What politicians don’t understand about the arts

How do you explain what artists need to politicians?

Local arts consultant Su Ditta has been fighting the good fight for artists in this community for a long time. At the opening of the Art Gallery of Peterborough exhibit The Language of Visual Poetry, she remarked that she had learned two things from its creator and alternative gallery pioneer Dennis Tourbin: first, that artists deserve to be paid for their work and second, that art comes from artists.

Art does not come from governments, institutions, curators, funding bodies or arts administrators. It comes from artists.

Listening to a recent candidates’ panel discussion on their plans to support the arts in Peterborough hosted by Artspace, it became clear to me: it is not the products of the arts that need support, it is the artists themselves. Real support for the arts looks more like sustainably harnessing a natural energy resource than financing a start-up.

A great deal of research has gone into showing that the arts are a smart investment for communities and most politicians will tell you that they not only understand, but genuinely believe this.

Many fine people have put countless hours into developing a Municipal Cultural Plan for Peterborough and the goals are clearly stated:

  • Leveraging and nurturing Peterborough’s significant cultural assets;
  • Building the capacity of Peterborough’s cultural sector;
  • More fully integrating culture into all facets of municipal planning and decision making; and
  • Ultimately enabling greater long-term sustainability and prosperity.

But I was disheartened to read Su Ditta’s introduction on behalf of the Peterborough Arts Coalition to a mayoral debate in Peterborough back in 2003, which outlined most of the same issues the artistic community still faces a decade later. While the cultural goals of the city may have been clarified, they have not yet been implemented.

As an artist myself, I have an arts practice as well as a part-time job to support myself. In addition, I conduct research, interviews and write Trout in Plaid, with only the occasional kind donation as compensation; I serve on the board of an arts organization; I donate time and artwork to fundraisers and contribute through social media and other means to support the arts community. I read and research extensively to stay current in my field and take professional development courses when I can. I write grant applications and project proposals when opportunities present themselves, and prepare and transport work for periodic exhibitions. Yet even combining all sources, I have never earned an income of more than $25,000 a year in my life. And I am hardly unique in the arts community of Peterborough or anywhere for that matter.

What I don’t have is the time or energy to also become an “artrepreneur.”  I do not have the time, energy or slightest inclination to write a business plan or learn a whole new set of business skills to market a product which, though aesthetically valuable and at times even saleable, has very little financial value in our society no matter how successfully I market it.

It may not make sense to most people that an artist would invest in an education and take a second job just to do something that will never pay the bills. But when a CBC reporter asked Elizabeth Fennell of Gallery in the Attic what separates a hobbyist from an artist who makes $2000 a year from their creative work, she replied that an artist is someone whose primary identity is as an artist; one who is committed to their practice and for whom art is a calling rather than a recreational activity. Ask an artist why they don’t just give up and they’ll tell you, “I can’t.” Artists are some of the most resourceful and motivated people you’ll ever know.

Furthermore, art is purely, necessarily and fortunately subjective. We all have a different idea of what qualifies as art. As in nature, if we do not protect a broad definition of the arts, the loss of diversity leaves us at risk of becoming a bland and soulless mono-culture.

While many statistics substantiate the financial value of the arts in communities, it is important to remember that much of its value is intangible. I know with certainty, and I can’t stress this strongly enough, that the very presence of artists living and working in the community increases property values, attracts tourism, and builds communities that are stronger, safer, healthier, and more attractive to business and investment.

But as government funding on all levels becomes more competitive, restrictive, unpredictable and fragile, the handful of organizations and individuals in Peterborough who do the heavy lifting become drained. If they are not fully supported financially they may flounder; our precious human resources will take their talents elsewhere or will be lost altogether to the private sector.

This is the “never enough” that artist and writer Victoria Ward writes of in her article when a sandwich is a statement. The concept of “trained incapacity” translates to “learned helplessness” – not a healthy state for individuals or institutions.

Sadly we have learned that money earmarked by the city for the arts community somehow has not been spent and will not be brought forward to the next budget. It seems to me that the process by which such decisions are made, or deferred, on behalf of the public should really be more transparent.

We do not have to hire experts to implement our cultural plan – we already have them locally.  We have a wealth of highly individual musicians, performers, visual artists, writers and craftspeople spilling over with ideas, ready to engage. We have a pool of talented and capable arts administrators, producers, curators, designers, publicists and educators, who have already proven that they can produce and market vibrant events and festivals on a shoestring – the Peterborough Folk Festival, Artsweek, Erring on the Mount, Hootenanny on Hunter to name a few. We have existing galleries, cafes and shops, both public and private, where musicians, writers, performers and artists offer their creativity to our city. We have quality incubators like Public Energy and Artspace who provide educational opportunities and vehicles for artists to take risks and challenge themselves, and who bring high quality programming from beyond our borders to the public. We have one of a kind, world-class institutions like the Canadian Canoe Museum. Individuals in the arts community have shown initiative – cultural hubs like Gallery in the Attic, The Theatre on King and Evans Contemporary have sprung up to fill gaps in the artistic landscape and holes in the educational fabric left by cuts to Trent’s Cultural Studies Program or the demise of the Peterborough Arts Umbrella. We meet the challenges of scarcity by collaborating often and well, sharing staff, resources, venues, tools and know-how.

Peterborough does not need to hire an agency to brand us; we do not need to roll out kiosks, street vendor and busking licenses to sell our wares; we don’t need workshops on how to build a website, market ourselves on Facebook or set up a shop on Etsy. If I hear one more lecture on how it’s all about the creative economy I will throw myself down in the middle of Hunter Street and scream.

It is not the monetizing of the arts, but the culture of government that needs to evolve. The innovation and bold thinking of our artists should be an integral part of every aspect of city governance, not as a public art afterthought, a photo op for a tourism brochure, or a final decorative flourish. As mayoral candidate Maryam Monsef noted, “the arts community has already told us what they need – money, space, time and collaboration.” We need the city to listen to us and work with us, the wide range of arts practitioners and organizations who are already the lifeblood of the city. We need to find a common language. We need to be included in decision-making.

It’s a different spin on the old story of artistic poverty, but important to grasp: an artist’s value is rooted in his or her ability to imagine and create, not in a product. Whatever the outcome in the upcoming election, I believe Peterborough should invest, not in art, but in one of its most valuable assets – its artists.

Video of Candidates meeting September 18, 2014 at Artspace »

Peterborough Municipal Cultural Plan »

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