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

Culture isn’t expressed through clean, gentrified space.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

City of Kitchener Council

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

You are starving us.

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

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

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

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

About this Vital Signs report

It’s only gotten worse.

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

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

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

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

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

The lack of authenticity and concern

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

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

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

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

We should have a Christie Digital Centre for Inter Arts

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

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

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

We should have the Vidyard Grand River Film Festival

We should have the OpenText Kitchener Waterloo Symphony

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

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

Boehmer Box art throwdown

If only they didn’t treat artist like children.

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

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

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

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

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

Text from my talk Monday 14th of December to City Council

Here’s the text from the talk that I couldn’t give in its fullness due to finding out a change in funding to the CEI. It is still pertinent. The CEI should not use another pinch of money to close its doors.

Presenters from the arts community included Janice Lee, Martin de Groot, Robert Linsley, Duncan Finnegan, and Gordon Hatt.

City of Kitchener Council

Thank you councilors for allowing me and my colleagues to come and speak to you on a matter that is near and dear to us as a functional, organised, and very active sector in this city.

I want to start by expressing my respect for both Roger Farwell, and Debbie Currie as two hard working, well intentioned, and great people in the city. They have tried hard to build something meaningful, and it wasn’t without successes, but at this point, the successes are over, and belabouring the closure of this organisation with the building out of two unwanted initiatives is only directing money away from where it most necessary: back into the arts.

Thanks to the CEI’s own work we realised that the arts sector is short by up to 5 million in funding based on 50 arts organizations – not just the 5 pillars.

Thanks to the municipalities for recognising the need and moving money to the arts.

The dollar per capita amount was critical, but it didn’t help the entire sector. In going strictly to the pillars, the real needs of those who animate the city: the creators and innovators were left to starve. In the past years, dozens of artists have moved away from this community, and we have seen next to no growth in new organisations that create art.

As a sector, the makers of culture, the makers of art are more than ever critically underfunded, and underresourced. And the CEI’s current priorities do not address any of the critical priorities or needs facing our sector. The new priorities are entirely duplications of other services (as they have said themselves), or are not repairable (in the sake of Grand Social) in the budget and timeline indicated.

So, what do we need?

In the formation of the CEI, We were promised access to private sector and increased funding through capacity around this access – Many arts organisations had private sector funding prior to the CEI that was diverted to the CEI through their closer business connections.

Most of the money given to the CEI did not see its way to the small to medium arts organizations. Some organizations saw support, but the ability to build new, and grow became completely absent. The lack of transparency, and the determination of who was funded and why became a point of contention. There was the “hot dog cart” fund, but of $750k, this represented only $53k. Access to private sector is critical. This is a dire need for any organisation to assemble a good financial portfolio to build sustainability.

We desperately need space. My colleague Majdi spoke to this matter so eloquently just last week. I must, however, add that every single practice in the arts from film, to the individual visual artist, to the musician looking for a jam hall is desperate for infrastructure to build, to practice, to create. Artists are not culture industries, artists are not content creators, their work often lies in a different business model that cannot sustain the increasingly high costs of space in Kitchener.

Money could be used to create a space building initiative, like ArtScape in Toronto – a very successful model of public and private funding to create permanent and meaningful infrastructure.

Lastly, we need more funding into sustainability and innovation. The Arts Fund and similar ventures are best suited to making decisions about the arts. We have experimented with good intentions over the past five years without artists active in decision making around things that concern them most. And it shows.

We see successful models of peer-based decision-making in funding in other cities, at the provincial level, and at the national level. We need support around innovation. We need to be able to identify good practices and get money to them to increase the capacity of their practices. We need to give talent an incentive to stay here, and create a vibrant arts scene. We need to build increased sustainability around the organisations that mentor, and create opportunities for other artists – such as Neruda, Inter-Arts Matrix, MT Space, and hopefully, one day, my own.

When it comes to these other two initiatives, do we give money to build another org that duplicates place-making like CAFKA, only to hand it off? Who takes on that initiative when it is half built? Are they required to follow a model that they haven’t built? And the website, as a tech professional who has a 20 year history in web, and online communication, I can attest that 15k and 1 year isn’t going to help Grand Social.

Communitech is an excellent model. The reason why it worked is that it was built by tech for tech. It was built by the people who understood the business of making a productive sector from the inside out. They maintained a status as tech association until they realised that investing in innovation in startups could be a benefit to the entire sector.

They built a culture of practice and have made Kitchener one of the most desirable places to start a tech business. But only they could do this themselves. Traditional business does not face the challenges of tech. The same goes for the arts. The CEI is not an arts organization, nor has it ever been. It is a business organization imposed on the arts.

With the shuttering of the CEI at the end of this year, I urge you to hold this last pocket of funding instead of pouring so much money into unnecessary, unwanted, and dysfunctional final projects. We, as artists, have been organising around building a new council that will be purpose driven to help the arts where they need it most. It has a clear mission, a clear function, and has been built on two years of community consultation across the disciplines in the arts – there is no need to spend another dime in hiring external consultation. I urge you to take a sober second look and put this money where it will make an enormous difference instantly for an entire sector – back into the arts.