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.
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.”
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.
“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
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.
After years of candid small group conversations divided by discipline about similar issues in the arts in Waterloo Region, an event is coming to head to discuss the particular challenges for artists and small arts organisations.
Who should come:
- Are you an artist currently practising in Waterloo Region?
- Are you a member of a small arts organisation in Waterloo Region?
- Have you been a member of a collective or ad-hoc arts group in Waterloo Region?
- Do you play music, make films, photograph, perform, act, paint, sculpt, sing, dance, or attempt any art in a semi-professional to professional capacity in Waterloo Region as an individual artist?
- Have you ever applied for an arts grant or creative development grant in Waterloo Region?
- Have you earned an income from a small arts practice in Waterloo Region?
This conversation is not aimed at larger arts organisations, museums or facilities. Nor is it aimed at caring arts loving culture workers, “creative business” folks or anyone else who is not currently facing the realities of making art on the ground level in Waterloo Region. This conversation is very specifically to organise and communicate challenges as a broader artist voice. It’s about community building amongst us; it’s about building strategy for going forward.
Not an individual artist or small arts organisation? What you can do to help:
- Share this event with artists who fit the description
- Share the event over social media
- Come and volunteer at the event: help mediate and/or record the conversations, or help to host the event (food, drink, meet and greet etc.)
What is the desired outcome of this event?
- To collect general data that represents diversity of practice in Waterloo Region concerning the art.
- To organise structures in community to better support each other within and across disciplines.
- To paint a picture of the reality of innovative practitioners in art in Waterloo Region.
- To build solidarity across disciplines in the art.
Really, it’s about being honest and pushing past barriers… or at least making a gosh darned good attempt to do so. We are planning to build a report with our findings from this event, and plan future strategy building sessions. Join us!
In pushing past the line of amateur into becoming a professional in the arts, there are several things to consider. Here’s a list of 10. The list isn’t definitive. It’s a start.
- Be stubborn.
From parents to gatekeepers – there is a world of people who will pressure you to not move from the weekend warrior hobbyist position in the arts. Some of the reasons are valid – money is tight, time becomes scant and the world will treat you like an ignorant special snowflake. To get through the gate, you have to find the latch. In the tangled world of art, it takes time and perseverance. Buckle down. Become as permanent as the installations you wish to build.
- Live and breathe art.
Let your practice become your life. Go to galleries. Go to openings. Go to shows. Let most of your thoughts be about art. Talk about art with you arts colleagues. Go to conferences and talks about art. Talk to community leaders about art. Make it not only your practice, but part of your service back to the community. Immerse yourself in ideas.
- Build a community around your practice to increase sustainability.
Practice art in the community. Talk about what you are building, and form a community around your practice. Get on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and talk about your work. Talk to others about their work. Support your colleagues by attending their opening nights and shows. Your community will push you to that next level with their support. They will also support you when things become difficult. Make your community diverse and as geographically large as you can.
- Never give in to laziness.
Art is iterative. The reliance on process: on doing something over and over again until it’s mastered – the repetition, the rehearsal. The act of mastering anything can never be lazy. Be tireless. In your process there are no shortcuts, there are only ways to hone and fine-tune through hard work. Don’t sidestep in the pursuit of excellence, and your goal in being an artist has to be reaching beyond the mediocre, even if your work is to illustrate the mediocre.
- Have no exit strategy.
If you are entering the life of an artist, it must be the only acceptable life. There is no space for a Plan B. Times will get tough, and your eye must always be on your practice, your process and your outcomes.
Find a way to survive.
As an artist, you may need other sources of income – especially in the beginning. Teach art lessons. Be an acting coach. Write freelance. Or find a skill that you can apply to earning money. Learn how to make a good espresso and work in a cafe. Do something that doesn’t destroy your creativity, and is flexible enough to allow you to dive completely into your practice when you need to. Seasonal work can be particularly good for this. As are contracts.
- Cut the fat out of your budget.
