Right now in my little neck of the woods a local municipal council wants to cut the budget to a small rural cultural centre. The centre has a museum, a library and an art gallery. If you are not familiar with small towns or rural cultural places, this set up, combining several attractions under one roof, is common. It allows for year round programming that includes, workshops on all kinds of art making, book readings, fund raisers, parties, festivals, the list goes on…
This particular local gallery has exhibited my work and several artists who have big national profiles. The curator and its supporters have been trying to make the gallery worthy of respect and interest from the wider contemporary art community. This task is not easy because most city people are snobs and think that nothing interesting happens in small places. I know that is harsh but it’s true. Urbanites think we’re inbred, stunted and with no sophistication. Plus, why on earth would anyone want to live where nothing happens?
However, when a cottager or a visitor to our little area steps into this gallery and sees that what is on display is erudite and vividly contemporary they change their minds. That is what art does. Suddenly we are some place. The logistics of creating a contemporary and relevant art exhibition in an area known for fishing, hunting and snowmobiling is challenging but the effect is enchanting. Over the years many cottagers decided to settle here and it is because of such attractions they do. If you can spend your morning cross country skiing and then attending a cocktail party at a gallery opening in the evening – you’ve got the best of all worlds. It’s not without its problems but this is one of the reasons I and many of my transplant friends moved here. Plus, we can own homes and studios here.
Back to the cuts. Recently there were a couple of stories about other municipalities threatening to cut art funding from budgets but backed down when the communities put up a fuss. I suspect that this might be part of why this is happening here. A lot of hostility can be directed at the arts in small communities. Poverty is a huge issue in small places because it becomes accented against the wealthy second home owners who think that they have as much right to the area as those of us who are here all year round. They do. Artists being able to eek out a living in these areas can cause some similar and unfair resentment. But this all happens in cities too; it’s just on a bigger and more complex scale.
The cuts would ruin the progress made by the gallery. While I and others make efforts to promote how extraordinary it is to have galleries in areas such as ours, this council goes and behaves exactly like what our urban detractors would suggest we are: short sighted and without any understanding of the importance of culture.
The kinds of wildernessy places like where I live attract people because of the seeming abundance of the natural world; Lakes! Forests! Hiking! Canoeing! But they stay here because they can also be part of a community that actually gives a shit. Culture and things like art galleries are a direct message to potential newcomers and money that your area is worthy of someone’s life. After living here for fifteen years and spending my childhood summers as a cottager I have seen first hand that when a small place embraces things cultural and arty they thrive. We’ve been smothered in studies on why this is true. We all know this, and frankly I think the council who is deciding on these ruinous cuts knows this too.
Art communities need to begin to confront why they are under attack on all sides all the time. While it may seem like the minute we come up for air there is another war to wage, we still need to take the time answer why we continue to exist on such shaky ground. It’s a hard question but it needs to be asked.