and the Tech Sector Leaders

  1. Oh you nailed it. But I did laugh out loud at this: “We should have governmental support around our bricks and mortar institutions. Where the Kitchener Aud building is budget line, Centre in the Square, THEMUSEUM, the Canadian Clay and Glass, the Button Factory all struggle to keep their roofs from leaking.” For over a year KWAG had a leak in the front hall that had permanent buckets placed underneath, accented with a bright yellow tarp with a built in funnel to direct the water to the bucket with minimal splash. People visiting may have mistaken it for a dramitc water feature or installation, commenting on the demise of arts or something like that. But it was just a leaky roof. And it was like that through events, openings etc. Michael Litt works just down the street. He was invited often to come. Wonder what he would have thought of the tarp.

    • Oh my goodness that is just daft. The city is so completely short sighted. Unbelievably so.

      I bet no one sees the bucket. Maybe we should install a sign that says “support the arts”.

  2. Every sentence you wrote, I wanted to cheer and shout “YES!! EXACTLY!!!”.

    I have been volunteering with the Grand Philharmonic Children and Youth Choirs for over 10 years. They are award winning choirs that have travelled and won competitions internationally. There is such a large, beautiful choral experience to be had in KW yet it begs for support. I don’t think I have yet to meet an artistic organization that doesn’t beg for support.

    I have had my 3 kids in various artistic and music organizations for over 15 years and I am always astounded at the lack of corporate sponsorship for the arts. It has been heartbreaking at times to be affected by the loss of different government grants. Even the loss of the smallest one has such a huge impact on an arts program. There isn’t the money, especially to spare.

    I have been so grateful and so proud of the arts scene in the Waterloo Region. My kids have found their niche and their community in it. We support it in every way, we are the parents, that’s just what we do and will continue to do so as we have come to love all the passionate people involved. These people and mentors are truly are a part of their various organizations out of love for their craft. It sure isn’t for the money.

    Artists of all kinds will always find a way to keep their passions alive. They will always find a way to display their talents, encourage their peers, support one another no matter the situation that is thrown at them…the show must go on! But it would be such a win/win situation if the vibrant community that is being created by the incredible pool of talent our city has to offer was financially recognized by the corporations who settled here because of what the community has to offer in the first place??

    How do we expect a digital marketer to understand the importance of building relationships and then maintaining them? It’s not their mindset! How do we get corporations to support the community they need to go to when they step out of their buildings? I wish I knew!!

    Why should artists be forced to barely survive?

    At least a proper roof over their heads when it’s raining would be nice.

    • That is a real point – artists will always make art whether they are funded, whether they are supported, and even if they have to make it in their basement apartments. But we all get to times and ages where struggle defeats us as well. Or, we get old and our needs change. Much like any other human walking this earth, the ability to survive is the ultimate. I would always argue that people will go where they can…
      1. make a living
      2. survive with greater comfort
      3. feel appreciate in some way for their contributions

      I mean there is the whole hierarchy of needs, but also standing in that place is a simple item missed by tech and bureaucrat alike. Tech workers are people. They are working people living here. So are artist. Tech people are only different in that their labour is with another industry that is extremely well supported, and indeed, also funded by government initiative. Their stories are not tech stories. Their stories are people stories. So whether it is talking about love, or being laid off, or climate change, or the banality of commuting, or what it’s like to be a woman, or a racialised person, the feeling of grief, or labour, or getting a tattoo – there are some universalities or even just representations that speak to large groups. So in artists not telling these stories, or not telling them here, or not having them be heard or seen here when they are told, everyone, even the tech worker, becomes more invisible. And indeed the artist as well.

      Thanks for your comment. It is a fantastic one to read and lifted my heart. The Grand Philharmonic is brilliant and I should get out to a show at some point.

  3. Great job Terre! As the founder of the Arts District Gallery, I ran in to quite a few tech leaders and others whose sole focus is on the bottom line. Investing in the local culture/arts scene was not on their radar. Hopefully your letter and responses from others will be the impetus Litt and other like him need. It’s easy to criticize from the sidelines. It’s a lot harder to become a champion for a cause.

    • Thank you Brenda! I do think they are coming around to seeing why the arts, and indeed diversity and our stories are so important. His comments aren’t completely off base – he isn’t so incredibly wrong and that is the real point to all of this. I would love if these leaders, and especially ones from the grassroots, would finally stop thinking that imposed structures, and imposed ideas are going to work. It is our own organising that they need to support. I am thrilled that we have what we have and it is always exciting to see new artists, new initiatives popping up in the region. I have loved watching the persistence of The Arts District Gallery – the continuously exciting shows and new artists mixing with long term fellows in your space. It’s unique and truly a gem in our community. Art District Gallery is completely emblematic of what success can look like just by pulling together. Gosh I am proud of all of you.

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