State of the Arts

Victoria Ward

Making plans

The Venice Biennale opens this month. This every two year extravaganza of art is called “the Olympics” of the art world by the mainstream press. If by that the media means it is a bloated, shady, bankrupting force that showcases activities which have nothing to do with the real world, then yes, I would agree. Although I am happy for the artists chosen to represent Canada since they get to work on a scale they probably never will again in their life; I hate this kind of fest because it doesn’t transcend the current state of affairs, it actually reinforces it. Artist should be like movie stars it seems to be promoting. Really? Thanks, I’ll pass on that one, I like my weight, face and life to be mine if you don’t mind.

But then again I’m a crank who doesn’t enjoy this vertical ascension in our culture where the only winners are those at the very top. I like people to have more access to more things, I like artists who work hard and love what they do with or without the recognition of an award or festival spotlight, and most importantly I believe that culture is local and you experience it every time you walk out your door.

I spent this past weekend in Toronto which is always a good thing (crack smoking low tax clowns aside). Toronto has become my stimulus balm; I often feel centered and edified by being there. While urbanites may come into my neck of the woods to find solace I reverse the experience and find the chaos and energy of the city a wonderful fix to my simple existence. While in Toronto I usually do similar things on each visit; go to an art gallery or two or more, eat food I can’t possibly make at home (this time it was Italian cookies at Forno Cultura and terrine at The Federal), visit with brilliant people doing brilliant things and shop for books and music.

I had the added bonus of doing research on cultural planning. Why I was doing this isn’t interesting but the research was. Cultural planning has come about after years of people like Richard Florida telling everyone at the TED talks or IdeaCity that creative people are the future of our economies. He isn’t alone, there are lots of these ‘culture gurus’ out there who are pushing this idea that supporting culture will save us and make our lives better. If you Google cultural planning you come up with loads of reports and talks that include “visioning statements about your community” and “convergence of arts, leisure and community”. Creative people are the new manufacturing and tourism is the new industrial revolution so to speak.

The Paris Commune 1871. Parisian workers & artists revolted over German occupation. Isn't corporate occupation the same thing?
The Paris Commune 1871. Parisian workers & artists revolted over forces trying to control their city. Isn’t corporate occupation the same thing?

While I agree with much of this sentiment and that culture does create both energy and money I can’t help but get kind of irked by the fact that people like Richard Florida have more brand recognition than the actual people he is talking about. I mean, who are all these creative people who are rejuvenating our towns and communities? I would think they should be people like Sky Gilbert (Google him, his CV is way too long to write in here and frankly more impressive than Richard Florida’s) who on a recent CBC panel slammed Florida by suggesting that gays aren’t all arts lovers. Some are plumbers. Apparently Florida uses gay culture widely as an example of a supportive arts community.

More distressing and less hilarious however is the fact that these ideas haven’t helped creative people at all. In fact most creative professions have seen a rapid decline of their income over the last decade. In this country the rise of artists vying for MFA status is testimony to the fact that you can’t make money as a creative person anymore, you have to teach or worm your way into some kind of academic structure for security. Writers have it even worse; not even newspapers or magazines pay decent fees anymore and they keep professionals at bay through offensive contracts and ownership rights. Cultural planning may be happening but it has strangely coincided with a demise of many creative pursuits.

During the 19th century the world’s economy switched very rapidly from agriculture and guilds (where crafts people created items we needed) to factories in order to make lots of things for the rise of the middle class; home owners who wanted all the mod cons. The result was a better standard of living and constant political turmoil. Protesters marred this transition. They thought that if there was going to be a new world order then working people, creative people and poor people needed to be involved. This is an enormously simple reading of history I know, but there are parallels today. If our economies are to be saved by creative thinking and innovation then why aren’t creative people at the table where decisions are being made? Why are cultural plans being written by marketers and not artists?

The sudden news of a Walmart wanting to open its doors in Kensington Market in Toronto is a perfect example of what I am referring to. The market is a thriving area due to the hard work of independently minded, creative people. A corporation has had nothing to do with its success. Therefore allowing one in to reap the rewards of decades of organic planning (yes, there was no cultural plan here) is immoral and downright offensive. Whether it happens or not is kind of beside the point. These decisions shouldn’t even get this far.