An artist income is below the national average. Learn to live with less. Waste less. Buy less. It can feel like an ascetic life sometimes, but it is a good and fulfilling life – and unlike monks and anchorites, you don’t have to give up sex. Know what you are willing to give up financially, and do so. You may no longer be on the bleeding edge of current fashion, but as an artist, you set the trends.
- Share resources.
Share a studio. Share an apartment. Share your internet connection. Organise group buying. And if you have a valuable resource, share it with other artists. Don’t be afraid to approach others in your community to ask them to share as well. This is another way that a sustainable community is built.
- Take risks and always be ready to try something different.
Write that grant. And if it fails, change it and write it again. Be ready to gamble and pivot. Don’t get stuck in a rut. Fall in love with your ideas, but be willing to express them differently if need be.
- You can die from exposure.
Do not work for free for institutions. They are supposed to support the arts community, not exploit it. Choose very carefully where you will put your free labour. As an artist, there can be a trade-off between being known and getting paid. Just make sure you do not become the artist who is known for not getting paid. Instead support organisations that support building up the arts (Arts Build Ontario, arts councils or arts funds –Region of Waterloo Arts Fund, organisations like Artscape).
And a couple bonuses:
- Take idle days.
Stop every now and then. Waste that extra $20 on a half litre of wine and play with your friends. Remember that your brain needs time to recover so you don’t burn out. You need to push, but you also need time for the mind to rest to come up with new and brilliant ideas.
- If you get a grant, don’t call it “winning”.
You worked hard for that. You did your research and you wrote an excellent application. Your idea is novel, meritorious and good enough to be considered for funding by a jury of your peers. That is not like a lottery ticket, or a door prize. Our own words set up expectations. If we “win” – it seems like chance. With grants, there is very little left to chance. Make sure you recognise that with your words, so others view your work as valid as well. You EARNED a grant.
Sustainability is such a big word. When speaking of sustainability when it comes to arts practices, this word explodes to mean many things.
Google defines “sustainable” as such:
able to be maintained at a certain rate or level.
able to be upheld or defended.
Certainly with regards to the organizations I have worked with, and with respect to my own practice, “sustainability” has primarily meant maintaining a level of funding to keep the practice alive and performing at a standard set by the integrity of the practice. The communities that support the arts come to rely on this integrity, and also work towards making their beloved organizations sustainable.
But what if sustainability is a concept that goes further than this?
Fundraising and keeping an organization or practice alive is critical to the practice, but does this go far enough for the community that supports it? Or even more so, the total community this organization can serve?
Sustainability is also about growth. The creativity that sparked the genesis of our organizations and practices was never meant to be kept in a nutshell, and even if the organization is in a fixed building – bound by bricks and mortar – the notion of growth must be seen in every aspect of keeping our arts culture alive. It’s about reaching new audiences, generating new ideas, exploring concepts that challenge, and presenting it to a community. It’s about stretching past the bricks and mortar, the reach of our cultural groups, and pulling new people into new ideas. Diversity is key to innovation.
Sustainability is also about responsibility – the making defensible and upholdable. Arts organizations are at the vanguard of new ideas and problematizing the old and in this role they must also be stewards setting examples for the communities they serve. Arts organizations require resources given to them by communities, and must be responsible to those community resources. From consumption to getting the message out about change and new ideas, arts organizations must work within their mandate to communicate. Part of this communication, whether implicit in their practices, or explicit within their messages, must be about the broader world and community.
I am not stating that artists must be on the forefront of the political. Neil Young and others have chosen to add their voices to the indigenous communities about respecting treaties around oil sands and pipelines. Not all artists need to be spokespersons about issues. Indeed for some, it may be damaging to their careers. But this doesn’t mean that there aren’t things we can do as a broad artistic community to further meaningful change (or preservation!).
Sustainability is also about how we behave within our practices. Can we reduce our own footprints? Certainly small organization and practices are thrifty, frugal and reuse as much as they can – dictated by their budgets. Larger organizations who have bigger budgets are also bound by their bottoms lines with regards to consumption, and therefore, waste. But there is more we can do than just consider our own place in the cycle of consumption.
