The arts should receive a better welcome mat

I have had the opportunity in the past to support the arts in Kitchener in a direct way, acting as a catalyst for community based arts projects and achieved some success. At last, the grand experiment – the way that I saw it – came to an end with a combination of institutional restructuring and personal misfortune due to health reasons, but I’m looking once more at this recent past and wondering what can be learned.

An  article in the Vancouver Observer discussed the exodus of arts organizations and artists from the community due mostly to gentrification – though even that is now debated as other markets such as Toronto have seen increased support for the arts. Gentrification, the article suggests, only goes so far and other dynamics need to come into play to thwart the hoards of land speculators such as embracing the arts, and creating markets whereby art is consumed readily.

I do like the comment that the arts are paid lip service by being put in a box to the side and brought out every once in a while to coincide with political agendas, and yes, there are enough examples in Vancouver where greater politicking can leverage support although the demise of The Playhouse illustrates just how tenuous a reliance on government funding can be during fickle times and with awkward business models.

Locally, my experience paralleled some of the comments made in the article around development and nurturing. The article ends with a tip-of-the-hat to building more effective relationships with governments that do little other than dole out funds without entering the murky world of cultural development where my experience begins. I have seen this in action. As I have said, my direct involvement has tapered out over the past couple of years though I understand the lessons that those willing and healthy enough to make a difference should learn in order to walk ahead of the crowd and not watch culture roll up its welcome mat in Waterloo Region.

First and perhaps the most useful lesson is that more is in fact better. Now obviously there are some conditions to this as those that eschew competition will attest to. The ability to collaborate in the marketplace of consumer choice is an advantage but there are enough niche fulfillments (happenings) to persevere. This is what the buzzword vibrant means: To vibrate. I always think of it as the “and so on,” factor where people will bring a friend to a show, who will in turn eventually invite two more, “and so on,” especially since word of mouth and social media creates primary opportunities for promotion. Just check my inbox.

My second value of a cultural scene is the willingness of development partners to roll up their sleeves and get dirty.  There has to be a combination of outspoken advocacy at all levels and an urgency of responsiveness to the landscape. There has to be an effective mixer beating the batter into a vibrating mass, and this involves a long term commitment. I hear terms all the time like “support for the arts” but they are hollow without a mandate. I’m noticing a silence of late locally and I am paying attention. I have not heard a clear message or announcement on arts development in several months and I remain connected enough to hear. Where has all the momentum gone of Regional initiatives and rhetoric of hope?

The last, but by all means not the least important value is development from the ground up. I have personally been involved in projects that started with an idea and have emerged as arts organizations, taking root when the ecology of risk and support has allowed growth (re-read above.) This is the community development approach to the arts. It looks around at the network-shifting nodes and engages in conversations about possibility – how do we move this forward? Who do we need to connect with? Where are we going to get a space for free and can we get this printed please? The answer is yes. For some reason corporations like to institutionalize support around policy and procedure – call it bureaucracy. The unfortunate circumstance is that we access – especially in the arts – resources differently. We are more informal at the outset. We have particular identities – heck, we claim identity as motivation – and we are in most respects non-conformist. On the front lines you here this over and over again: the arts are not defined by a business model and the skill sets need to be developed in conjunction with creativity and support for content – not the cart before the horse. This is called enabling. It’s not a dirty word!

Advocacy and animation are two sides of a coin in my experience. Being light on your feet and willing to take a risk add another coin to the purse. We aren’t speaking of large amounts of funding. We are speaking of catalytic forces. I am particularly fond of the term “Flying Squad,” from its original and informal pronouncement with the London (UK) Police derivation of a special unit that knew no bounds. It is this kind of approach that provides the best results of mashable, vibrant success. It’s also based primarily on the application of human capital, where one individual with the right mandate can leverage outcomes. More than one individual with this approach would be a luxury in a community. The lessons, while left for the reader to debate or refute, are experiences that were developed through the learning and possibility philosophy I called ‘engage and activate.’ They shouldn’t, however, be treated lightly. They need to be a part of the strategy. They ought to see light again.

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