Waterloo Region Arts Reboot

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.

Boehmer Box art throwdown

Waterloo Region Arts Reboot

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!

Breaking the barrier: 10 things learned in going from amateur to professional in the arts

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

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

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. You can die from exposure.

    You can die from exposure. Don’t create your own droughts.

    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.

  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.

What is a sustainable arts organization?

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:

  1. able to be maintained at a certain rate or level.
  2. 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.

Networking for the arts – Yay or nay? Let me know!

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 – terre@mycontention.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?


Waterloo Region based arts org motivates national conversation

Staging Sustainability

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.

Arts and culture fail miserably in Waterloo Region – I need to hear from YOU

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 dying in a car crash (1:5000) 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.

Robot Unicorn

The artist in Waterloo Region: As rare as a robot unicorn

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 accumen 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.

So many ways – comment on this blog post, email me, facebook message me – if you know me there, dm me on Twitter – let’s get this conversation going.

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.

Why the arts and culture fail: Waterloo Syndrome


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 the photographers, the painters (unless they are wildly famous). 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.

Why I moved here, why I stayed: art matters in Waterloo Region

I moved to Waterloo Region originally around 2000 to work in the new and budding tech industry. I came with no idea of what Waterloo Region was outside of knowing I was heading into post-industrial, post-manufacturing, Oktoberfest and Mennonites. None of these held any interest for me. My first dance with the Region was with a small tech company in Waterloo. I lived in old Doon, old Preston, Waterloo near Chapters and finally in Old Westmount. I mostly worked. When I didn’t work, I would go to the Button Factory for life drawing. I attended festivals and appreciated the culture  as a pure consumer.

My life then moved me away from the utterly soulless world of tech for the first time (remember that first time you learned a tough lesson about something and then thought after enough time had passed things would have changed enough to try  again? Like re-dating that person you broke up with all those years ago, and finding out they hadn’t changed? Yeah, tech is my bad boyfriend. I don’t re-date people. I re-date an industry.) Don’t get me wrong… I loved coding. I love making things, and I love math. I love logic and algorithm. However, as an industry, it is deeply problematic. Especially for women and creative types.

I moved to Guelph for a bit to live through an utter devastation, and then moved to rest my head in Elora.

North Queen Elora

My beautiful wee cottage in Elora before I moved in. The gardens expanded, the house stayed the same. Now it is gone, replaced by a mondern monstrosity.

Elora was convalescence, rest, respite, heeling, solitude, quietude, gardening, bread baking, and perfectly introverted. I have nary a friend from that time and location other than the plants, the wildlife, insects, the falls and rocky gorges, a now stolen super heavy fixie pink bike that was impossible to push up steep or large hills, my extensive gardens, my writing. These are now all gone and I am left with nothing but nostalgic memories of beauty.  After some time in Elora, somewhere around 2006, I had the precious ability to choose any city with a university where I could want to live. Oddly, I chose downtown Kitchener.

Downtown Kitchener brownfield

From my beautiful Elora cottage to my brownfield balcony-view flat in Kitchener

My family expressed concern and apprehension regarding my choice, and others who had seen my beautiful half-acre property and ancient house in Elora couldn’t possibly understand why downtown Kitchener held any appeal for a young mother with two babies who had just become single. Kitchener it was with Bread and Roses cooperative as the replacement for my sweetly quaint Elora home.

Once here, I became quickly integrated into the city. I developed a strong passion for the downtown in which I was a new resident. I became active in the happenings of the inner city street, advocating for small locally owned business, downtown residents, and the daily goings on that affected the health of this new and amazing place (context: I have lived in several cities). The tenacity and care of the people active in the core was infectious. The community up here is wound together through commonality and stays very open – you are all accepted and we do our best to take care of those in our community. Really a perfect spot to land for a penniless single mother.

There was one word that often came to mind that counted for everything…



In the downtown, my first stunning experience with art in Waterloo Region came from CAFKA: Haptic in 2007. I was blown away by the art-as-found-object nature of the show. The work was playful, filled with wonder, and haphazard and completely unexpected by this author in my first experiences in this city.

I was desirous to talk about it, and wanted to be as much a part of this stunning world that I hadn’t known in my previous existence in this city. I started a salon in the Exhibit Cafe (now where Imbibe is located at the base of  TheMUSEUM) to discuss art, food, philosophy, poetry, and civic issues. It featured researchers, specialists, poets, artists, farmers, and other amazing people who were willing to share their passion. We ran for over a year and I met so many interesting people. Among these were Dan Forsey who is now the owner of the Tannery School of Music (at the time, art event organiser extraordinaire), and Brian Scott (events department for the city of Kitchener). These two pulled me into an arts landscape that was to change me forever. I had other critical mentors in the shape of professors and friends who had no idea of the power of their words. Sometimes creativity takes a grand kick in the ass. Sometimes even that doesn’t work to get us there. Many people ignore this calling forever because there are several indications of the impossibility and pain of it all. Those people – I feel badly that they were discouraged. It’s tough. Really tough. But it is a worthwhile rollercoaster ride.