Do I have the answers to any of this? Not at all. In fact, these are questions and problems that have troubled me. How can I build more, grow more, and be a responsible citizen within the creative economy?
At the Staging Sustainability conference – in Toronto Feb 2-5 – these questions, and many more will be addressed.
We make work, but we want to reach new audiences. Tours are expensive, and require some of the most taxing resources. How do we shift an entire cast, some crew, and everything that makes a show in the least harmful ways? From New York, Broadway Green Alliance is an organization that works to educate and motivate environmentally conscious practices in all aspects of theatre. Working on Broadway, their influence stretches from the most famous theatre district in the world, across to several allies all over the planet. Their co-chair, Charlie Deull, will be presenting in a session on how to move and tour work more sustainably – on February 4th.
Another speaker that has me excited is Marie Zimmerman – the artistic director of Hillside Festival. For locals, I don’t need to say much here. Hillside is known for its all-star lineup combined with heavy hitting new talent, and a deep commitment to maintaining high environmental standards in a large festival setting. She is presenting in two sessions: the first on the 3rd of February is about how programmers are thinking about sustainability, and on the 4th, she is talking about how to integrate sustainability into audience experience – how to communicate.
And to move away from ecological questions in arts, and dive into building arts ecosystems, Fractured Atlas‘s Tim Cynova is coming to us from New York. As a mission, Fractured Atlas indicates that “empowers artists, arts organizations, and other cultural sector stakeholders by eliminating practical barriers to artistic expression, so as to foster a more agile and resilient cultural ecosystem.” They state this as the “unsexy stuff” and yet, these are the foundational pieces of making a healthy arts cluster… and something that me and my Waterloo Region colleagues could likely use help with. Cynova will be speaking on how to integrate sustainability as a core value in artistic practice. Read a blog post of his here: 7 ways to build a sustainable art career this year
Theatre is resource heavy in the arts. It requires a community of people to create anything, and budgets to match. With the crystallizing of my career around creating theatre, this conference seems like a great way to broaden my practice into deeper consideration. Certainly, with presenters like these, I will be given plenty of food for thought on my own practice, and how to more deeply engage the broader community.
Hey folks… a bit of a question.
So many industries have a once per month networking event. Some networking events are just open networking for folk who want to connect.
In the past, I have found networking events instrumental in building community, which in turn has been instrumental in building audience and support around my arts practice.
So a few questions… please either comment here, or send me an email – email@example.com
Would you be interested in a once-per-month arts networking event?
If yes, how would you conceive this event:
- For artists, creative workers and arts admin people mostly?
- For artists, arts affiliated, and arts lovers?
- Open networking – drinks hors d’oeuvres at a local pub with no agenda?
- Event + open networking – a short talk by a local artist or arts worker and a networking session after?
- A better idea?
Disclosure: I really don’t like conferences. From marketing conferences to tech conferences, where the questions of gender parity of speakers is abysmal, as are any other attempts at representation and accessibility, to the lack of relevance of speakers, topics and how they pertain to the markets they serve – the appeal to cult of personality over substance.
But then I found this conference. Staging Sustainability. Excellent representation of gender, topical panels and speakers, and a stunning offering of discussions and performance.
This conference presented by Arts Build Ontario, a Waterloo Region based organization, is creating a national dialog around two issues that are close to my heart: Art and sustainability.
So here we have it: the arts have the power to create massive cultural transformation. They can be used for propaganda. They can be used to deliver information. But even when they are deeply esoteric and not performing a political function, the arts are a powerful tool for communication.
Sustainability should be a consideration for Canadian artists. Certainly in my own practice the question of sustainability is implicitly addressed through scant resources. There is little possibility for waste and primary consumption (the act of buying things that enter into the waste cycle) is minimal. Reuse, and repurposing is default for most artists.
But is this enough?