The cultural gurus who made a lot of money blabbing about the ‘creative economy’ over the last decade should be leading this fight and others. What will it finally take for these ‘thinkers’ to finally come out from under their comfortable and secure rocks?

Pic from


57 thoughts on “State of the Arts”

  1. This is the perfect read of the most excellent writing about something that just came up for me this evening (for the 100th time this year alone) and it’s about art communities and artists keeping communities viable and fresh and YES, even SAFE. I spent the evening strolling about midtown Oakland where numerous art galleries have flourished in the past 5 years (and we are talking “working class art” – the very best kind of art). Art Murmur is an non-profit arts organization that hosts something called “First Fridays” where the artists show their work amidst other artists all sharing spaces together, amidst an incredible array of urban folk in Oakland; the make-up of which is the loveliest mix-mash of a multitude of world cultures all together in one place. (Yes, this is Oakland, California, USA) Food trucks, music artists, ceramics artists, painters, photographers, jugglers, dancers, and more intertwined together in a 10-block radius. I found several amazing re-purposed art from the most incredible sources: colored plastic bags cut small and enwrapped in sterling silver (malleable jewelry — rings, bracelets, necklaces and earrings of stunning color and beauty), and my favorite – the leather interiors of wrecked fancy cars re-purposed into leather handbags, backpacks, wallets, wrist-wallets (my favorite) and jackets. Imagine wearing the leather interior of a Mercedes or a Ferrari…now THAT is art and reuse and the perfection of a life of of a city where artists come together and make public GOOD.

    Thank you for this incredible blog post, blogcabinbyvic. You have instantly become one of my favorites herein.

  2. Good points here. People would rather hang a cheap print of Van Gogh in their house than have genuine art created by a living artist. Why? Maybe because that shows they know what great art is? Living artist are creating great art, too. Corporations would rather spend millions on one famous piece of art by a dead artist than spend the same amount of money for hundreds of artists to have something approaching living wages.

  3. “If our economies are to be saved by creative thinking and innovation then why arenโ€™t creative people at the table where decisions are being made? Why are cultural plans being written by marketers and not artists?”

    Truly fabulous – really enjoyed this! Thank-you!

  4. Yes, I agree with many of your tenants about art, and honestly if it is not supported, fostered, and encouraged for people at an early age, there will be very few pieces of art that aren’t sponsored or filtered through the mainstream marketing. Great post.

  5. So well expressed and I agree with you totally. Even signed the petition against WALMART going in to Kensington Market.
    Thank you for writing this article, you are so not alone in your sentiments!

  6. Interesting article which I admit I skimmed because its late . Will return to it in the fresh of a new day. Your final paragraph about Walmart has a parallel with recent disturbances in Turkey. Yep I think we are being shat on by the corporate dead who pay homage at the altar of mammon. Best wishes.

  7. Oh my, did this post resonate with me. I just today had a conversation with a fellow artist about this very phenomenon. I am with you all the way. Where/when does the vapid nonsense end?

  8. One of the times you feel refreshed and ticking over faster after reading an article. Some things I don’t necessarily see the same way, coming from a completely different space in my country. Over here, or even in Italy, you don’t have to go too far back to see when creative people from the most left-of-field creative houses were commissioned by local authorities to redesign and reshape the city, architectural structures and translate how our modern lifestyle was evolving through the daily sights we take in everyday. In North America, it seems a little different than over here. You’re perfectly accurate about the declining budgets to creative fields. That’s true here, too.

  9. Sorry, but the Commune de Paris was no revolt against Germans. And the germans didn’t occupy Paris in the first place. The commune of paris was an uprising against early capitalism and the French government, by socialists and anarchists.

    1. You are correct however there are many readings of this history and there are those who believe that in fact there were Prussian forces in and around Paris with much confusion as to who was in fact repressing the resistance. Thank you for reading.

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