Eventually the salon folded when my schooling required more of my attention.


Around this time, I had been introduced to the MT Space with the early workshops of The Last 15 Seconds. I was blown away by the quality of the work. I expected to see this type of art in Montreal, but not in my surprisingly more-than-just-Mennonites! downtown. I had moved my expectations beyond the tourism focus on quaint German-ness and Oktoberfest, but I had not expected this level of experimental and avant garde artistry.


With a new-found passion for this local and exciting form (in visual art, theatre, and music), and my love of critical thought and communication (what I was studying) with support from Forsey and Scott, I founded a burlesque company (look at that hair colour! I am not sure how I did it… Aside this cast was outstandingly talented. I have such profound respect for all of these artists, many of whom have continued performing in one way or another). After a year of hard work (for me, there was an importance in having a critical perspective on the nature of burlesque. It had to be about more than the costumes and partial nudity. It needed to possess a reflexivity, a critical dialog in the arc of the performances… but man the costumes were a blast) we were invited to participate in IMPACT 09.

Our company impressed, but more important, I was impressed by the nature of art making in the city to a point that I could no longer be silent. The theatre/performance art community, as well as the Three Amigos and the discussions on multiculturalism, inclusion and art had absolutely grabbed my attention and has held me for all of these years. I was brought into the arts, and guided patiently by the likes of Majdi Bou-Matar, Paddy Gillard-Bentley, and so many others. The wealth of ability and creativity in this community is beyond words. IMPACT 09 and CAFKA Veracity saw the beginning of my reviewing art on my now defunct blog Urbanely Urban.

In writing Urbanely Urban, I had attended hundreds of art, and art related events in the region, and outside the region if it pertained to artists from here. I encountered all types of artists from high art mucky mucks, to people who are experimenting in transformative media, to graffiti artists who did little more than tag. I met composers whose work reached the sublime as well as those who worked with sound and noise: taking me on visceral journeys through abstraction. I reviewed blues, jazz, symphony, contemporary, outrageous, odd, dance, ballet, theatre, art talks, exhibits, solo artists, lectures, the Canadian famous, the brand new, the outsider, the insider and anything I could find at all interesting. My writing was quoted in several newspapers, magazines, some academic journals and in other various media. If nothing else, I gained a wide perspective on art and art making in this region, how it travels and has a knock-on effect on other locations. I also gained perspective on why people leave, which they continue to do in droves, and where they go when they have left. We have a serious case of creative brain-drain.

As for myself, I am a writer… an observer. I am also a playwright. I watch and write. And after a previous 15 years of changing my address several times per year every year, I have finally settled into downtown Kitchener as my long-term home. It’s been 7 years so far.  I won’t claim expertise on downtowns, Kitchener, Waterloo Region or the art made here, but I have put in my 10,000 hours of looking, making and writing here to feel a certain confidence in some of my observations.

Our grassroots arts are critical to the act of making art in this region. They are also critical to the health of our overwhelmingly diverse population. They are our stories and artefacts. They say something about us as a city and as population who are sometimes only held together by geography but still share a common experience within this. You see, Elora was a place of respite, and immediate heeling for a very sore and broken soul. Waterloo Region art is what breathed the life back into that something that still limped around even though it thought itself strong again. I am a part of this diversity. I am proudly a downtown Kitchener artist.

The next blog will be about this… the grassroots.

Arts funding in Waterloo Region

Yah know, anytime the arts or arts funding hits the editorial sections of the Record, really awful conversations come to light. Here are some key issues that I feel pretty strongly about.

1- The arts aren’t an option. They are a social necessity.
2- Arts in Waterloo Region are critically underfunded. All of them. From the big institutions to the innovative individual artists, there isn’t enough money.
3- WRAF is one of the last things in this city that is for artists by (in large part) artists. A jury of one’s peers is the best way to decide on funding. If you don’t get a grant, it’s because you need to improve your application (I also imagine they are flooded with applications. It’s a tiny amount of money for a very large community). I like that there are artists on this decision making board. I sure trust them more than most.
4- The jury of WRAF should receive an honorarium for their work. Just like any proper jury.
5- Most cities have arts councils with paid experts instead of this constant reliance on volunteers. If we are to really get anywhere, we need advocacy and we should have people paid to do this.
6- We will never all agree, and that is a good thing.