Staging Sustainability is presenting an extraordinary line-up of speakers and performances that address this and many other questions with regards to sustainable practices in the culture industries.
Julie’s Bicycle hails from the UK. Sholeh Johnson (link opens to Twitter), manager of their Art Programme is one of the speakers who will be engaging in this national conversation. From their website:
“Julie’s Bicycle is a not for profit organization making sustainability intrinsic to the business, art and ethics of the creative industries.
“Founded by the music industry, with expertise from the arts and sustainability, Julie’s Bicycle bridges the gap between the creative industries and sustainability. Based on a foundation of peer-reviewed research, we sustain creativity, enabling the arts to create change.
“We work with over 1000 arts organizations across the UK and internationally, large and small to help them measure, manage and reduce their environmental impacts.”
This conference also promises to take the question of sustainability further.
Karen DiLossi, from Philadelphia PA, is on a panel that asks the question: How can we innovate in existing arts facilities to integrate sustainable technology and practices? Think of that – using the old and adapting it with the latest and greatest. DiLossi is coming to us from Partners in Sacred Places (with the tagline “at the intersection of heritage, faith and community”). I can’t wait to hear her point of view on that particular question.
And as a final point: what’s an arts conference without art? Worked into the schedule are several performances. The conference is also tied in with the Carbon 14: Climate is Culture exhibit at the ROM.
The schedule of events, panels, speakers, and shows are astounding. The conference is grounded in the arts, is speaking about how to build our practices as socially and environmentally responsible, but also tickles with innovation is so completely up my alley. I really can’t wait to get there. Also, expect to hear more from me about this fantastic event and the Waterloo Region-based organization who is spearheading what very well may become a new movement in Canadian art.
Take a quick gander at the latest Vital Signs report issued by the KW Community Foundation…
Download it: WRVS_2013_FINAL_FOR_WEB
K. Look at page 8. That is the arts and culture indicator. There is a graph that shows the decline of workers in arts and culture. And a pie chart that shows the different types of workers in arts and culture sector – and their numbers.
Two mega huge problems
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.
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.
This is where you come in. Why don’t you help me out here:
Why are arts and culture failing in Waterloo Region?
What can we as culture workers, artists and arts lovers do to change this?
Should we meet for a conversation cafe – I would happily convene one, or several! Should we build a new advocacy council? This is horrifically upsetting news, but we see it every day around us. Can we put a tombstone in the Victoria Park green representing every artist we know who had to leave this community because of the utter lack of support? I would love to hear your creative ideas, and pragmatic ones.
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).
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.
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.
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.
What is the term for people who copy others, constantly, expecting similar results? I mean, not just implementing a good idea, but word for word lifting everyone else’s good ideas… there must be a term for it.
In this case, I am going to call it Waterloo Syndrome.
Here’s what I mean:
So the tech sector wants us here in Waterloo Region to be the response to Silicon Valley… Instead of relying on our own specific identity and culture, we have been monikered by ourselves (well, our tech sector) as Silicon Valley North. We will NEVER be a second Silicon Valley. In fact, I hope we aren’t. My last experiences in the Valley included not only the requisite geek parties around MacWorld Dev Con, but also lots of horrific sprawl, racism, classism, little arts, little culture… Really, you had to go to San Francisco for anything in the way of what makes life worth living, and what makes making all of those silicon bucks worth having. Quantum Valley – now that is a thing: we are the Grand River valley, and we have lots of facilities that study quantum things. Why do we want to copy Silicon Valley when we have this home-grown, amazingly cool angle?
