Tag Archives: cultural planning

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 ParisDigest.com

State of the Arts

Victoria Ward

Wind, rain, snow – it’s spring in Ontario

A curator of a publicly funded gallery recently told me how the gallery had been designed without regard for the very brisk and frequent northerly winds that would blast past the front door making the opening of the door at times difficult and if you were quite elderly or handicapped impossible. She marveled at the thinking that went behind a design that did not take the geographic location of where the gallery was into account. “I’m going to put that front door in the sun and away from the wind if it’s the last thing I do.”

This may seem a small, odd thing to vex over but in fact it speaks to an enormous issue of how the arts are placed and contextualized in different geographic regions. In northern towns weather plays a huge role in how people attend art. Unlike Toronto you can’t jump into a cab if it is raining or hop on a subway if it is snowing – you most likely have to drive to an art related event. Mapping out how the arts is exhibited and performed always comes with a seasonal strategy and in small places or non-urban places seasonal is everything.

This is why art needs to be considered in an area’s basic planning considerations. And why you seldom find art galleries in big box retail areas. Engaging with art isn’t just a retail experience; it is a community event in many ways and people should be able to move easily from dinner to art thing to après art activities as easily as possible. We now live in the urban art festival age and the public is as impressed by the ease with which they can partake in art as much as the art itself. Making it easy, fluid and generally well planned is essential to getting people to enjoy their experience with art, hence my curator’s concern that her community thinks it is always windy and awful where the art gallery is.

From the Sudbury project We Live Up Here; a photo based book & site devoted to dispelling myths about northern culture.
From the Sudbury project We Live Up Here; a photo based book & site devoted to dispelling myths about northern culture.

I found myself in many conversations about this kind of thing in recent trips to the near north. Both Sudbury and Sault Ste. Marie are vying for a renaissance period where art engagement moves their communities closer to sustainable support for the arts. Funding has become a far trickier game in recent years with no one quite knowing what the future holds; are municipalities going to shoulder the responsibility for financing the arts? Is crowd funding really our new funding model? And if so, can someone please explain to me that crowd funding is a good thing and not the most depressing thing in the whole world. It’s more than a cyber tin cup right?

This discussion brings me to the town of Minden near to where I live. Minden is a small town just off the Hwy35 north of Lindsay. The Gull River flows right through the centre of town making it a jolly place in the thick of summer as people float through the town aloft on various shaped buoyant devices. Minden has a cultural centre with a really, really nice gallery, two taverns, Thai food, several ice cream places, two excellent luncheonettes, and lots of very cool people who make the town a great place to visit. In the last two weeks Minden had a flood that tore people’s shorelines apart, spread over the entire downtown area and wreaked havoc on residents and businesses. The Gull River is still strikingly swollen as I write this, some two weeks after the rain and first rising waters.

Dowtown Minden, still open for business even though the signage doesn't inspire.
Dowtown Minden, still open for business even though the signage doesn’t inspire.

No less than two new businesses are in the process of getting ready to open their doors this month in Minden. Both businesses will highlight local artists and have strong creative culture tie-ins to the community. Both think they can thrive by making the main street in Minden a cultural hub. The flood hasn’t dampened (oy, I can’t believe that I and every other writer in the county is using that word) their spirits or goals of being ready for business on the all important long weekend in May. The people of Minden and the surrounding county have come out in droves to support this busy centre; always gratifying in this deeply cynical age we live in.

I believe that what will get Minden back on its feet and able to renew its strengths is its hectic cultural life. This is because Minden has been laying down the roots of such dynamism. Art and its surrounding off shoots such as cafés, boutiques, festival etc. all work toward creating energy. These new businesses, a great exhibition roster at the gallery for the year, a new cultural planned direction and a stronger sense of place created by the many interesting people who live there are foundations from which a stronger community can grow.

It is always art that helps define these smaller communities and their successes rest on art being woven into the fabric of the matrix that make a place a destination. Art can also resuscitate a place as well as help a place reemerge from disaster. Weather will continue to play a huge role in northern places as our Earth warms and we rural types are on the front lines of dealing with it. That is why a community that makes culture a focus will have an easier time rolling with the unpredictability and indifference of natural forces.

Please help the town of Minden and donate generously. Cheques should be made out to Township of Minden Hills and indicate it is a donation for flood victims.  Send it to 7 Milne Street, PO Box 359. Minden, Ontario. K0M 2K0
705-286-1260 ext. 200

Pic from We Live Up Here website, great galvanizing idea for a smaller community.

Pic of Minden courtesy Michael Bainbridge.