The other thing I see, in response to the surprising, latest and greatest announcement from the tech sector, is that they finally realise that the worst thing about an underdeveloped community is the lack of culture. But wait. They said “nightlife”. What is meant by this? Nightlife isn’t what’s missing in Waterloo Region… what’s missing is a culture that celebrates its own. (Edit: we are missing a nightlife. Let me clarify: if we had a culture that represents our city, we would have a nightlife. You can’t open a bar or club and expect it to just automagically fill with amazing people. It requires curation and programming. Check out the Boathouse for a successful nightlife – music scene. The programming is excellent, and it represents our music scene in a delightful way. Even there, we see a highly vulnerable arts institution that the city was all too ready to nix – kinda the proof-in-the-pudding of some of my arguments here. Also proof that with the homegrown cultural element, the nightlife is appropriate and really quite good all on its own. The Boathouse isn’t just a bar, as was shown in 2011. It’s a cultural institution.) We don’t celebrate our own developments, innovation, arts, culture, or the things we build, with the exception of some very monied but volatile market products. Why does Paris continue to be a city where people flock for inspiration, relaxation, and all matters of joie de vivre? It isn’t some industry – it is an ungrounded esoteric culture that celebrates Paris, Parisians and what it means to be Parisian in all of its diversity. Kitchener is no longer a German city. Hasn’t been for a long time. And even if it was, Germans have amazing cultural investment programmes in developing arts that represent them, in the moment, in all of their diversity.
So, we aren’t German. We aren’t Silicon Valley. What are we?
We are one of the few cities in North America that have outrageously innovative contemporary arts, in three disciplines, and to the point where there are three festivals that celebrate these very advanced disciplines and their pursuit in Waterloo Region. Why isn’t this known or celebrated? Simple answer: support and capacity. We have the intellectual and financial capacity, but we don’t have a region that supports these pursuits. They would rather bring in expensive and transient things from the outside than build up these amazing festivals and artists who have chosen to make this awkward geographic location their home. Even our home media doesn’t cover our outstanding arts scene. And when they do, it is to celebrate that they have left to make art elsewhere.
Now we have an initiative that supports the creation of new artists in the region (this is good!!) but with no funding, we are building even more talent that can’t possibly stay here.
Now let’s clearly define things. I love photography, painting and 2D visual arts. I love that creative people can make a living and that they exist here. I am not talking about them when I talk about a vibrant arts and culture scene. People do not flock to another town for individual photographers, the painters (unless they are wildly famous). They flock to a town for a lot of painters, photographers, potters, artisan crafters (like Elora). They flock to a town for something they can’t get back home. They leave their houses for an experience they can’t have on the Internet. So what does this mean? Unless we are building capacity around things like Nuit Blanche (but there again, we would be copying), or Stratford Festival (again, there is already a Stratford), or other similar things, we are not going to build capacity around the arts, and our region will remain the boring place that it is. Now here is where it gets really frustrating. We have festivals that attract international talent, talent from here that has left, and those who are still based here:
- IMPACT – an international theatre festival showcasing contemporary creations. IMPACT is a great name.
- CAFKA – a contemporary visual arts festival featuring installations from outstanding artists
- Open Ears – a festival of contemporary music and sound. Esoteric and amazing.
- Guelph Jazz Festival – this one blows me away every year. Contemporary jazz…
- Guelph Contemporary Dance Festival – contemporary dance, again, outstanding. Punching above its weight.
You see that? When we include Guelph (20 minute drive), we have the entire gamut of arts covered, and all in their most innovative, expressive and interesting forms. Why are we accepting our streets rolling up at 6 pm (with the exception of obnoxious student pub culture and under-age clubs) when we have this? Why aren’t we looking at our own, funding our own? Much like the moniker Silicon Valley North, we are desperate to have something great unto ourselves, but again in the same vein of the name Silicon Valley North never taking off, our arts and culture suffer desperately from this top-down imposition.
You’ve got it wrong: How to beat Waterloo Syndrome
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.
What I propose is to support the festivals we have. Build them so that our artists can keep living here and keep representing our culture back to us (look at the NFB and its mandate: telling the story of canadians by canadians to canadians). Support their work, and recognise its genius. Also recognise that no amount of foreign greatness replaces the daily beat of people in love with their city. If you treat the arts as a talent recruitment device, even the tech people won’t appreciate it. We can all smell inauthenticity from a mile away.